The sometimes fuzzy cameras and in-and-out audio of a teleconference may seem an unlikely place for a high-stakes local political battle.

But that is exactly what has happened in recent weeks as a variety of Southcoast political forces have jockeyed in online public hearings for the attention of the Beacon Hill leaders who are determining the shape of the region’s future congressional and legislative districts.

It is a battle that might determine, for at least the next decade, who gets to talk for Southeastern Massachusetts in Washington and Boston, and where the emphasis will be on the issues that face New Bedford, Fall River, and even Cape Cod and the South Shore.

For the New Bedford area, there are two big points of contention.

The first is over whether New Bedford and Fall River will be combined into one congressional district. 

Former Joseph Abboud president Anthony Sapienza and a group of 23 New Bedford business and nonprofit leaders have signed a letter urging the Joint Committee on Redistricting to switch the northern part of Fall River, as well as the Fall River suburbs of Freetown, Somerset and Swansea — from the 4th Congressional District to the 9th, where New Bedford is located. They contend the two seaside former factory cities with struggling economies, just 11 miles apart, have more in common with each other than with the wealthy Boston suburbs that comprise the northern part of the 4th District, where Fall River is located. (Full disclosure: Sapienza is on the board of directors of The New Bedford Light.) 

The problem with their argument is that several key Fall River leaders, including Mayor Paul Coogan and state Rep. Carole Fiola, at the redistricting hearing, told committee leaders that they are quite happy with freshman 4th District Congressman Jake Auchincloss, who hails from affluent Newton, 50 or so miles north of Fall River. The southern part of Fall River is represented by 9th District Congressman Bill Keating. 

“Fall River is in need of a bunch of help, and we believe having two people represent us in Washington is not a negative thing,” Coogan said. He asked the committee to retain the current 4th District boundaries, although he said he respects the challenge of redistricting and whatever the state committee does “because you’re the one who’s doing it.”

The redistricting committee will probably have to reconfigure districts in the eastern half of the state, including possibly the 4th and 9th districts, because the western part of the state, particularly the 1st Congressional District, has lost population.

Sasha Severino of the Coalition for Social Justice and Rep. Michael Moran at the Special Committee on Redistricting’s July 29 hearing on the 9th Congressional District.

Sapienza’s group includes many members of the New Bedford Economic Development Council’s Regeneration Committee and has supported Mayor Jon Mitchell’s development and education initiatives. Mitchell declined comment for this column.

The letter argues that New Bedford and Fall River will be the epicenter of a multimillion-dollar maritime wind industry and that combining the minority population of the two cities (as of the 2019 Census estimates) would give those populations a stronger voice, alluding to the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. 

Preliminary Census numbers from 2019 show that New Bedford will be at least 34% minority and Fall River at least 22% after 2020. 

Sapienza’s statements about minorities quickly got the attention of Co-Chairman Michael Moran who rejected the claim, noting that neither of the present congressional districts has a minority-majority population, with the 4th being 84% white and the 9th being 87% white, according to the 2010 Census. “It’s physically impossible for racial gerrymandering to exist,” Moran said.

Sapienza acknowledged he may have overstated the facts of the Equal Protection law, but he was undeterred in arguing that combining the minorities in Fall River and New Bedford into one district would give them a bigger voice. “To the extent we can unite these minorities into one district, that does have an advantage for those groups that have been historically disadvantaged,” he said.

Moran did seem intrigued by the idea of combining the entire city of Fall River into the 4th District. He asked Dax Crocker, one of the CSJ speakers advocating to relocate all of Fall River to the 9th District, in order to increase the voices of working people in the city if he would accept that.

“Just out of curiosity, say we were able to make Fall River whole, and keep it in CD-4, and we were to make it more competitive by potentially dropping some parts of the top part of it — Wellesley or Brookline or part of Newton — is that something you would find appealing?” he asked.

Crocker said he would accept it if the replacement communities were working-class ones. 

The New Bedford business and nonprofit community was not alone in advocating for more minorities in a reconfigured 9th District.

The region’s most politically active progressive group, the Coalition for Social Justice, sponsored a series of speakers at the 4th and 9th District hearings. Those speakers not only advocated for combining the congressional districts, but also for eliminating two of five New Bedford state legislative districts. The group said they believe the 10th Bristol District (represented by Straus, who lives in Mattapoisett) and the 9th Bristol (represented by Chris Markey, who lives in Dartmouth), should be removed from representing parts of New Bedford.

Speakers from United Interfaith Action and the NAACP made the same case. 

The Straus and Markey precincts have significant (though far from majority) minority populations that could bolster the group’s influence in the state Legislature if they were moved into the 11th Bristol District, represented by Chris Hendricks, the CSJ and other advocates argued.  

“The residents we have spoken to no longer want to be split into five different representatives,” said Sasha Severino. “The political power can be consolidated within three.”

Rep. Moran said the committee created 10 additional majority-minority House districts in 2010, but that there was no area of New Bedford where a majority-minority district was possible, based on the population numbers. The population may have shifted and they would take a look at it, he said. 

Straus, who noted that he was a former NAACP New Bedford attorney, took issue with the assertion that his three New Bedford precincts (which include mid-city three-family neighborhoods near the Acushnet River) are “outliers” to his other communities of Fairhaven, Mattapoisett, Rochester and Marion. He described Fairhaven as a middle-class town and referenced Cape Verdean citizens, who had settled in Rochester and worked the cranberry bogs. He added that the whaling ships of New Bedford were primarily built in Mattapoisett Harbor.

“The economic ties and history of the communities are close with New Bedford,” he said. 

With a minority population of about one-third and House districts having 45,000 individuals, it seems possible to create a majority-minority district in New Bedford, but it might greatly change the districts of incumbents Antonio Cabral and Chris Hendricks. Cabral represents all of the city’s South End and parts of the West End. Hendricks represents parts of the North End and all of the town of Acushnet.

Moran, however, said he heard the speakers who advocated for consolidation of districts, both in New Bedford and on Cape Cod.

“There’s a theme here tonight in those districts to consolidate them as best we can,” he said. “We hear what you are saying and it is duly noted.”

The joint redistricting committee is waiting on final U.S. Census numbers before making its recommendation. The redistricting process must be completed by Nov. 8.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

Editor’s Note: Anthony Sapienza is a member of The New Bedford Light’s Board of Directors. Board members and funders have no influence over editorial content.


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