Politics & Elections

The RI Redistricting Commission hearing that wasn’t

The saddest thing is that this could have been avoided. Instead of stuffing this commission with political insiders that have little interest in redistricting, we could have established an independent redistricting commission.
Photo for The RI Redistricting Commission hearing that wasn’t

Published on October 26, 2021
By Steve Ahlquist

The Rhode Island General Assembly‘s Special Commission on Reapportionment attempted to meet in the auditorium of Kickemuit Middle School in Warren on Monday night, but failed to reach a quorum as only 9 out of the 18 members, handpicked by House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, showed up. A quorum requires 10 out of the 18 to be present.

It was a terrific waste of time and taxpayer dollars.

The meeting was scheduled to start at 6pm, but at six there were around five commission members present. Over the next hour a few more members trickled into the room, but by 7:10pm or so Commission Chairs Senator Stephen Archambault (Democrat, District 22, Smithfield, Johnston, North Providence) and Representative Robert Phillips (Democrat, District 51, Woonsocket) threw in the towel, announcing to those attending in person that the hearing would have to be rescheduled. Attendance in the auditorium wasn’t great, with only three members of the public attending, as well as several state legislators from the area. Viewers hoping to watch via Capitol TV at home were not informed of the hearing’s cancellation.

Attendance at the Commission hearings have never been perfect, but in recent weeks, as the Commission entered its “road show” phase – that is, visiting cities and towns throughout the state to address different issues that redistricting must deal with in different municipalities, – attendance has fallen off. Two meetings held on CCRI campuses, in Newport and Warwick, were boycotted by the four Republican members of the commission over the mask and vaccine mandates at the schools. The Commission hearing in Warwick last Thursday evening was delayed for over forty minutes as the Commission struggled to establish a quorum.

At last nights Commission meeting three of the four Republicans on the Commission, Senators Jessica de la Cruz (District 23, Burrillville, Glocester) and Gordon Rogers (District 21, Coventry, Foster Scituate, West Greenwich) and Representative Brian Newberry (District 48, North Smithfield) blew of the Commission hearing to attend a fundraiser for Senator de la Cruz, scheduled in Burrillville at the exact same time that the Commission was to start in Warren. The only Republican member of the Commission to attend was Representative David Place (District 47, Burrillville, Glocester).

Attending the the meeting were:

  • Representative Arthur Corvese (Democrat, District 55, North Providence)
  • Representative Grace Diaz (Democrat, District 11, Providence)
  • Representative Katherine Kazarian (Democrat, District 63, East Providence)
  • Representative Robert Phillips (Democrat, District 51, Woonsocket, Cumberland)
  • Representative David Place (Republican, District 47, Burrillville, Glocester)
  • Senator Stephen Archambault (Democrat, District 22, Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston)
  • Senator Walter Felag Jr (Democrat, District 10, Warren, Bristol, Tiverton)
  • Antonio Lopes, the CEO and founder of TILT Communications
  • Maria Bucci, a former Cranston City Council member

Not attending were:

  • Representative Brian Newberry (Republican, District 48, North Smithfield, Burrillville)
  • Kaprece Ransaw, a real estate agent
  • [former] State Representative Stephen Ucci
  • Senator Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence)
  • Senator Susan Sosnowski (Democrat, District 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham)
  • Senator Jessica de la Cruz (Republican, District 23, Burrillville, Glocester, North Smithfield)
  • Senator Gordon Rogers (Republican, District 21, Foster, Coventry, Scituate, West Greenwich)
  • Alvin Reyes, an organizer with IBEW Local 99
  • [former] State Senator Harold Metts,

Note that around half of those who did show up showed up late, some as late as 6:40pm.

UpriseRI took to the podium to comment on the meeting’s cancellation, due to the disinterest of the Commission members.

After the hearing that wasn’t, Representative Diaz stopped UpriseRI in the hall to criticize our attitude and defend the absence of [former] State Senator Harold Metts. UpriseRI told Representative Diaz that fifty percent attendance is a failing grade, and she walked away angrily.

The saddest thing is that this could have been avoided. Instead of stuffing this commission with political insiders that have little interest in redistricting, we could have established an independent redistricting commission. Legislation was introduced in April of this year that would take the power of redistricting out of the hands of the Rhode Island General Assembly and put it into the hands of voters.

The legislation, S0864, would have allowed Rhode Island voters the chance to amend the Rhode Island Constitution and change the way we do redistricting. Instead of the Senate President and the Speaker of the House filling the Commission with allies and insiders, the legislation requires that interested people with no relatives currently serving in office or state government fill out an application. After weeding out those with conflicts, the Rhode Island Secretary of State would randomly choose six people: two from the Democratic Party, two from the Republican Party, and two with no party affiliation. Those six people would choose nine more people from the pile of applications, selecting “additional commissioners who possess the most relevant analytical skills, have the ability to be impartial and promote consensus on the commission, and demonstrate an appreciation for and are reasonably reflective of the diversity of the state, including, but not limited to, racial, ethnic, geographic, and gender diversity.”

It’s a complicated process, but one supported by good government groups like Common Cause RI. In fact, the website created to promote the idea can still be found here, and I recommend anyone interested in this issue to check it out.

“The legislation isn’t something we’re focusing on right now, because it’s too late for this cycle,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause RI by phone. Marion has introduced earlier versions of this bill over the last few years, to no avail.

It may be too late to establish an independent redistricting commission, but it’s not too late to start advocating for the General Assembly to pass this legislation next session, so that in 2030 we can try something new: Redistricting without the thumb of the legislature on the scales.

Right now the public has to focus on ending prison gerrymandering, which will be a battle. Bills to deal with prison gerrymandering have been quashed by General Assembly leadership over the years despite the various bills introduced to eliminate it. (See H5285, S0334 and S0418, all introduced last session. All were “held for further study.”)

The Redistricting Commission, if can establish a quorum, will take up prison gerrymandering at a special hearing to be held sometime in the future at the Rhode Island State House. It’s possible that the hearing will be announced with only three days notice, so if you are interested in contributing in person testimony, be ready.

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