PROVIDENCE — State legislative leaders picked the members of Rhode Island’s redistricting commission on Wednesday, one day before the US Census Bureau releases the population data needed to redraw the state’s political maps.
The announcement drew immediate criticism from the Black Lives Matter RI PAC, which called for House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio to reconsider the appointments and include “progressive elected officials that reflect the best interest of the communities they serve.”
The current appointments are “a clear act to shut out progressive voices, as it poses an immediate threat to leadership in the State of Rhode Island,” the BLM RI PAC said in a statement sent to the Globe. “As our state continues to become more diverse and more forward-thinking, progressive voters are not being represented in these committees by the elected officials that they voted for.”
“This month alone, we have seen the voices of Democratic voters in Rhode Island not being properly represented on more than one occasion,” the BLM RI PAC said, noting that state Democratic Party chief strategist Kate Coyne-McCoy has not been removed since tweeting about Republican US Senator Lindsey Graham testing positive for COVID-19.
House spokesman Larry Berman said redistricting commission members such as House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian and House Democratic Caucus Chair Grace Diaz have taken progressive positions on numerous issues, and he said, “These decisions are not determined on ideology.”
Senate spokesman Greg Pare said senators such as Ana B. Quezada and V. Susan Sosnowski have staked out progressive stances, and they’re on the redistricting panel.
The 18-member special commission on reapportionment will draft new General Assembly and congressional districts, using the latest census figures to make recommendations to the full Assembly by Jan. 15.
Observers say the mapmakers will wield enormous power as they carry out this once-a-decade redistricting process.
“This is the group that will determine which voters are placed in which districts for the next 10 years, and that will go a long way to determining who is able to win in those districts,” said John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.
If they chose to, the mapmakers can protect incumbents, virtually guaranteeing them re-election, he said. They can pack voters into a district predisposed to vote for one political party, and they can cut prior opponents out of districts, he said.
Common Cause has called for a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting panel, such as those used in California and Arizona. “From our perspective it’s a fundamental conflict of interest to have legislators drawing the districts because they’re choosing their own voters, rather than voters choosing them,” he said.
But that proposal went nowhere in the Assembly. And now Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, and Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, have announced the membership of the new redistricting commission.
In a statement, Ruggerio said the commission will hold public hearings and give members of the public access to the software the commission will use to draw the district lines.
Shekarchi picked seven members of the redistricting panel, including four House members and three members of the public. Ruggerio chose another seven, including four senators and three members of the public. House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican, picked two House members, and Senate Minority Leader Dennis L. Algiere, a Westerly Republican, chose two senators.
The House members are Diaz, a Providence Democrat; Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat; Arthur J. Corvese, a North Providence Democrat; Brian C. Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican; Robert D. Phillips, a Woonsocket Democrat; and David J. Place, a Burrillville Republican.
The House appointments from the public are Antonio Lopes, CEO and founder of TILT Communications; real estate agent Kaprece Ransawt; and former state representative Stephen R. Ucci, a Johnston Democrat who co-chaired the reapportionment commission 10 years ago.
The Senate members are Quezada, a Providence Democrat; Sosnowski, a South Kingstown Democrat; Stephen R. Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat; Walter S. Felag Jr., a Warren Democrat; Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican; and Gordon E. Rogers, a Foster Republican.
The Senate appointments from the general public are Maria Bucci, a former Democratic Cranston City Council member and mayoral candidate; Alvin Reyes, an organizer with IBEW Local 99; and former state senator Harold M. Metts, a Providence Democrat who was the lead plaintiff in a 2002 lawsuit which led to increased minority representation in the Senate.
Representative Phillips and Senator Archambault are expected to be elected co-chairs of the redistricting commission.
On Thursday, state Senator Tiara Mack, a Providence Democrat, issued a statement saying, calling the redistricting commission appointments “a clear power grab and move to keep diverse voices out of the next decade of decisions.”
She said Ruggerio’s decision “to not include the only Black woman in the (Senate) nor any of the three openly queer members of chambers reflects a lack of (commitment) to honoring the increased diversity of the chamber in the last election cycle.”
Mack noted that Metts, whom she defeated in a Democratic primary last year, was named to the commission as a member of the public. “The voters chose me to lead in the next important chapter of our policy around climate justice, criminal justice, and housing justice,” she said. “These are all decisions that are impacted by how we redistrict our state.”