Legislative leaders crafting Massachusetts’ congressional map pushed back on Tuesday against criticisms of their decision to split the South Coast’s two major cities into separate districts, punctuating hours of deeply divided — and sometimes parochial — testimony over how best to draw boundaries through the region.
The chairmen of the Legislature’s redistricting committee did not say if they’re considering redrawing the congressional map they released last week. The plan included uniting Fall River in the Fourth Congressional District after it spent years being split by political lines, but also separating it from neighboring New Bedford in the Ninth District.
The decision has polarized the region’s elected and civic leaders over whether the two cities should share a representative and potentially strengthen their shared political hand or whether they would be best served as the largest city in their own districts. On Tuesday, the competing arguments seemingly ping-ponged between speakers over 5 1/2 hours, dominating a legislative hearing that was ostensibly designed to take feedback about all nine proposed districts.
“I don’t know if it’s 50-50, but it’s pretty close,” state Representative Michael J. Moran, a Brighton Democrat and the House chairman of the redistricting committee, said of those testifying for or against the South Coast proposal.
“It is a very unique kind of thing that we’re looking at here today. We’re going to do what we think is right,” he said. “Perhaps we’ll take another look at it. Perhaps we won’t.”
Moran and others appeared to chafe at several arguments advocates made to combine the cities in one district, questioning assertions about Fall River’s immigrant population and outright rejecting the suggestion that the plan gerrymandered the region, particularly along racial lines.
Moran said lawmakers had made great strides a decade ago and in this year’s redistricting process in untangling the districts that once spliced through southeastern Massachusetts, including creating what was an incumbent-free Ninth District in 2011. “We have tried very hard for there to be some equity and representation in this area,” he said.
Arguments on Tuesday, however, often centered on culture. Fall River, a 94,000-person city, and New Bedford, with 105,000 people, have the country’s highest numbers of Portuguese-American residents, a connection advocates and some South Coast elected officials urged lawmakers not to split along district lines. One of every 5 residents in both cities was also born outside the United States, according to census data.
“I hear [both cities described as] immigrant communities and I look at the numbers: Fall River is 71 percent non-Hispanic white,” Moran said, comparing it to New Bedford, where 40 percent of residents are people of color. “I don’t see a thriving immigrant community [in Fall River], at least by the numbers.”
Senator William N. Brownsberger, the Senate chairman of the committee, countered repeated comparisons in the Fourth District between Fall River, a blue-collar city whose economy has been built on manufacturing, and the wealthy Boston suburbs of Newton and Brookline that anchor it to the north. The district, he said, also includes “working-class” communities such as Attleboro and Taunton.
“There are a lot of other communities that are economically diverse and look a lot more like Fall River in that district,” said Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat.
From precisely where those testifying hailed also emerged as a point of contention. Moran at one point questioned a New Bedford business owner about whether any Fall River residents had signed onto a letter he read urging the committee to reshuffle the lines to put both cities in the Ninth District. When Bob Unger said he didn’t know each one’s address, Moran said his staff had done “a little homework” when it was last sent to the committee and found none of its signatories were from Fall River.
Currently, Representative Bill 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.
The proposal has pitted the two representatives on either side of the debate, with Keating arguing the two cities should be included in the Ninth.
Former representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, a Newton Democrat, also testified Tuesday in support of pairing them together, arguing under the current plan the Fourth District’s wealthy suburbs, including his own community, will continue to wield the most political power even with populations smaller than Fall River’s.
“You know exactly whose voices are going to be heard in that district,” he said.
Several of Fall River’s elected officials, meanwhile, testified in support of the map as proposed, often in contrast to those from New Bedford, who fear splitting the cities would dilute their city’s, and the region’s, political influence. The divide loomed throughout the hearing, with the plan’s proponents and critics alternately emphasizing the cities’ differences and similarities to make their arguments.
“It was like someone found a hair in the soup,” state Representative Alan Silvia said of the division. Silvia, a Fall River Democrat, was among a handful of city residents who testified that the city should join New Bedford in the Ninth District. “We are usually on the same page here on the South Coast with regard to issues. . . . They’ve been called sister cities since they were harpooning whales.”