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RI keeps 2 US House seats, despite dire forecasts

Politics

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island defied the experts on Monday, hanging onto both of its seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for another decade after years of predictions that the state would be reduced to one.

The new allocation of all 435 House seats nationwide is based on the official population counts from the 2020 census. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who was Rhode Island governor until last month, joined Census Bureau officials at a virtual news conference Monday afternoon to release the numbers.

“As a former governor, I know how critical census data is for our communities,” Raimondo said.

Rhode Island’s resident population grew 4.3% to 1,097,379 people compared to 1,052,567 in 2010, according to Census data released following the news conference. The state counted another 784 people living overseas.

The new distribution of House seats takes effect in the 2022 election, and will remain in place for 10 years — meaning Rhode Island will not be again at risk of losing one of its two seats until 2033.

Demographers and redistricting experts have been warning for years that Rhode Island was at grave risk of losing a seat following the 2020 Census, with its population mostly stagnant while southern and western states grow quickly. The state’s two current House districts have the smallest populations of any in the country, and Rhode Island’s population had only grown 0.4% between 2000 and 2010, the previous two decennial counts.

But the difference between keeping and losing a seat was never expected to be huge, estimated at only about 14,000 residents as of 2019. And Rhode Island officials joined with community leaders in an aggressive effort during 2020 to ensure a complete census count of residents, whereas some other states appeared to do less to reach every resident.

The upshot: the count found over 40,000 more people living in Rhode Island than recent Census estimates had suggested, pushing the state’s population to nearly 1.1 million.

The Census Bureau announcement came as a welcome — and unexpected — reprieve for Rhode Island’s two incumbent congressmen, Democrats David Cicilline and Jim Langevin. The colleagues had been facing the prospect of either running against each other in the 2022 primary or one of them being forced into retirement.

“Today is a great day for Rhode Island,” Langevin told 12 News after the news conference. “David and I would have been fine either way … but it would have been a big loss to Rhode Island if we lost a congressional seat. Now we don’t have to worry about that. At least for another 10 years anyway, and hopefully we will continue to grow our population so Rhode Island doesn’t lose a seat 10 years from now.”

Cicilline said he spoke to Langevin after the results were announced. “We laughed that we are going to be stuck with each other for a little while,” he said.

Recalling his thinking as the process unfolded, Cicilline said, “If we had a little bit of increase in the population and did a really great job in the census count — and maybe other states didn’t do as good a job — then we had the possibility of keeping both seats. And I think it seems like that happened.”

Langevin, 57, has held the 2nd District seat in the western half of Rhode Island since 2001; Cicilline, 59, has held the 1st District seat since 2011. For years, the two had refused to discuss what they planned to do if one of the seats disappeared, expressing hope that both would be retained.

Behind the scenes, though, they have been examining their options — and preparing.

It was widely noticed that Cicilline raised over five times more campaign money than Langevin during the first quarter of this year. Some had speculated Langevin could return to Rhode Island and run for governor next year rather than run against Cicilline.

Despite the previous gloomy forecasts from demographers, census data shows Rhode Island wasn’t even at the greatest risk of losing a seat in the end.

The state ended up securing its second seat ahead of seven others, including Montana, which was widely seen as its competitor for an extra seat. Minnesota beat New York by 89 people for the 435th seat in the House of Representatives, according to census officials.

The Monday announcement was celebrated by Rhode Island advocates who helped mount “get out the count” efforts to encourage people to respond to the decennial census last year.

“The 2020 Census faced unprecedented challenges, from a Trump administration that tried to add a last minute citizenship question, to a worldwide pandemic that hit just as the count was set to begin,” Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John Marion said in a statement.

Marion told 12 News the statewide Complete Count Committee had to pivot its approach after the pandemic started last year. The altered strategy included far more online outreach than initially planned, he said.

“We focused on the communities that we knew were least likely to be counted, which were immigrant communities, communities of color and our larger cities,” Marion said. “They’re the communities that are historically undercounted, so those were the communities we spent the most effort trying to get counted.”

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos, a Democrat who was president of the Providence City Council during the census process, told 12 News: “We tried to do everything we could to get everyone counted.”

Rhode Island has had at least two seats in the House for more than two centuries, dating back to 1793, when George Washington was president. The state even had three seats for a brief period in the early 20th Century, from 1913 to 1933, after rapid population growth driven by immigration.

The rules for allocating U.S. House seats are set by the Constitution and federal law. The number of representatives must be apportioned based on the size of each state’s population, which is officially determined every 10 years by the census. Every state is guaranteed at least one seat.

For over a century after the country’s founding, the House grew every 10 years to account for the growing population. But in 1929 Congress capped the total number of House seats at 435, where it stands today. That means every 10 years those 435 seats are reallocated among the 50 states based on their updated shares of the national population – creating winners and losers among them.

Rhode Island consistently saw its population increase by double-digit rates every 10 years leading up to the early 1900s, before growth began to taper off. Following a 10% increase from 1960 to 1970, Rhode Island hasn’t seen a double-digit increase since, and even experienced a 0.2% decrease from 1970 to 1980, according to Census figures.

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

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Sarah Guernelli, Tolly Taylor, Kim Kalunian and Tim White contributed to this report.

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

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