Redistricting Focuses on Race, Downsizing

The Rhode Island Special Commission on Reapportionment held its final public input meeting Tuesday night. The panel in charge in creating new General Assembly and Congressional Districts now begins preparing a few different proposals for presentation to state lawmakers.

The two biggest issues facing the commission are the growth in Rhode Island?s Hispanic population and the fact that the General Assembly is being downsized by 25%. Panel members are trying to consider both factors simultaneously. For the House, ?we?ve got to create 75 new Districts,? said State Representative Denise Aiken, who chairs the commission.

Some advocates are pushing the commission to avoid oddly shaped districts for political expediency. ?We need to hold communities of common interest together wherever possible. The largest areas would be the regional. But then we come into towns and cities. And so we have suggested that we never crack a town into multiple Senate or House districts if it can be kept within a single district,? said H. Phillip West, Director of Common Cause.

The Common Cause proposal would break the state into five regional clusters with most districts staying within municipal boundaries.

Some commission members and advocates for minorities in the state are calling that concept into question. They want to make sure that representation for black and Hispanic voters is increased. Hispanics now make up nearly 9% of the Rhode Island population, according to the Census Bureau. Lucia Gomez of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund argued that racial displacement changes traditional views of community.

?I feel that community of interest is just another word for saying you actually looked at race. And it is okay to look at race, because communities do live in that way, and the segregation is extremely high between Latinos living far away from Anglos and Asians living far away from African Americans, and living closer to Anglos than they do to Latinos. I mean, municipal boundaries are fantastic, but insome places it hinders a population?s growth,? said Gomez.

Later this month, the Commission holds workshop meetings with members of the House and Senate. The panel then must work out a few plans for lawmakers to consider.

Hear Av Harris?s report from WRNI?s Morning Edition