Like the 2009 movie “He’s Just Not That Into You,” it turns out some folks in Fall River are just not that into New Bedford.
How else to interpret an astounding press release issued Friday announcing that a list of Spindle City politicians would rather stay in the 4th Congressional District with the affluent Boston suburb of Newton than form a SouthCoast-based district combined with nearby New Bedford and Cape Cod.
The statement — which was signed by state Reps. Carole Fiola and Patricia Haddad, as well as both Mayor Paul Coogan and his recently defeated opponent, City Council President Cliff Ponte — describes the group as wanting to be the biggest dog in the new congressional district. And now that the Redistricting Committee has united all of Fall River in the proposed new 4th, they’ve got that. Well, sort of.
It’s all a little bit of an odd argument, given that Newton, with a population of 89,000, Fall River with a population of 94,000, and New Bedford with a population of 101,000 are all nearly the same size. Nevertheless, the Fall River lawmakers have made up their minds and they’re sticking to it: “Fall River will be the biggest city in the Massachusetts Fourth and will no longer stand in any community’s shadow or be second to another community’s needs,” read the statement.
That would make sense except the new district is much the same as the old district they’ve complained about for 20 years. Fall River will continue to be attached to a congressional district, the majority of which it has little in common with.
Yes, the city will no longer be divided, but it will continue to be a rather small demographic among the rest of the suburban towns that comprise the Fourth. Its 94,000 people will compete with the interests of the roughly 665,000 people in the suburban towns that make up the rest of the district.
It is a little strange that these officials see Fall River as having such a pre-eminent role in the new district, given that the incumbent congressman, freshman Jake Auchincloss, lives in Newton. Just like the congressmen representing the district have lived in Newton and/or Worcester for the last 20 years.
Coogan and Fiola have made it clear they are happy with the attention Auchincloss has paid Fall River. I’m not sure what that means about how they feel about Bill Keating, who has also represented roughly half the city for a decade.
Auchincloss’ interests are clear. A conservative Democrat, he needs Fall River to fend off a progressive Democratic challenger in Newton or Brookline. The progressives ran multiple candidates in the Democratic primary the last time around, and Auchnicloss squeaked through by piling up votes in more conservative Fall River. Rest assured the progressives will coalesce around one primary challenger this time.
Not all the Fall River lawmakers are on board with this new-district-is-the-old-district plan. State Sen. Mike Rodrigues and Rep. Alan Silvia seem to have seen through it and endorsed the idea of an Azorean-based 9th District that runs roughly from Fall River through New Bedford to the Cape. That district, from one end to the other, would be home to the largest Azorean and Cape Verdean diasporas in the world, and also to two large and growing Latino communities, as well as significant numbers of blue-collar citizens.
Perhaps the root of the Fall River lawmakers’ suspicion is that all of the Fall River suburbs — including Somerset, Swansea and Freetown — might not have been able to be brought over to the new district, so Fiola and Coogan et. al. see New Bedford and its suburbs somehow dominating them down the road.
The truth is that even though a district built around the similar demographics and needs of Fall River and New Bedford makes all the sense in the world, it does not bridge the long-running competition and suspicion that have sometimes existed between the two cities.
Two decades ago, former mayors Fred Kalisz of New Bedford and Ed Lambert of Fall River met on an I-195 overpass between the two communities, announcing the twin post-industrial cities would henceforth try to work regionally. Their goal was to advance common interests on issues like extending commuter rail to SouthCoast and advocating for SouthCoast economic and other interests. It’s been a success.
Since that time, the two cities have even developed more in common with the advent of the wind and maritime research industries and the growth of UMass Dartmouth, including the locating of the state’s law school halfway between them.
There’s also is the important issue that the two cities’ large numbers of low-income citizens have lost ground in wages and housing for 30 years. It makes sense to amplify those voices by placing these residents, many of whom are minorities, into one congressional district where they will have greater leverage on the congressperson.
New Bedford area state Sen. Mark Montigny spoke to this soon after the new district was announced. “New Bedford and Fall River are post-industrial working-class cities with vibrant growing minority populations,” he said. “Simply put, our interests do not align with affluent Boston-area suburbs or the South Shore.”
It appears the sides are at a stalemate, and the redistricting committee blew it by not coming up with a compromise plan that might have pleased both of them.
The Drawing Democracy Coalition’s Dax Crocker points out that his group presented the redistricting committee with a map that would have created a combined district representing the minorities and low-income residents of New Bedford and Fall River, along with the Azoreans. The map would have swapped Middleoro and Raynham into the 4th, and Fall River into the 9th. A few small adjustments added to the Eighth District would also have been made.
Crocker described the effort to keep Fall River with Newton as the plan of political insiders.
“Most of the people on the list are people who are politically connected,” he said. “They are not the normal people who are asking for the change.”
Sometimes Fall River leaders have said they like having two congressmen, that having two itself amplifies their voice. But it is hard to take that stance seriously, given the thumbs up they quickly gave to Fall River being combined in one district.
The support for the Fall River-New Bedford district is growing. In the last few days, four state senators — from the tip of the Cape to Fall River — have come out in favor of it. And amazingly, so has the 4th District’s former congressman, Joe Kennedy III, who left the district two years ago to run unsuccessfully for the Senate.
Fall River’s powerful state senator, Ways and Means chairman Mike Rodrigues, called the Redistricting Committee’s division of the two cities “a missed opportunity.”
“The challenges Fall River faces are not really like the challenges Newton faces,” he said.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
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