Political Scene: Incumbents look safe in redistricting map options


Drafts of the first new Rhode Island political maps debuted Thursday night, lighting up the eager faces of Ocean State political watchers at about the moment Gov. Dan McKee flipped the switch on the State House Christmas tree. 

The every-10-year redistricting traditionally delivers gifts to some candidates and coal to others, even when map-makers are full of goodwill and there’s no visit from the gerrymandering grinch.

The maps released on Thursday — two for the House and two for the Senate — will be revised over the coming weeks, but they provide a decent idea of what the 113 General Assembly districts will look like in the next decade.

RI Redistricting Project: First set of maps showing potential new boundaries are released

The purpose of redistricting

Among the insiders gathered in frosty State House Room 35 for the unveiling, there was agreement that of the four options, “Senate Map A” and “House Map B” will most resemble the finished product. 

Significant changes that appear in both drafts, of course, stand a very good chance of becoming permanent.

The primary purpose of redistricting is to even out the number of residents within districts to adjust for people moving from place to place.

But politics are taken into account.

The map-makers at Election Data Services, who have worked for Rhode Island since the early 1980s, are hired by House and Senate leaders and discuss where the district lines should go with the incumbents in each district.

There are usually some surprises.

Here are some first impressions.

Incumbents

The fastest way to draw howls of protest in redistricting is to stick two incumbents in one district, forcing them to square off to stay in office.

All four of the new maps avoids this and would keep all incumbents — even those out of favor with leadership or who live just down the street from each other — in different districts.

In some cases, incumbents’ homes are right on the boundary line or in tiny pockets appended to large districts. 

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The Senate

The ongoing power struggle between progressive and moderate Democrats is most intense in the Senate, where left-wing lawmakers are closer to seizing control.

And that’s where a lot of the early focus on some of the new boundaries is focused, with progressive critics of Senate President Dominick Ruggerio crying foul.

“This is the reality of State House retribution,” Sen. Sam Bell, a frequent antagonist of Ruggerio, said of how his Providence district is redrawn in the proposed maps. “They went out of the way to make my district more conservative … I had been hoping that the degree of retribution against me would be offset by the desire to not make life less difficult for incumbents.” 

Bell’s district, spanning several West Side neighborhoods, would lose Olneyville Square and the area around the Cranston Street Armory while gaining blocks around Providence College and northwestern Elmhurst.

Moving Bell’s district north toward more conservative neighborhoods allowed Ruggerio to move the boundary of his own district north so it includes less of Providence and more of conservative North Providence. Ruggerio is expecting another primary challenge next year from Rhode Island Political Co-op candidate Lenny Cioe, who won the Providence precincts in the district while losing 55% to 45% overall.

Warwick

Ruggerio’s top deputy, Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey, has also faced a Co-op primary challenger the past two years and his Warwick district borders two Co-op incumbents, Sens. Jeanine Calkin and Kendra Anderson.

In the draft maps, McCaffrey’s District 29 would absorb a chunk of Calkin’s territory — around a quarter of McCaffrey’s total voters — to the south while giving up a similar-sized chunk of liberal-leaning Gaspee to Anderson.

The exchange would then send the southwestern part of Anderson’s district, likely a more conservative part, to Calkin, who is co-chair of the Co-op.

Cranston

Anderson’s district would also send an arm north across the Pawtuxet River into Cranston.

Among the proposed residents of Anderson’s new Senate District 31 would be Harrison Tuttle, executive director of the Black Lives Matter Rhode Island PAC and a 2022 Political Cooperative candidate. 

Tuttle, who currently lives in Sen. Josh Miller‘s district, hasn’t said which office he intends to run for and declined Friday to comment on the maps.     

If he decides to run in the House, it would set up a Democratic primary with Rep. Brandon Potter, who has feuded with the Co-op since it excommunicated him after the last election.

And if that weren’t enough, Potter’s last primary opponent, former representative Christopher Millea, on Friday pointed out that the new map would cut him out of a potential rematch. Republican Maryann Lancia, whom Potter beat in the general election after ousting Millea, would also no longer be in House 16.

North Smithfield Republican Rep. Brian Newberry, a member of the redistricting commission, on Friday called the changes a “Pottermander” and hoped the commission would reverse them.

Republicans

At least at first blush, the Assembly’s small band of Republicans is not objecting loudly to the new maps.

