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Draw new districts to benefit voters not pols

December 16, 2011

Rhode Island’s redistricting commission is scheduled Monday tonight to make recommendations for drawing new political boundaries. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says its time for the Smith Hill crowd to help the voters, not the politicians.

All’s fair in love, war and politics. That ancient axiom is on display once again at the State House, as lawmakers get ready to vote on new districts for the General Assembly and the U.S. Congress.

In the Assembly, districts can be electoral destiny. A favorable district full of one’s friends, family and .ethnic brethren can mean the difference between victory and defeat in Rhode Island’s provincial and parochial legislative campaigns.

But voters should expect better than localism and sheer partisanship when it comes to drafting the boundaries of the state’s two congressional districts.

The U.S. Constitution decrees that every 10 years the congressional lines have to be redrawn to reflect population changes charted by the U.S. Census. In recent decades   that has been accomplished in Rhode Island rather easily, simply by moving the line in the state’s largest city, Providence, and making minor adjustments. Federal regulations require the congressional districts to have almost equal populations.

At the beginning of redistricting this cycle, it looked as if only tiny changes would be necessary. The census showed that moving just 7,200 people from the Second District, held currently by veteran Congressman James Langevin, to the First District, which is held by rookie Congressman David Cicilline, would satisfy the census requirements.

Both Cicilline and Langevin are Democrats. In October they both signed a letter urging the redistricting panel to adopt the political philosophy of that time-honored medical doctor’s dictum: Do No Harm.

Cicilline and Langevin urged the commission to adjust the congressional districts in a manner that would move the line in Providence and cause the least amount of voter disruption.

Then a rare dispute erupted between Langevin and Cicilline. Cicilline allies moved at the eleventh-hour to make major changes that would have moved 125,000 people and shifted three towns – Burrillville, North Smithfield and Smithfield – from Cicilline’s district to   Langevin’s. Those three communities just happened to support Cicilline’s Republican opponent in 2010.

Cicilline is known as an ambitious politician who plays hardball, but this scheme was more blatant than usual. A onetime criminal defense lawyer, he is known as someone who can talk his way out of   a tight corner.

This time, Cicilline allies asserted that a big district change would put the state’s heavily Democratic Latino voters into one district and give this newest immigrant group more clout. That’s a laudable goal, but a stance that is more than a bit disingenuous at this point. The Latino population has surged in our state in recent years, but not enough to elect a candidate to the U.S. Congress.

Then there is that pesky letter. Why did Cicilline sign on to minimal changes in the congressional districts if he wasn’t going to follow through?

In the immortal words of Finley Peter Dunne, `politics ain’t beanbag.’ But on this one, Cicilline looks like he is flip-flopping like a just caught flounder on the deck. He also looks like he is running scared – last week’s Brown University public opinion survey showed Ciciline with a 24 percent job approval rating.

Cicilline has a potent re-election message: Why would Rhode Island voters send another Republican to Washington to bolster the Tea Party fringe of the GOP that is in firm control of the U.S. House.

If Cicilline can’t win reelection without rigging the First District boundaries, well, so be it. Hopefully when the Redistricting Commission makes its recommendations tonight, it will do so with the interests of voters, not the politicians, in mind.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40. You can also follow his reporting on RIPR’s `On Politics’ blog.

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