BOSTON (State House News Service) — Several elected officials are calling for South Coast communities to be united in a congressional district, with the senator representing New Bedford pledging an aggressive effort and the congressman for southeastern Massachusetts taking aim at one of the Legislature's chief redistricting decision-makers.
Shortly after a draft map was unveiled Monday recommending political lines that would be in place until the 2032 elections, Sen. Mark Montigny knocked the proposal that could keep New Bedford and Fall River split into two different congressional districts as "an unjust and inequitable division."
The senator promised to pursue the creation of a South Coast district uniting New Bedford, the state's ninth-largest city, and Fall River, its 10th-largest, which stand about 15 miles apart.
"New Bedford and Fall River are post-industrial working-class cities with vibrant growing minority populations," Montigny said in a statement. "We share many common economic interests such as offshore wind, commuter rail, and advanced manufacturing. Simply put, our interests do not align with affluent Boston-area suburbs or the South Shore."
The Joint Redistricting Committee co-chaired by Belmont Democrat Sen. Will Brownsberger and Boston Democrat Rep. Mike Moran on Monday recommended uniting Fall River at the southern tip of the 4th District that runs north to Brookline, Newton and Wellesley, while leaving nearby New Bedford at the western edge of the 9th District that is dominated by communities on the South Shore and Cape Cod.
That proposal drew sharp criticism from Congressman William Keating, directed at a fellow Democrat. Keating, of Bourne, represents the 9th District.
"There is no good reason for the South Coast to be divided between its two Gateway City anchors, and in my conversations with Senate Chair Brownsberger I was presented with no convincing reason why this is now the case," Keating said in a Monday evening statement. "This fundamental shift, a ten-year plan, is more significant than any particular congressmember -- the new district should represent the strongest, most substantial community of interest for the people of the South Coast."
Brownsberger said Monday that the Redistricting Committee heard input from all nine members of the U.S. House delegation for Massachusetts during its lengthy public hearing tour, when members hosted virtual events focused on each congressional district.
At the July 29 hearing for constituents of the 9th Congressional District, Keating highlighted his district's coastal nature and touted the economic significance of both the fishing industry and the "burgeoning" offshore wind industry.
He noted that the 9th Congressional District has the largest Portuguese-American population share in the country, calling it "one of the many cultural areas that are so important to keep together in a commonality of communities." But in his testimony, Keating did not explicitly call for uniting New Bedford and Fall River into a single district.
"It's a tough job to have during redistricting," he said in his remarks to the committee. "Usually you don't make friends when it gets down to the last portions of this."
In 2011, Gov. Deval Patrick signed off on a redistricting map that sliced New Bedford out of the 4th District that was represented then by Rep. Barney Frank of Newton, who did not seek reelection in 2012.
The 2011 map still in place today also divided Fall River across the 4th and 9th Districts, which some voting rights advocates sought to undo in the current round of redistricting.
"We got clear feedback to unify it, and I wasn't as clear about where people wanted it, so we look forward to the testimony we'll get over the next week," Brownsberger said on Monday.
Support for unifying the city, however, had not been unanimous ahead of the draft map's release.
"Fall River is in need of a bunch of help, and we believe having two congressional people to help us in Washington is not a negative thing," Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan told the committee at a July 19 hearing, praising 4th District Rep. Jake Auchincloss in particular. "We just don't want to lose him. If we can stay with the district as configured now, that would help us immensely."
Asked if there was an option to combine Fall River and New Bedford in a single district that the committee chose not to pursue, Moran replied by recounting the effort in the last redistricting process to create an incumbent-free district around Cape Cod.
"We accomplished one thing: we made sure at the end of that process that there was a congressman that put their head on a pillow down in that area, but if you look at the numbers, it would suggest that there could be a second congressman from that area. Now you get into the discussion of: how do you weight that, where do you draw that?" Moran said. "I think this map that you see does a good job of taking that into consideration by adding a fair amount of people from the South Coast into that district."
"When you take the South Shore, Plymouth County, Cape Cod and the South Coast into consideration, I don't look at them as four specific areas, I look at them as a region," he added.
Keating, a former state representative and senator and former Norfolk County district attorney, moved from Quincy to Bourne to run in that Cape Cod district and avoid a matchup against Congressman Stephen Lynch in 2012.
"He was redistricted out of his home, in effect," Rep. Sarah Peake of Provincetown said during the July redistricting hearing, where she gave Keating credit for his work on issues pertaining to the foreign workforce, the fishing industry, dredging, and the Cape Cod bridges.
The Redistricting Committee is accepting testimony on its proposal and plans a Nov. 9 public hearing, but a congressional redistricting plan is on course to be adopted by the branches and sent to Gov. Charlie Baker by Nov. 17.
The Senate responded to redistricting feedback and criticism last month by agreeing to use Brockton as the anchor for a majority-minority district that did not exist in the first draft, but a change creating a South Coast district like Montigny suggested may require more extensive changes to districts and would need buy-in from both branches.
Sliding Fall River into the 9th District would unite it with New Bedford and other South Coast communities but might require less significant wholesale changes.
That was the change Sen. Michael Rodrigues, who represents Fall River, endorsed on Tuesday as he described a "grave fear that splitting these two communities of shared interest is a hugely missed opportunity to unite the voices of the working-class people in these cities."
"While I am deeply appreciative of the herculean efforts of Senator Brownsberger, his hard-working team and the difficult task before them, the current redistricting proposal is a missed opportunity to unite the two working-class communities of the South Coast - Fall River and New Bedford - into one congressional district," Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat who chairs the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee, said. "Together, these two anchor cities of the South Coast, represent one of the largest concentrations of Azoreans in the world, and this shared cultural heritage is woven into the fabric of our communities. Facing the same challenges and aspiring to the same goals, we share a regional economic interest in the completion of South Coast Rail, the development of the offshore wind industry, the presence of the Blue Economy, the combined One Southcoast Chamber of Commerce, and the unified health services of Southcoast Health Systems."
Anthony Sapenza, president of the board at the New Bedford Economic Development Council, also recommended that approach at the Redistricting Committee's July 29 hearing. Moving Fall River and nearby Freetown, Somerset and Swansea into Keating's district, Sapenza told lawmakers, would "undo a historic wrong that has hindered the growth of the region."
"Despite having the largest populations of color in both the 4th and 9th Congressional Districts, those populations have not been afforded a common voice to advance their purposes. Splitting up the minority populations into two districts raises serious questions about racial equity," he said. "Those minority populations have historically been underrepresented politically and have suffered disproportionately from lower income levels, health problems, crime and lower educational attainment than the affluent and powerful communities that dominate the 4th and 9th Districts."
Moran, who described himself as "very defensive about what happened 10 years ago," replied at the hearing that describing the two districts as racially gerrymandered is "categorically wrong."
The 4th District's population was 84.6 percent white, and the 9th District's population is 87 percent white, Moran said in July, rendering it "physically impossible for there to be racial gerrymandering."
"If we were to join the areas that you're proposing, instead of saying the affluent suburbs of Needham, Brookline and Newton, you could also say the affluent suburbs of Chatham, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard," Moran said. "When you're drawing a district that has roughly 800,000 people, it is impossible, absolutely impossible, to not have disparities in income in that district. It just doesn't happen. While they may make strong talking points when people hear them, I do feel a need to push back on those particular statements, because quite frankly, they're unfounded."
Written by Michael P. Norton and Chris Lisinski, SHNS