“I’m fairly confident that House leadership did not interfere like 10 years ago,” said Newberry, who a decade ago protested changes in the last redistricting that carved a potential opponent out of the Burrillville district of former representative Cale Keable.  

Sakonnet passage

Modest population changes can bring big changes in redistricting in communities bounded by water that limits where lines can be moved. (Welcome to Senate District 36, Block Island.)

Such is the case for the districts including Aquidneck Island, Tiverton and Little Compton, which are reshuffled in the proposed maps.

In the House, freshman Rep. Michelle McGaw of Portsmouth would need to get acquainted with the ferry to Prudence Island in one map, while losing much of her Tiverton territory to Rep. Jay Edwards, D-Tiverton.

In the more extreme “Map A,” McGaw and Edwards would exchange two-thirds of their current electorates.

“Wondering how the voters will feel about that,” she tweeted.

The Political Co-op has ruffled establishment feathers on a number of levels, but on a purely tactical level, some have questioned its decision to announce a slate of candidates before the maps change and potentially scramble matchups.

Little Compton resident and Co-op member Jenna Magnuski announced a bid to challenge Sen. Louis DiPalma of Middletown in the Democratic primary.

But if draft Senate Map A ends up happening, Sen. James Seveney would be the one facing a primary challenge.

“The maps proposed by the political establishment’s high-priced gerrymandering consultant have one clear goal: to protect the Senate President, Speaker of the House, and their allies,” Co-op spokesperson Camilla Pelliccia said in a statement. “The redistricting process should be about ensuring that all communities in our state — including incarcerated communities — are well represented, not about politicians picking and choosing their voters.” 

ACI

Incarcerated communities have been a major topic of discussion in the last several weeks as the redistricting commission mulls proposals to count inmates as residents of their former communities instead of at the Adult Correctional Institutions complex in Cranston.

Even with maps already on the table, redistricting consultant Kimball Brace on Thursday said he was still looking into plans that would reallocate some of the inmate population.

ACLU Rhode Island Executive Director Steve Brown objected to plans that would shift only those inmates with short stays behind bars, arguing that it’s inconsistent with how the rest of the population is treated.

Even if ACI inmates are still considered residents of Cranston, they may not have as large an impact in the redrawn districts as the old ones.

The draft maps divide the ACI among three House districts instead of the current two.

‘Prison gerrymandering’: How many ACI inmates are really residents of Cranston?

East Side

Senate District 6 in Providence was redrawn to maximize the Black vote share after a 2002 lawsuit, and weaves from South Providence through downtown and up North Main Street.

The East Side portion of the district would shrink considerably in the draft map. Sen. Tiara Mack, one of the more outspoken progressives in the chamber, would still be in her district, but just barely, in a small pocket at the far northern end.

In one of the Senate draft maps, Bret Jacob, who ran for the East Side Senate seat won by Sen. Sam Zurier this fall, would be shifted into the district now represented by Sen. Meghan Kallman.  

Foulkes eyed new business

Helena Foulkes started a SPAC.

Last spring, before the former CVS Health executive caught the itch to run for governor, she co-founded BrightSpark Capitol, a Special Purpose Acquisition Company.

SPACs, also known as blank check companies, are corporate vehicles with the sole purpose of raising money through an Initial public offering to buy another company. They exploded in popularity in the financial world over the last two years.

On March 1, a day before McKee was sworn in to replace Gina Raimondo as governor, BrightSpark Capitol filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission to raise up to $200 million in an IPO, according to a news release.

Based in Arlington, Virginia, BrightSpark “intends to focus on differentiated, digitally forward consumer businesses, including those in the health, wellness, and beauty sectors,” the release said. Foulkes’ co-founder and co-CEO was Marla Beck, who co-founded cosmetics brand Bluemercury.

But according to Foulkes’ campaign, she opted for politics and pulled the plug on BrightSpark before it raised any money or found a target company to acquire.

“In the spring of this year, Helena worked with another woman business leader on a business idea focused on women’s wellness,” communications director Audrey Lucas said Friday. “They filed some of the necessary legal paperwork to start a business, but ultimately did not move forward with the idea. It never got to the stage of becoming an actual operating company or receiving any investments.” 

panderson@providencejournal.com

(401) 277-7384

On Twitter: @PatrickAnderso_



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