PROVIDENCE — Ten years ago, Rhode Island Democrats redrew the boundary between the state’s two congressional districts, bolstering Democratic US Representative David N. Cicilline’s chances as he faced abysmal poll numbers and a strong opponent in his first re-election campaign.
Mapmakers ensured that Cicilline, a liberal former Providence mayor and gun control advocate, shed the conservative rural town of Burrillville from the 1st Congressional District and added Providence’s South Side, an area rich with the Democratic and Latino voters that had made him mayor. He won and remains in Congress, rising through the Democratic ranks.
The decade-old Democratic maneuver made the 2nd Congressional District more conservative, Providence College political science Professor Adam S. Myers said Tuesday. And now, he and other political observers say, that gerrymandering might come back to bite Democrats.
US Representative James R. Langevin, a Democrat who has represented the state’s 2nd Congressional District for 22 years, announced last week that he will not seek re-election this year. That surprise announcement creates a real possibility that a Republican – such as former Cranston mayor and two-time gubernatorial candidate Allan W. Fung – could represent Rhode Island in the House for the first time since 1995.
“It is still a Democratic district,” Myers said, noting the district voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020, though “not overwhelmingly, in both cases.”
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said, “They created a more conservative 2nd Congressional District 10 years ago and conceivably that could give the Republican candidate a better shot 10 years later.”
That prospect is setting off alarms among Democrats, who now hold all 21 House seats and nine of the 12 Senate seats in New England. (Maine Senator Susan Collins is the region’s only Republican, and independent Senators Bernie Sanders and Angus King caucus with the Democrats).
Rhode Island power brokers spent the weekend urging high-profile and/or well-funded Democratic candidates for governor to run for Congress instead. (Only state Treasurer Seth Magaziner is entertaining the idea so far, saying he remains in the governor’s race “at this time.”)
And observers wonder whether Democrats might again resort to gerrymandering to try to maintain control of the state’s two House seats.
The state redistricting commission voted on Jan. 12 for new House, Senate, and congressional district maps, redrawing Rhode Island’s political boundaries to reflect the new census counts. But the maps still must be approved by a General Assembly dominated by Democrats, so there’s still time to change the boundaries.
“The process is still not done,” Marion said. “The legislature still needs to ratify. It would be an extraordinary step if they drastically altered them at this point.”
But Democrats went to extraordinary lengths to try to help Cicilline a decade ago. At that time, mapmakers needed to move 7,263 people between the two congressional districts to meet the federal requirement that district populations be within 1 percent of each other.
At the time, Langevin’s office said Cicilline’s office was at first pushing a plan that would have shifted 125,276 people, including nearly half of Providence and the towns of Burrillville, Smithfield, and North Smithfield. Cicilline had lost those three towns by a total of 2,976 votes in his 2010 race against Republican John J. Loughlin II.
That proposal appeared to infuriate Langevin’s district director, C. Kenneth Wild Jr. “This is one of those situations where good government is trumped by bad politics,” Wild said at the time. “Cicilline’s office hijacked the entire congressional redistricting process … It’s incredible what we are doing for one person.”
With that feud on full public display, officials struck a compromise. Rather than shifting three towns and nearly half of Providence, the final plan moved Burrillville and a smaller piece of Providence into the 2nd Congressional District, shifting a total of 75,016 people between districts.
This time around, the congressional redistricting process was so uneventful that the state redistricting consultant, Kimball W. Brace, submitted the proposed congressional district map after the House and Senate maps, saying congressional redistricting would be much easier by comparison.
Unlike 10 years ago, the two members of Congress were visibly absent from the redistricting process, Marion noted. And the proposed map ended up making relatively minor changes, all within the city of Providence.
But that placid cartography was based on the assumption that Langevin and Cicilline would coast to re-election, secure in the knowledge that Rhode Island had defied expectations and held onto two House seats in the 2020 census.
And that raises the question of whether the redistricting commission would have tried to change the congressional map more dramatically if Democrats had known Langevin was about to head for the exit.
“The timing of Rep. Jim Langevin’s (D) retirement is odd in that had RI Dems known, they might have proposed a map that made #RI02 (@CookPolitical PVI D+4) a few points bluer,” tweeted David Wasserman, who focuses on the House of Representatives as senior editor at The Cook Political Report. “Instead, RI’s front-running map makes few changes to the current one.”
The timing of Rep. Jim Langevin's (D) retirement is odd in that had RI Dems known, they might have proposed a map that made #RI02 (@CookPolitical PVI D+4) a few points bluer. Instead, RI's front-running map makes few changes to the current one. pic.twitter.com/4sx3Iz6vLF— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) January 20, 2022
Myers said, “I’m seeing all these paeans and encomiums to Congressman Langevin, but I’m wondering if behind the scenes the state Democratic establishment is miffed at him for announcing when he did.”
From the Democratic perspective, it would help to give the 2nd Congressional District a more Democratic tilt now that there is an open seat, Myers said. But Republicans would no doubt “cry foul,” he said.
Marion said the “fear of a backlash” might deter Democrats from making large changes at this point. And, he said, “It would give an issue to the Republican candidate in CD2.”
In 2010, Republicans pressed their advantages in state legislatures with “extraordinary gerrymanders” in states such as Wisconsin and North Carolina, Marion said. This cycle, Democrats who control far fewer state legislatures have been more willing to press their advantage on political maps in states they control, such as New York, he said.
All that gerrymandering shows the need to take map-making power out of the hands of politicians and put it in the hands of an independent redistricting commission such as the one Common Cause proposed last year, Marion said.
Representative Brian C. Newberry, a North Smithfield Republican on the redistricting commission, said the General Assembly can modify the recommended maps, as they have in the past, but those are usually minor changes. A major last-minute overhaul of the congressional map would be blatant, he said.
“I don’t put anything past the Democratic machine in this state,” Newberry said. “But that would be the most outrageous stunt they have ever pulled.”