PROVIDENCE — The General Assembly on Tuesday approved new House, Senate, and congressional district borders, culminating the once-a-decade political map-making process that provides a clear boost to incumbents.
The House voted 58 to 8 for the bill after a failed attempt to shoot down a section that allows party leaders to replace the district committee members who endorse candidates.
The Senate voted 29 to 9 for the legislation despite critics blasting that section of the bill and district borders they said harmed the electoral chances of Republicans or progressives who could pose a threat to incumbents in Democratic primaries.
For example, Senator Thomas Paolino, a Lincoln Republican, criticized the last-minute change that shifted a slice of Lincoln from his district to the district represented by Senator Stephen R. Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat who co-chaired the redistricting commission and owns land straddling the Smithfield/Lincoln border.
None of the 113 Assembly members ended up in a district with another incumbent, and critics have said both Democratic and Republican incumbents were allowed to shape their districts during private meetings with the state’s long-time redistricting consultant, Kimball W. Brace.
“This is the culmination of a years long effort to maintain the status quo,” said John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “They did not hide the fact that the goal was to let the incumbents draw the maps as they pleased.”
That is a typical result when a legislature retains control of the redistricting process, Marion said. And it stands in contract to states that “have reformed the process by vesting the power in independent commissions after recognizing the fundamental conflict of interest that exists when politicians are allowed to choose their voters,” he said.
The redistricting legislation reflects a compromise on the “prison gerrymandering” issue.
For redistricting purposes, inmates will now be counted at their home addresses rather than at the Adult Correctional Institutions if they’re expected to be in prison for less than two years. But those serving terms of more than two years will continue to be counted at the Cranston prison complex, as the state has done for decades.
“The redistricting commission heard, in overwhelming numbers, from the community that they wanted the problem of prison gerrymandering fixed,” Marion said. “And they took the first step by assigning 41 percent of those people counted at the ACI as part of the census to their actual homes.”
Senator Ana B. Quezada, a Providence Democrat, has introduced a bill that would require the state to count all inmates at their home addresses for redistricting purposes when it redistricts again in 10 years.
On Tuesday, Representative Edith H. Ajello, a Providence Democrat, asked the House to take a separate vote on the section of the bill that lets the Democratic and Republican party chairs replace the members of House and Senate district committees. She said voters elected those committee members in 2020 and this provision “takes away that will of the voters.”
Representative Robert D. Phillips, a Woonsocket Democrat who was co-chair of the redistricting commission, said that section reflects language that has been in redistricting legislation for decades, and he said he has never heard objections to party chairs removing district committee members.
Ajello said while that language might have been included in past redistricting legislation, “that doesn’t make it right.”
The House voted 53 to 12 for that section of the bill before voting 58 to 8 for the remainder of the legislation.
Representative Barbara Ann Fenton-Fung, a Cranston Republican, noted that in the middle of the redistricting process, Democratic US Representative James R. Langevin announced he would not seek re-election this year, and she thanked House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat, for not gerrymandering the congressional lines to make the district more Democratic. Her husband, former Cranston Mayor Allan W. Fung, is now running for the seat as a Republican.
“I think a lesser person might have played some games, and the fact that the bills came through as is speaks a lot to leadership,” Fenton-Fung said. “In Rhode Island, we are used to games happening and that didn’t happen.”
But she said she planned to vote against the redistricting bill because it counts some inmates at their home addresses rather than at the ACI in Cranston. She said Cranston might pursue a legal challenge based on the Constitution’s equal protection clause because inmates at the state prisons in Cranston are being treated differently than federal inmates at the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls.
In the Senate, Senator Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat, tried to amend the redistricting legislation so current district committee members would be reappointed automatically as long as they lived within the borders of the new districts. “I hope you will all consider amending Section 9 and honoring the will of the voters,” she said. “It preservers our election integrity.”
Senator Samuel W. Bell, a Providence Democrat, backed the proposed amendment, saying, “Overturning election results, I think, is just fundamentally immoral. It’s just wrong. It’s one of these hard lines that we absolutely should never cross.”
But Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Cynthia A. Coyne, a Barrington Democrat, said after redistricting, some district committee members may live outside the new district boundaries. And she said that section of the law represents “standard language that has been in place for decades” that applies only to the year the redistricting takes place. “These are temporary, transition-period appointments,” she said.
The Senate voted 32 to 6 against the proposed amendment before voting 29 to 9 for the bill.
The Rhode Island Republican Party chairwoman has filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office, accusing the state redistricting commission of violating the Open Meetings Act at least 36 times.
Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican who served on the redistricting commission, voted against the redistricting bill on Tuesday, noting that the final House and Senate maps were unveiled moments before the redistricting commission met to vote for them. “There was not ample time for the community to comment on them,” she said.
The redistricting bills now go to Governor Daniel J. McKee to sign into law.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.