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Rejecting advocates’ pleas, legislative leaders advance proposal to split South Coast cities between congressional districts

A landscaper blew leaves off cobblestones on Acushnet Avenue in New Bedford, which would be separated from Fall River in a congressional redistricting plan advanced by legislative leaders on Monday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Massachusetts legislative leaders on Monday released a proposed congressional map that would keep the South Coast’s two major cities split into separate districts, rebuffing weeks of calls from some of the region’s elected officials to unite Fall River and New Bedford under a single representative.

The Legislature’s redistricting committee advanced the plan on Monday, setting up a potential vote before the House and Senate complete formal sessions for the year on Wednesday, according to House officials.

If approved by the Legislature and then signed by Governor Charlie Baker, the proposed map would go into effect beginning with the 2022 primary and general elections.

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The Legislature’s plan would retool each of the state’s nine congressional districts for the next decade by shifting several boundaries between towns and cities, but largely avoiding the overhaul that defined the redistricting process in 2011, when Massachusetts lost one of its then-10 seats.

It has, however, stoked fervid debate in the state’s South Coast region, polarizing elected officials and advocates who often work in concert.

Fall River is currently split between the Fourth Congressional District, which is represented by Democrat Jake Auchincloss, a freshman congressman from Newton, and the Ninth District, which is represented by William Keating, a Bourne Democrat.

Lawmakers earlier this month proposed uniting Fall River and moving it entirely into the Fourth District, where, at 94,000 people, it would become the largest city in the district, ahead of the Boston suburbs that have provided its traditional political base.

In doing so, lawmakers sought to split it from New Bedford, a city of 105,000 people that’s 15 miles southeast of Fall River and would remain in the Ninth District.

The decision to sever them divided the region into two camps: Some officials argued they should be represented by a single congressperson to strengthen the political hand of a region with shared economic interests and concentrated Portuguese and immigrant populations. Others, largely from Fall River, say the cities are best positioned as the largest communities in their own districts, giving the region two voices in Congress.

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Legislative leaders ultimately opted to keep their initial proposal on the South Coast intact, said state Representative Michael J. Moran, the House’s leader on redistricting, who said he disagreed with arguments that the two cities should be unified in part because of the region’s tightly knit Portuguese and Azorean communities. Fall River and New Bedford have the country’s highest numbers of Portuguese-American residents.

Neither, he argued, are protected classes under redistricting, and people in the area “strongly identified” as non-Hispanic white within Census data.

“There’s nowhere on this map you will see a congressional district that is configured for a subsection of non-Hispanic white [people],” Moran said. “What if we started drawing districts that were solely for Greek people, or solely for Irish people? That’s not what we should be doing, in my opinion.”

In unifying Fall River in one district, he said, mapmakers are strengthening, not weakening, the city’s hand.

“I have a hard time seeing that’s the wrong thing to do,” he said.

Senator William N. Brownsberger, the Senate chairman for redistricting, said the cities also have deep economic differences: New Bedford, for example, is the leading commercial fishing port in the country, and Fall River “just doesn’t have that.”

”Once you get into regional arguments, you can spin them a lot of different ways. And they’re not terribly compelling,” the Belmont Democrat said.

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The decision frustrated those who pushed to put both cities in the Ninth District, arguing they already share chambers of commerce and health care systems and together have advocated for expanding rail service to the region.

“Instead, this plan ignores those efforts, and misses an opportunity to strengthen a region on the cusp of significant advancement,” said state Senator Mark Montigny, a New Bedford Democrat. “It’s a continuation of the unfortunate Boston-centric mentality that we’ve grown accustomed to but will continue to reject.”

The debate over the maps had touched on a wider question of how best to empower 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.

Three state senators, former representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, and New Bedford’s mayor, Jon Mitchell, urged lawmakers to redraw the area, as did Keating, who has represented the Ninth District since 2013, arguing that separating the cities would “weaken the ability of people in that area to have their voices be heard in a concerted way.”

Meanwhile, several of Fall River’s elected leaders and Auchincloss argued that the Legislature should keep the city separate from New Bedford, as originally proposed. They said they prefer that Fall River remain in the Fourth, where a strong showing there in 2020 had helped propel Auchincloss to victory in a combative nine-way Democratic primary.

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Notably, the two state representatives who live in Fall River were split, with Alan Silvia advocating to pair the cities in the Ninth and Carole Fiola, a member of the redistricting committee, supporting the map that was proposed.

“The people who were advocating for [combining the cities] weren’t from Fall River,” said Fall River’s mayor, Paul E. Coogan, on Monday. With this proposed map, “we still have two [representatives] that can work jointly on the rail program. They can work jointly on solar and wind. That’s the thing we need: two strong voices.”

Moran said he personally considered Mitchell’s testimony “damning” against his and advocates’ own arguments, expressing surprise the mayor was advocating to bring Fall River into the Ninth District even though the city’s own mayor was against it.

“I couldn’t have ever imagined [a scenario] where the mayor of Somerville would get up there and say what’s best for Cambridge or the city of Boston,” Moran said. “It’s bizarre to me.”

Mitchell, in a statement Monday, said that by separating Fall River from New Bedford and other South Coast communities, it will “inevitably make it harder for the region’s voice to be heard in Washington.”

The rest of the proposal would largely nip and tuck the edges of many districts while increasing the share of people of color in the Seventh District, the state’s only majority-minority district and one currently represented by Ayanna Pressley of Boston.

The proposed lines from leaders in the Democratic-controlled Legislature would not pit any of the state’s nine incumbent Democrats against one another.

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Lawmakers earlier this fall redrew all 200 state Senate and House seats. Baker approved that new map on Nov. 4.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.