Politics & Elections

RI redistricting bill seeks to favor incumbents, give party leaders more control at voters’ expense

“Want to see how democracy dies in the darkness?” asked Senator Jeanine Calkin on Twitter. “Check out page #173 (Section 9) of the redistricting bill where lawfully elected district committees are replaced with handpicked people selected by the entrenched party to get rid of progressives. This can not be allowed to pass.”
Photo for RI redistricting bill seeks to favor incumbents, give party leaders more control at voters’ expense

Published on February 3, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

The Redistricting bills have dropped in the Rhode Island House (H7323/S2162) and Senate, and controversy has arisen over Section Nine of the legislation, which appears to empower the chairs of the Democratic and Republican Parties to replace elected members of district committees with candidates of their choice. What this means is complicated, so let me explain.

District Committees are small groups of people elected to serve a political party in each of the 113 Senate and House Districts in the state. The job of a District Committee is to endorse a particular candidate in the event of a primary race – that’s pretty much it. The effect of the District Committee endorsement is the presence of a little ⭐️ next to the candidate’s name on the primary ballot, showing that the candidate has been endorsed by the state party. Rhode Island remains the only New England state that still has the little stars on the ballot, despite bills introduced annually to get rid of them.

The function of District Committees is not particularly well understood and first time state legislators are often caught off-guard by their power. First time elected legislators need to get their District Committees behind them lest they run into a situation where they lose the party endorsement in their first bid for re-election. Senator Jeanine Calkin, a progressive Democrat first elected in 2016, was surprised when her District Committee endorsed her opponent for the 2018 election. Calkin lost that election but regained the seat in 2020. Senator Calkin told Uprise RI that in addition to endorsing a candidate, members of a District Committee also endorse themselves, putting stars next to their own names on primary ballots.

“And that’s why District Committees are so hard to change,” said Senator Calkin. “When I had people run who support me, we had to get the word out about why it’s so important because on the ballot all of those people are still endorsed.”

Because the endorsement carries real weight in Rhode Island primaries, due to the presence of that little star, incumbent candidates who challenge the power of the state’s parties find it necessary to work hard to build District Committees that support them. This is why progressives like Calkin and State Senator Sam Bell took to Twitter on Wednesday to call into question Section Nine of the redistricting bills.

Section Nine is a bit of a word salad, but in essence what it does is remove from their position every member of every legislative district committee and allows the party chairs, Republican Sue Cienki and Democrat Joseph McNamara, to appoint new members. (Note that do to the low number of contested Republican Primaries in Rhode Island, the issues of this bill are much more prevalent in Democratic Party primaries.) The logic behind this section is that since all the districts have been redrawn, there is no guarantee that the District Committee members still live in the districts, so a fresh start is needed. The reality is that people properly elected to a position by a vote of the people are being removed from office and replaced with people chosen by entrenched party interests.

The language in the bills that allows for this to happen is not new. It was present in the 2012 version of the redistricting bill. For various, complex and not well understood reasons, the language in Section Nine has never been written into Rhode Island’s General Laws. Uprise RI spoke with John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island who contacted members of the General Assembly that were serving back in 2012. They told Marion that the Democratic Party Chair in 2012 asked each legislator to send a list of who they wanted to be on their committees. In general, members of the various District Committees who still lived in their districts after redistricting kept their positions. (Check out John Marion’s Twitter thread on this issue.)

But progressive Democrats, those who have pushed back against Democratic Party machine politics, note that since 2012, a lot has changed. The Democratic Party has shown itself capable of making very real, very public attacks on incumbents – especially progressive incumbents – they don’t like. Democratic Party Chair Joseph McNamara made international headlines when he nominated a Trump supporting Republican over incumbent Moira Walsh in 2018. The Democratic Party has been at war with the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus since the caucus was formed. And real democracy has always been in short supply when it comes to the internal workings of the Democratic Party in Rhode Island.

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In light of the events of the past six years, can progressive Democrats be sure that Chair of the Democratic Party will deal with them fairly? Nothing in Section Nine of the redistricting bills currently before the General Assembly says the Chair has to. And events over the last six years have given progressives little reason to trust Democratic Party leadership.

The House hearing on the Redistricting Bill will be on Monday, February 7, at 4pm in Room 35 of the Rhode Island State House. The House Committee on State Government and Elections will take public testimony on all aspects of the redistricting bill. You can find all the information you need to testify on the bill here.

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