Fall River’s fate unclear as power players divided

Moran appears skeptical city should be lumped with New Bedford

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

DEBATE OVER HOW the South Coast cities of New Bedford and Fall River should be represented in Congress continues to divide the state’s political power players, and the House’s top redistricting official on Tuesday signaled skepticism about some arguments in favor of folding the two cities into a single district.

Faced with a slew of public comments both supporting and opposing proposed changes to the draft map, Redistricting Committee Co-chair Rep. Mike Moran said Fall River would still be lumped in alongside wealthier communities even if lawmakers slid the city from the 4th Congressional District, which is set to include Brookline and Newton, into the 9th Congressional District that stretches along the South Coast to the tip of Cape Cod and covers parts of the South Shore.

A group of elected officials and voting rights advocates have been warning that although the redistricting proposal would unify Fall River for the first time in decades, placing it entirely in the 4th District would leave its political power diluted by suburbs in the district’s north such as Brookline, Newton, and Wellesley.

“When I hear about the wealthy towns in the 4th, if we were to do what you’ve asked, we would then put (Fall River) with towns like Hingham, Chatham, Nantucket, Duxbury, Osterville and Truro,” Moran responded at a public hearing after testimony in favor of moving Fall River into the 9th District. “I guarantee you: if you look at the wealth in those towns, it’s going to mirror the exact same wealth you’re talking about in Brookline and Newton.”

The congressional and Governor’s Council maps represent the final major step for Moran’s panel after a lengthy and, at times, tumultuous decennial redistricting process complicated by late delivery of U.S. Census data during the pandemic.

But as lawmakers work with an eye toward getting the maps to Gov. Charlie Baker by the November 17 start of a mid-session recess, questions about the treatment of the two Gateway Cities on the South Coast pose a tricky dynamic.

Congressman William Keating, who represents the 9th District, supports adding Fall River into his district alongside New Bedford, as do Sens. Michael Rodrigues and Mark Montigny, who represent Fall River and New Bedford respectively; Rep. Alan Silvia of Fall River; New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell; and the Drawing Democracy Coalition of voting advocacy groups.

A sizable contingent of Fall River and area officials want their city to remain in the 4th District, though, including Mayor Paul Coogan, City Council President Cliff Ponte Jr., Rep. Carole Fiola, and Rep. Patricia Haddad, who represents nearby communities of Dighton, Somerset, Swansea, and Taunton.

They told Moran’s panel that the map as proposed would allow a unified Fall River to be the most populous community in the 4th District and would require two different members of the state’s US House delegation to focus on the South Coast region.

“This region will have the strength of two federal voices when we need them to come together on mutual interests,” Fiola said.

Backers of the map as drafted added that, despite some similarities, New Bedford and Fall River have different racial and ethnic makeups and different economic engines, with commercial fishing representing a major industry in New Bedford and Fiola saying “Fall River has no fishing industry.”

Another complicating factor is the need to keep all nine congressional districts at about the same population.

Moran said during Tuesday’s hearing that map-drawers wanted to strengthen the majority-minority status of the 7th Congressional District anchored in Boston, the only one in the state where nonwhite residents outnumber white residents, in this round of once-every-decade redistricting.

That shift left the 8th Congressional District represented by Congressman Stephen Lynch with “an extra 40,000 people,” Moran said, creating a knock-on effect on neighboring districts.

“You can only give it to two people: you can give it to the 9th and you can give it to the 4th,” Moran said. “You can’t give it to the 7th, because that waters down the majority-minority district. So those 40,000 people have to be dispersed either to the 4th or to the 9th. You can only give so much to the 9th because the 9th can’t give any population to anybody because it’s surrounded by water, so the rest of it goes to the 4th.”

“When you look at the sheer geography and the numbers, and you look at the 10th-largest city in the commonwealth, which is Fall River, it became a natural place for us to look to unify a big city down in the South Coast region,” he added.

Congressman Jake Auchincloss, who represents the 4th District, told lawmakers on Tuesday that he supports the map as drafted, which would unite Fall River instead of splitting the city across two districts while placing it entirely under his representation.

“The 4th Congressional District is socioeconomically, ideologically and geographically one of the most diverse in New England,” he said. “We’ve got rural, suburban, rural areas, vote red and blue, commute to Boston and Providence, and that is a strength. That is a strength of a congressional district to have the full fabric of the commonwealth within it, to contain multitudes. I think it makes me a more effective representative in Congress, I think it would make any representative from this district more effective in Congress, and I think that diversity should be heralded as a strength rather than something that needs to be workshopped.”

In a segment on WCVB’s “On the Record” that aired Sunday, veteran Democrat political analyst Mary Anne Marsh called the proposal to place all of Fall River in the 4th District “the Jake Auchincloss incumbent protection plan.”

“It doesn’t help New Bedford, it doesn’t help Fall River, it only helps Jake,” Marsh said. “Every single congressman including Joe Kennedy, his predecessor, has always opposed splitting these two communities up or splitting Fall River in half, but not Jake. He’s more than happy to take Fall River for himself.”

Opponents of the proposed map also contend that Fall River and New Bedford would together be able to flex more political muscle if they shared a congressional district. While Fall River would be the largest city in the 4th District, they say, other communities have higher numbers of votes cast in elections.

Mitchell, who was first elected New Bedford’s mayor in 2011, said the two cities share sizable Portuguese-American populations, a chamber of commerce, access to UMass Dartmouth and socioeconomic commonalities, similarities that warrant shared representation in Congress.

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“This concern that if Fall River were in the 9th District it would be overshadowed by New Bedford should cause people to step back and say, is that really going to be different in the 4th District?” Mitchell said. “Is it realistic to think Fall River is going to be the center of gravity in that district? I don’t think so.”

Legislative leaders have not outlined a specific timeline for advancing the congressional and Governor’s Council redistricting proposals. Sen. Will Brownsberger, Moran’s co-chair on the committee, said while unveiling the draft maps that officials hope to complete the final legislation this week and vote on it next week.