Mitchell
Straus
Fiola
Coogan
Cabral

In the end, there really is no one to blame but ourselves that New Bedford and Fall River have not been able to unite in a single congressional district.

Even though congressional reapportionment only happens every 10 years, and even though everyone has complained for decades that the powers-that-be in Boston never let SouthCoast have the political influence it deserves, the truth is that we are divided down here.

Fall River power couple Carol and Ken Fiola and Mayor Paul Coogan took long looks in the mirror a few months ago, and they saw a world in which Fall River could finally be free of New Bedford when swooning for a congressperson’s attention.

Maybe they’re right that there are federal funds out there the Spindle City would have less chance of winning if it continues to have to compete with sister city, New Bedford. But they are undoubtedly wrong that Fall River will ever compete with Newton and Brookline as the major political center, the major voting center, of a 4th District while both locales are at either end of the geography.

In a best case scenario, Fall River and its suburbs will only account for about 130,000 of the district’s 760,000 or so residents. If it had combined with New Bedford, the two cities and their suburbs would have accounted for about 316,000 of 760,00 residents in the 9th District. Almost half the district.

You can say what you want about Mayor Jon Mitchell. You can grouse that this was all about a plan to create a congressional district for either himself or state senators Mike Rodrigues of Westport or Mark Montigny of New Bedford. But the truth is that with almost half a congressional district consisting of Fall River, New Bedford and its suburbs, there is no doubt that a local congressperson who comes from here, who really understands us, would have been elected when Bill Keating retires.

The reason it didn’t happen is that a bevy of SouthCoast politicians had their own agendas. And not just the Fiolas and Coogan. Not just Mitchell and Rodrigues or Montigny.

For instance, state reps Tony Cabral and Chris Hendricks of New Bedford both sent the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting written statements supporting a combined Fall River/New Bedford district. But in the end, they both voted for the plan that separates the two cities and neither talked passionately before the 28 members of the committee, most of whom are from areas outside the region. 

Both Cabral and Hendricks chalked up their ultimate votes to the fact that Fall River didn’t want to be with New Bedford, and that they couldn’t go against it. Cabral argued that Lizzie Borden’s city was simply not ready, and more persuasion needs to be done to bring them along in the future. 

Let’s be honest, it was more than that.

Thirteen of 40 state senators voted against the plan devised by House Chair Mike Moran and Senate Chair Bill Brownsberger, even though they knew it would lose. They voted their consciences.

Not only did Cabral and Hendricks not vote their publicly stated positions, they didn’t appear in person before a key public hearing when all sorts of folks were objecting to the plan. They astonishingly did not take the chance to speak before the public square on why this was so important. Neither did Montigny for that matter, but at least the longtime senator didn’t flip on his vote.

If Cabral, Hendricks and Montigny had made earnest, persuasive statements before the committee members who are not personally familiar with SouthCoast, it would have meant something. When you combine those three officials with two powerful politicians representing Fall River who were backing the joint district plan — Mike Rodrigues and Alan Silvia — it clearly would have looked like there was more impetus behind a SouthCoast congressional district than was conveyed.

Which brings us to the only elected official on the redistricting committee who represents Greater New Bedford, Bill Straus of Mattapoisett.

Straus said nothing at the key five-hour-plus hearing and though he spoke earnestly on behalf of not being removed from New Bedford in his own legislative district at a previous hearing, he has said virtually nothing about the joint Fall River-New Bedford congressional district. He did seem to have the ear of Chairman Moran (who just happens to be the assistant majority leader), who called him “Billy” at the hearing. Funny, I never hear anyone calling him Billy around SouthCoast.

When I asked him why he had not revealed his position on such a key issue previous to the hearing, Straus sent me a statement saying he was looking forward to the “public input hearing” to hear “public comment.” It was almost as if his own position was irrelevant, or that as an elected local official, he did not owe the public an explanation of where he stood prior to the vote.

After the vote, when I again asked Straus for his thoughts, he sent me a statement saying that he had become convinced by the hearings that a Fall River-New Bedford joint district was short-sighted. Based on expected population growth, he argued, both cities would eventually come to dominate their respective districts.

Perhaps that’s true. But why leave it to chance when the Mattapoisett lawmaker had before him a once-in-10-year chance to combine the two cities and make Fall River, New Bedford and their suburbs the population center of an entire district?

It’s no secret that Straus has had a tense relationship with Mayor Mitchell. The two have been in a pointed dispute for years over the proper balance between industrial and fishing uses at the Port of New Bedford and more tourism- and entertainment-based ones.

Fair enough. But both have defensible positions, and one would not expect an individual topic to divide them so deeply when such an important issue as the future of the SouthCoast’s congressional representation is at hand.

Mitchell does not appear to have a great relationship with any of the members of the SouthCoast delegation. Mirroring his poor relationship with the New Bedford City Council, it seems he has work to do in the arena of inter-personal political relationships. He does not appear to have the ability to build coalitions the way the Fiolas and Coogan did in Fall River.

So, when the time came to forge a compromise between the two sides, he didn’t have the political capital to make it work. Mitchell is a policy-wonk who is often right on the issues, but being right doesn’t account for much when you’re trying to get something done in politics.

Asked for a comment about why the effort to create the New Bedford-Fall River congressional district fell apart, the New Bedford mayor sent a statement that was probably correct on the policy arguments but missed the point on the politics.

He said that the “two-is-better-than-one” argument for the gerrymander that is the 4th District is as misleading now as when the Republic was founded. It leads to the election of candidates from outside the region that renders them unaccountable to local citizens.

No one, however, would argue that Barney Frank of Newton was unaccountable to this region, or even Bill Keating or Jake Auchincloss for that matter. What’s really at stake is more a matter of pride that a region as significant to the state as the New Bedford-Fall River area has not had a congressperson in more than 100 years. It’s something, were it to happen, that would put SouthCoast on the state and federal maps as an entity that has to be dealt with.

Whatever the effort to create a combined district is, however, what the 2021 redistricting process showed is that SouthCoast as a region is not united.

There is no charismatic political figure who can command the devotion of both Fall River and New Bedford enough to unite them in a demand. What’s worse, the politicians we have often don’t like each other, and have little interest in working together for fear that one or the other will gain an advantage. 

And without that, the parochial interests rose to the top, the back-bench politicians lost their nerve, and a key local lawmaker necessary to success kept his mouth closed until the deal was done.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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