PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island on Monday managed to defy expectations for new census data and hold onto its two seats in the US House of Representatives.
For the last three years, population projections have shown that Rhode Island could go from being the most over-represented state, with one House member for about 530,000 residents, to the most underrepresented, with one representative for more than 1 million people.
But on Monday, Census Bureau Acting Director Ron Jarmin announced that Rhode Island is one of 37 states that will keep the same number of House seats, while seven states will lose seats: California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
The good news came after a presentation by US Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo, who was Rhode Island’s governor until March 2.
“As a former governor, I know how critical census data is for our communities to determine how many representatives each state has in Congress,” Raimondo said. And, she said, the census count helps state and local governments make crucial decisions that determine everything from how many teachers are hired in a district to how much money will go into public housing, she said.
The surprising news avoids a potential showdown between Representative David N. Cicilline, an increasingly high-profile Democrat who served as an impeachment manager for former president Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, and Representative James R. Langevin, a Democrat who has built up 20 years of seniority after becoming the first quadriplegic to serve in Congress.
“I am thrilled Rhode Island will keep two congressional seats for the next 10 years and hopefully beyond,” Langevin said in an interview. “The big winners are the people of Rhode Island in terms of maintaining political clout. Having two voices and two votes is much better than having one.”
Langevin realizes Rhode Island was “on the bubble” when it came to losing a House seat. “I was pleasantly surprised,” he said, “but I knew it could have gone either way.”
“Jim and I both have made the point that this really is not about either of us, but it’s about Rhode Island,” Cicilline said on a call with a Globe reporter Monday night. “So much of how resources are distributed by the federal government relate to how many congressional districts exist in the state. There would have been a significant loss of federal revenues.”
Cicilline said the risk of Rhode Island losing a congressional seat did not make him consider running for a different political office.
Both Langevin and Cicilline gave credit to Raimondo’s work as governor and to members of the Rhode Island Complete Count Committee, co-chaired by former Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa and Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott.
Both representatives said they planned to run for re-election next year no matter what happened, but both independently said they were glad they wouldn’t have to face a potential race against one another.
“David is not only my colleague but my friend,” Langevin said. “Neither one of us was looking forward to the prospect of having to run against each other. How do you run against your brother in a race like that?”
Cicilline said, “I think this is good news for our state, but also good news because it’s never easy to run against a friend.”
Langevin said he and Cicilline had spoken about the possibility of the state losing a House seat. “My plan was always to run for re-election and David felt the same way,” he said. But now they can both focus on “crushing” the coronavirus and getting the state economy back on track, they said.
Rhode Island’s population now stands at 1,097,379, up by 44,812 or 4.3 percent from the 2010 census.
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said it was surprising that Rhode Island held onto two House seats. “But it’s less of a surprise because of the pandemic, which created greater uncertainty about how states motivated residents to participate in the census,” he said.
Texas and Florida did not gain as many House seats as expected while spending nothing on census outreach, Marion said. But between public and private money, Rhode Island spent more than $1.5 million on census outreach, he said.
“It’s money well spent,” Marion said, giving credit to Raimondo’s work as governor, to the General Assembly for increasing public funding, and to the Rhode Island Foundation and United Way of Rhode Island for raising private funding.
Marion noted that seven other states came closer to losing a House seat than Rhode Island did, according to Census Bureau calculations. “In the end, it wasn’t as close as we thought,” he said.
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea hailed the census figures, saying, “Today is a prime example of why community advocacy matters. Not only has Rhode Island retained our representation in Congress and our four Electoral College votes – we have also ensured our share of billions of dollars in federal funding each year.”
But, Gorbea said, “The fight for fair representation for Rhode Islanders does not end here.” She noted the redistricting process begins later this year, saying, “We must ensure that the redistricting process is fair and transparent, so Rhode Islanders have representation that reflects their community.”
Experts said complications fueled by the pandemic made census predictions even more uncertain than usual, and there was a chance that Rhode Island could cling to its two seats.
“No one anticipated the virus or the Trump administration, which threw the Census Bureau for a loop and probably the census for a loop,” said Kimball W. Brace, president of Election Data Services, who has been Rhode Island’s redistricting consultant since 1983. “The question is how good has the counting been and how many people did we finally get?”
State Librarian Megan Hamlin-Black said the US Constitution allotted one House seat to Rhode Island in 1789, but the state gained a second House seat in 1790, and a third seat in 1912, before returning to two seats in 1932.
While losing a seat would not have directly resulted in a loss of federal funding for the state, Marion said having only a single House seat would have hurt Rhode Island.
“It’s bad news when you go from two voices to just one – that is a 50 percent reduction in Rhode Island issues being focused upon,” he said. “All of those things that Rhode Islanders think are important become less important when 435 people are yelling on the House floor.”
Brace explained that while the Census Bureau is releasing the state population data today, it does not plan to release demographic data until Aug. 16. So states won’t have a breakdown about race, ethnicity, age and sex, or population numbers for cities and towns until then.
As a result, states won’t be able to begin the redistricting process to redraw political boundaries until August, Brace said.
Alexa Gagosz of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.