SMITHFIELD, R.I. — The draft versions of new House and Senate maps are drawing charges of “gerrymandering” from challengers who consider the cartography nothing more than incumbent-protection plans.
In the Senate, for instance, challenger Lenny Cioe is claiming that new maps represent an attempt to protect Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat. “It is clear-cut gerrymandering,” Cioe said.
And in the House, former Representative Christopher T. Millea is saying the new maps aim to head off challenges to Representative Brandon C. Potter, a Cranston Democrat. “That is Gerrymandering 101,” Millea said.
The drafts of the new boundaries were unveiled on Thursday, as Rhode Island begins to redraw political boundaries to reflect the new census data.
Providence College political science professor Adam S. Myers tweeted, “My initial take on proposed RI maps is that they were drawn with incumbents in mind (& I mean nearly all incumbents, no matter party or ideology). Doesn’t look to me like any two were placed in (the) same district — remarkable given that many live quite close to each other.”
In an interview, Myers said in other states, the once-a-decade process of redistricting often generates complaints about partisan gerrymandering — in which the dominant political party tries to use district lines to hobble the other party’s chances at the ballot box.
But in Rhode Island, Democrats are so dominant that it appears General Assembly leaders aren’t bothering to use the maps to target GOP legislators, Myers said. The 75-member House contains 10 Republicans, and the 38-member Senate contains five Republicans.
“The Democratic leadership is secure enough in terms of the Democratic dominance in the legislature that they can afford to give Republicans a few crumbs,” Myers said.
Instead, it appears the main goal of the maps is to protect those already in office, Myers said. That probably would not be the case if Rhode Island was required to draw maps without regard to incumbency, or if the maps had been drawn by an independent redistricting commission, as opposed to one appointed by legislative leaders.
Some incumbents, such as Senator Samuel W. Bell, a Providence Democrat, are unhappy with the proposals for their districts, but Bell still is likely to be able to win, Myers said. “There may be a few exceptions, but my first and foremost impression of these maps is that they are incumbent protection maps,” he said.
Myers said the state’s redistricting consultant, Kimball W. Brace, appears to have met with legislators and gathered their input on how they would like their districts designed.
“I don’t think most voters would want the process to work that way,” he said. “The old adage is: Voters should pick their politicians, not the other way around. And that is not what appears to have happened here.”
In 2020, Cioe challenged Ruggerio in a Democratic primary in Senate District 4, which straddles the Providence/North Providence line. Ruggerio won, 55 percent to 45 percent.
But Cioe noted he beat Ruggerio in some of the Providence sections of the district, including the Elmhurst neighborhood around Providence College. And he said the draft versions of the new maps remove his areas of strength from the district.
“Ruggerio will do whatever he can to stay in power,” Cioe said. “They changed the playing field while the ball was in the air.” But he said he plans to run anyway with the backing of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative. “He is so afraid of me it’s not even funny,” he said.
Cioe said the redistricting commission is not independent and is doing the bidding of House and Senate leaders. “They have a professional gerrymanderer in Kimball Brace,” he said.
In response to Cioe’s criticism, Ruggerio issued a statement Monday, saying, “The reapportionment process is taking place. I am not a member of the commission. I look forward to discussing the issues that impact North Providence and Providence in the 2022 election.”
In 2020, Potter beat Millea, 60 percent to 40 percent, in a Democratic primary in House District 16 in Cranston, and Potter went on to beat Republican Maryann Lancia in the general election.
On Twitter, Millea noted that both the A and B versions of the draft House maps carve both him and Lancia out of District 16.
“It would appear to me that @BrandonPotterRI is doing all he can to prevent any rematch or an opponent,” Millea tweeted. “I really would have to assume that @RISpeaker has no idea of this little stunt, as I am certain the Speaker wouldn’t condone this blatant kind of #gerrymandering.”
In an interview Monday, Millea said, “He carved both his primary opponent and his general election opponent out of the district.”
Millea said he finds it “amazing” that part of his neighborhood was removed from the proposed new district and that some of the inmates at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston were added to the district.
Potter said, “I never requested that my predecessor, who I beat by 20 percent in the primary, be carved out of my district. I trust the redistricting commission to continue with a transparent process and welcome any public input.”
Also, he said he said he is opposed to “prison gerrymandering” and did not request that ACI inmates be included in the district.
Questions about the House District 16 maps arose during a redistricting commission meeting Monday night.
Representative Brian C. Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican on the commission, said that 10 years ago the redistricting process involved “an awful lot of, shall we say, heavy-handed interference” by then-House Speaker Gordon D. Fox. So far this year, that does not appear to be the case, he said, and he thinks new House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi “very much does not want to give the impression of putting his thumb on the scales.”
But, Newberry said, the draft versions of the House District 16 map would cut both Millea and Lancia out of the district now represented by Potter. And, he said, “I would suggest that this does not reflect well on this commission if we were to approve a map that cut those two households out of this district, even if it was an accident.”
Brace, president of Election Data Services, was not able to attend Monday’s meeting. But Ryan Taylor, the project manager for Election Data Services, told the commission the district was not drawn with the intention of heading off competition for the incumbent.
Rather, he said, Cranston election officials asked him to try avoid splitting city neighborhoods and, in this case, to keep the Dean Estates neighborhood in one House district, rather than splitting it as it is under the current map. As a former community planner, he said he tries to bring communities back together, and said he did not know the home addresses of Millea and Lancia when he drew the district.
“I don’t think that’s a scandal,” Taylor said.
Newberry said he was not suggesting it was intentional. But, he said, “If we approve something like this, it’s going to look like the heavy hand — I’m a Republican, I don’t care if the Democrats look bad — but I also think it’s not fair if it looks like the Speaker is putting his hand on the lever here, which is what this is going to look like to the public.”
During Monday’s hearing, Cioe criticized the Senate District 4 map, and suggested the state could use experts at local universities rather than Brace’s firm for the redistricting process.
Senator Stephen R. Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat who co-chairs the commission, said, “First and foremost, I want to say I have all the faith in the world – as I think all the members of the committee do – in Kimball Brace. He has decades of experience.”
The redistricting commission plans to meet again on Thursday as it gathers public input before recommending maps to the General Assembly by mid-January.