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Are two congressmen better than one? Debate heats up in Fall River ahead of new maps

SE Mass

FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — If you live in New Bedford, your congressman is Bill Keating. If you live in Attleboro or Taunton, your congressman is Jake Auchincloss.

But if you live in Fall River, your congressman could be either one of the two Democrats. That’s because the political maps drawn up after the 2010 census divided the city roughly in half, with 22,096 Fall River voters in Auchincloss’s 4th District, and the other 27,744 in Keating’s 9th District.

Now, as Beacon Hill lawmakers begin the process of redrawing congressional lines based on last year’s census, some are pushing to unite all of Fall River in the 9th District next year, which would link the entire city with nearby New Bedford in Congress.

A group of activists affiliated with the Coalition for Social Justice, which is based in New Bedford, made their case for putting Fall River into the 9th District during a virtual hearing of the Massachusetts Special Joint Committee on Redistricting earlier this summer.

They focused in part on the strange shape and geography of the 4th District that Auchincloss currently represents. It stretches from northern Fall River up into Taunton and the Attleboros, then snakes up to the wealthy Boston suburbs of Brookline and Newton.

Graphic: Lisa Mandarini/WPRI 12

Both Auchincloss and his predecessor as the 4th District congressman, Joe Kennedy III, hail from Newton. And every candidate in last year’s hard-fought Democratic primary to succeed Kennedy was from either Newton or Brookline, while potential candidates from the district’s other 32 communities took a pass.

“Working-class white folks in Fall River have more in common with working-class white folks in New Bedford than they have with white people who have a lot of money, with million-dollar homes, in the north of CD4,” argued Dax Crocker, one of the activists who testified before the redistricting committee.

“My community has been split to accommodate political boundaries,” added Sandra Carreiro, a Fall River resident, in her testimony.

Progressive activists aren’t the only ones pushing the change. In July, a group of 22 New Bedford business and civic leaders sent a letter to the redistricting panel urging them to put all of Fall River into the 9th District. Its signatories included retired Joseph Abboud CEO Anthony Spazienza and BayCoast Bank CEO Nicholas Christ.

The committee could “undo decades of unfairness by amending the boundaries of the 9th Congressional District to establish a unified Southeastern Massachusetts district that is untethered to Greater Boston,” they wrote, noting that the two cities have never anchored a district based in Southeastern Massachusetts.

Calling the current district lines “the worst in a century,” they added, “It is no accident that no New Bedford resident has been elected to Congress in 100 years.”

Yet other prominent voices are defending the current configuration, arguing it’s beneficial for Fall River to be looked out for by two members of Congress rather than just one. Among them are Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan and state Rep. Carole Fiola, D-Fall River, both of whom testified in support of Auchincloss at the redistricting hearing.

“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,” Coogan said.

House Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad, D-Somerset, suggested that the region has ceded power voluntarily to the Boston suburbs in the 4th District and Cape Cod in the 9th District.

“The South Coast had an opportunity to have someone run from the South Coast in this last election,” Haddad said. “And while I personally thought about it, there weren’t other people who were really serious about doing that. So, I think if people are serious about having a different way of doing things, then they need to come forward, and they need to be part of the conversation and the process.”

State Rep. Michael Moran, one of the redistricting panel’s co-chairs, said there are practical reasons it may be difficult for the map-drawers to unite Fall River and New Bedford in the 9th District.

He pointed out that doing so would require a shift of as many as 20,000 voters between districts, and since almost 85% of voters in the 4th District are white, a rebalancing on its northern side could throw off the 7th District, represented by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.

“These are tricky things that we have to figure out, and they do all connect like a giant puzzle,” Moran said. He noted that when the 7th District was drawn in 2010, it was the first time the state ever created “a strong majority-minority district, which eventually gave us Congresswoman Pressley.”

As for the congressmen themselves, the two incumbent Democrats are both staying somewhat above the fray, hesitant to publicly encroach on the redistricting panel’s decisions.

“I want all of Fall River,” Auchincloss quipped during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers last month. He argued that it is a positive, not a negative, that he represents such a sprawling geography.

“I don’t view it, as some activists do, as a detriment that I’ve got a diverse district,” he said. “I think that is exactly what we as Democrats need to be able to do – speak to Newton and Brookline, and speak to Fall River, Taunton and Attleboro, as well.”

Asked for his views, Keating told 12 News in a statement: “The state redistricting committee has many mandates, among them keeping communities together. I enjoy representing Fall River and on this issue, I think all views should be heard – chief among them the citizens of Fall River.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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