Politics & Elections

Wealth, power, and whiteness still dominate representation in Woonsocket

“…at-large elections could result in the selection of five members from the same district with other school areas being overlooked as a result.”
Photo for Wealth, power, and whiteness still dominate representation in Woonsocket

Published on January 12, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

Before 1952, Woonsocket was divided into five city council wards. After the 1952 Charter Commission finished its work, Woonsocket moved to the system it roughly has today, with seven at-large city council seats and an elected mayor. How did the city get there, and 70 years later, what have been the effects of this change?

As Woonsocket entered the 1950s, it was a city in decline as the manufacturing base abandoned the mills and moved south to take advantage of workers in states and countries with more lax laws regarding worker safety and compensation. Woonsocket became convinced that their way of organizing city government was holding the city back so, like Providence had done in the 1940s, Woonsocket formed a Charter Commission to modernize and streamline the government. This modernization would ultimately be accomplished by establishing a unicameral legislature of seven non-partisan, at-large city legislature and a “strong mayor” executive branch.

The paper of record in Woonsocket, the Woonsocket Call, followed the proceedings of the Charter Commission fairly closely over the summer of 1952. Public discussion centered around the question of whether to have an elected mayor or a city manager who would be hired by the City Council. The city manager concept was favored by business lobbyists, such as the Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC). A city manager would allow for the city to lure businesses without the political encumbrances that an elected mayor might bring. But ultimately the idea of an elected mayor won out, it seems, in part because of optics – Woonsocket wanted to position itself as a major city – and major cities have strong mayors, not city managers.

More interesting, but less well covered by the Woonsocket Call, was the establishment of a unicameral at-large city council, which was accomplished by doing away with the ward system. At present, all city council members are at-large, meaning that in any election, the top seven vote getters become the city council. The candidates are also technically non-partisan in that they don’t have an official party affiliation.

As detailed in the Woonsocket Call on May 10, 1952, the chairs of the three political parties in Woonsocket presented their views on how to reconfigure Woonsocket’s government, with an eye towards redistricting the city. Surprisingly there was a broad agreement among the three party heads as to what was needed to be done. Democrat John F. Doris, Republican Emile A Pepin, and Independent Kevin K. Coleman, as leaders of their respective parties in Woonsocket, expressed to the Charter Commission a series of ideas pertaining to a new government plan.

These ideas include:

  1. A “strong mayor” system of government, not a city manager.
  2. Redistricted ward lines to promote a more even distribution of voting strength.
  3. A single administrator for Bothe the fire and police departments
  4. A smaller school committee with no ex-officio members
  5. Higher salaries for Bothe mayor, which should be a full-time position, and for city council members, as a means of attracting higher caliber candidates.
  6. Public budget hearings
  7. A one-person tax assessor with a separate panel for hearing appeals
  8. Provisions for recalling elected officials
  9. Holding elections, with the exception of the school committee, at the same time as the national and state elections

Of special concern to the Republican, Coleman, and the Independent, Pepin, was what the Woonsocket Call called “the predominant role in city affairs” of the “tiny” Ward 3. Pepin is quoted as saying that more balanced wards would “eliminate the sorry situation we have today where a comparative handful of voters in the city’s smallest ward dictate to the rest of the city.” Coleman agreed, noting that “one ward has dominated the destiny of this city.”

The issue of wards within Woonsocket had long been an issue. In 1946 William F. Lafond led a panel which “prepared a new plan of ward boundaries for the city.” Lafond’s plan was presented to Woonsocket’s Board of Aldermen in 1947, tabled, and forgotten. Lafond’s group had recommended transferring small areas of Wards 1 and 2 to Ward 3, as well as a large section of Ward 4. You can see the pre-1952 Woonsocket ward map above.

Among the ideas put forth by the party heads addressing the Charter Commission in 1952 was redrawing the ward maps so that they would be more even in terms of population. There was talk of expanding the number of wards from five to seven, or keeping the five wards and adding two at-large council members. All these ideas were put forth with the intention of limiting the power of Ward 3. One example of the outsized power of Ward 3 was the division of money earmarked for Ward improvements that happened in the 1940s. The money was divided equally among all the wards, even though Ward 3 was smaller and in need of less repairs.

And advertisement in the June 25, 1952 Woonsocket Call. The Citizens League of Woonsocket expressed strong support for non-partisan, at-large city council and school committee elections.

Kevin Coleman, chair of the Woonsocket Independent Party, spoke to the Woonsocket Call on July 19 about the issue of wards. In the interview, Coleman said that the party would accept and support the Charter commission’s decision to move to “non-partisan, at-large election of city officials.” Coleman was convinced that non-partisan candidates for city council, not aligned with any particular party, “would induce more citizens to [t]ake a more active role in city government.” Coleman also argued that “an entirely at-large city council would “destroy the influence of a small political group on the city.”

Coleman added that the present system, with Ward 3 predominance, had enabled “selfish individuals to build a political machine” because “the ward was small enough to throw off opposition and effectively destroyed the three-party system.” [In the Woonsocket Call Coleman is quoted as saying “three two-party system.” I’m not exactly sure what that is supposed to mean, so I amended that.]

Arguments against at-large elections, at least as it pertains of the school committee, were made by Thaddeus Piekos, financial secretary of the Woonsocket Teachers Guild, the teacher’s union. Piekos said that “at-large elections could result in the selection of five members from the same district with other school areas being overlooked as a result.” (Woonsocket Call, June 7, 1952)

Sadly, the predictions of Piekos have been borne out by time. In the seventy years since the Charter Commission finished its work, political power has concentrated into three areas of the city. People of color and low-income people are not getting elected to office. Instead, wealth, power and whiteness dictate representation in Woonsocket.

Below is a map of Woonsocket, showing the location of currently elected (and some formerly elected) government officials. [Note that Jon Brien, a former council member and candidate for Mayor of Woonsocket, is not on the map but located among the cluster in the northwest corner.]

Here is a selection of maps from the Statistical Atlas website detailing the demographics of Woonsocket by race, income and other measures.

The map at the top of the piece is a ward map of Woonsocket from before 1952.

Sadly, the notes kept by the 1952 Charter Commission seem to have been lost to time. An Access to Public Records request made to the Woonsocket City call yielded no results. The Woonsocket Historical Society has nothing about the 1952 Charter commission, and the Woonsocket Public Library was also unable to provide more than the Woonsocket Call articles and some historical books on the subject. All these organization were of tremendous help in writing this piece.

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