FALL RIVER — An invisible line has carved through this South Coast city for a decade, leaving its southern edge in one congressional district, its northern neighborhoods in another, and critics argue, its political influence split asunder between the two.
The legislative effort to unite it is proving to be just as divisive.
A redistricting proposal to include all of Fall River within the Fourth Congressional District — and split it from the Ninth District and the city of New Bedford, with which it shares deep cultural, economic, and geographic ties — has opened a schism in South Coast’s political landscape.
One of its current congressmen said it will “destroy” the region, while the other has praised the plan. New Bedford’s mayor says the proposal smacks of gerrymandering; Fall River’s mayor says it will “maximize” both cities’ representation in Congress. Even Fall River’s own state delegation is split — not about whether it should be united but with what other communities.
The fractious debate, expected to surface at a public hearing on Tuesday, has led to a wider question: What’s the best path to empowering not just one community, but the entire South Coast and its anchor cities, which despite both being among the state’s 10 largest, haven’t had a resident sent to Congress in nearly a century?
“This is not about one congressperson. I’m not going to be around for 10 years,” said Representative Bill Keating, a 69-year-old Bourne Democrat and the Ninth District incumbent who vociferously opposes the redistricting plan. “This does nothing but weaken the ability of people in that area to have their voices be heard in a concerted way, to organize, to have candidates.
“It’s just wrong. It’s as wrong as you can do something,” Keating added, before pausing slightly. “Can I be more vehement? I can try.”
Currently, Keating represents most of the South Coast, including New Bedford and the southern parts of Fall River, while roughly the city’s northern half, along with Swansea and Somerset, sit in the Fourth District, which Representative Jake Auchincloss has represented since January.
Lawmakers leading the decennial redistricting process last week proposed that Fall River be moved entirely into the Fourth, where, at 94,000 people, it would become the largest city in the district ahead of communities that have provided its traditional power base, such as Newton and Brookline. New Bedford — a city of 105,000 people that’s 15 miles southeast of Fall River — would remain in the Ninth District.
“It makes [Fall River] a serious player in that district,” said state Representative Michael J. Moran, a Brighton Democrat and House chairman of the redistricting committee. “The way it’s constructed right now, it provides an opportunity for a congressman who actually lives in that Fall River region. That’s really the reason we did this. There’s no hidden agenda here.”
Several elected officials from the region have backed the plan, including Fall River’s mayor, Paul E. Coogan, who says it will mean “two voices speaking on behalf of our region,” and Cliff Ponte, its City Council president, who unsuccessfully challenged Coogan in November’s election.
Auchincloss — who quipped to a Rhode Island television station in August that “I want all of Fall River” — has also heaped praise on the map. The Newton Democrat declined to comment for this story beyond a statement he issued last week, saying he would be thrilled to represent the entire city.
“We will no longer have to stand in any community’s shadow or be second to another community’s needs,” said state Representative Carole Fiola, a Fall River Democrat who said she sees value in her city and New Bedford each having their own representatives. “Separate districts is OK. We have different needs.”
The backlash, however, has been fierce. Several political figures beyond Keating have said Fall River should be with New Bedford in the Ninth, including state Representative Alan Silvia, the other Democratic state lawmaker who lives in Fall River; at least three state senators; and former representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who represented Fall River’s northern edge in the Fourth District for eight years.
Splitting the cities, critics argue, would divide the region’s tightly knit Portuguese and Azorean communities — Fall River and New Bedford have the country’s highest numbers of Portuguese-American residents — and what are similarly blue-collar, immigrant communities. One of every five residents in both cities was born outside the United States.
“Why would we split these two communities of interest and dilute their influence?” said state Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, a Portuguese-American and Westport Democrat who represents Fall River.
New Bedford, home to the country’s highest-grossing commercial fishing port, and Fall River, once a major textile manufacturer, have long been powered by different economic engines. But, advocates say, their ability to grow their economies is intertwined. Both cities have heavily lobbied for the extension of rail service to the region, for example, and their leaders see a potential boon for the region in the expansion in the offshore wind industry. Their respective chambers of commerce, after previous spats, officially merged last year.
“They have the same interests, they have the same struggles. It makes no sense” to separate them, said Sandra Agostinho Carreiro, a Fall River teacher and former organizer who has lobbied to combine the cities in the Ninth District.
Born in Fall River, Carreiro said she grew up and served as a local elected official in the Azores before moving back to the city seven years ago. “I hear the people who don’t feel there’s a connection with a name [on the ballot],” she said. “If we’re alone in Fall River and New Bedford is alone, we could never get someone from our community.”
Critics also doubt Fall River would hold the sway at the ballot box that proponents suggest it would in the Fourth District. Despite being slightly smaller at 89,000, Newton has about 13,000 more registered voters than Fall River does, and in November 2020, saw 18,000 more people vote.
Even Brookline, with just two-thirds the population of Fall River, saw roughly the same amount of voters cast ballots in last year’s presidential election as the South Coast city.
“There’s no sugar-coating it: It’s an act of gerrymandering,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, arguing the proposed map is designed to protect “the incumbent,” in this case Auchincloss, who emerged from a nine-way primary over more progressive lawmakers, in part by winning the most votes in Fall River.
Mitchell, in fact, endorsed Auchincloss in his Democratic primary last year even though New Bedford sits outside Auchincloss’s district. No candidate from the South Coast region ran.
“I made it clear to him that this is not personal,” Mitchell said of his opposition to the redistricting proposal. “This is something that’s long been a challenge for this region of the state, getting big-footed by frankly more powerful interests in the Boston area.”
Moran, the House redistricting chairman, said in drawing the proposed Fourth and Ninth districts, mapmakers also had to absorb excess population from a neighboring Boston-based district currently represented by Stephen F. Lynch.
“This is not about politics,” Moran said. “It’s about geography and numbers.”
Since its creation a decade ago, Keating’s district has been perhaps the most moderate in Massachusetts, at least by the state’s standards.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report considers it, on average, six points more Democratic than the nation as a whole — the lowest of any of the state’s nine districts. Former president Donald Trump fared best there by far in Massachusetts, winning more than 40 percent of the vote in both 2016 and 2020.
By adding all of Fall River, a reliably Democratic urban center, to the Ninth, it could strengthen the dominant state party’s theoretical hand in the district. But Keating and advocates see another possibility: A combined South Coast could also provide enough of a voting base to encourage a potential Democratic challenge from the region, something that Keating said “isn’t the best thing for me politically,” but he nevertheless supports pairing the cities anyway.
Critics of the proposal say splitting the cities is worse for everyone.
“Fall River has no power in this equation,” Anthony Sapienza, board president for the New Bedford Economic Development Council. “You can rely on the good will of a good representative, and we’ve had a good representative. But relying on good will is not the same as having power.”