(for full map: http://council.providenceri.com/Redistricting)
The scene was reminiscent of the Wisconsin State Capitol last year. But the controversy surrounded boundaries, not collective bargaining, and brought the Providence city council chamber to a standstill. A no-show from half the council left one councilman, Bryan Principe, pondering to ask, “What is this—Providence, Wisconsin?”
On February 28, the Chairman of the Committee on Ward Boundaries, along with six other city councilmembers, did not show up to vote on a controversial redistricting map they had endorsed. It was expected to pass until one councilman—the decisive eighth vote—was sidelined in the hospital while recovering from retina surgery that he underwent less than 48 hours before, leaving supporters of the measure without a majority.
Renewed every ten years, the lines separating Providence’s 15 wards have embroiled the council in debate for a month. Councilmembers are split on a proposed map carving chunks of downtown from current wards, and dropping them—along with the Jewelry District—like gems into Ward 1 on the East Side. Supporters call the map a sensible, census-based solution; detractors frame it as political subterfuge. Redistricting aims to draw new voting lines, but it’s already drawn new political faults.
A mix of confusion and elation sprung up amongst the opposition when no vote occurred, and protesters from the South End chanted in Spanish, “You see it, you feel it, the people are here.” Cancellation of the vote meant that the March 1 deadline for redistricting, stated in the City Charter, would expire. “We’re suddenly in un-charted waters because people chose not to show up,” said Principe. Other councilmen sounded as if the supporters had conceded defeat. “They’re retreating for right now. This is only the first step in a victory,” said Councilman Davian Sanchez of Ward 13.
“The Charter doesn’t specify what happens if we don’t pass it by the deadline,” said Councilman Yurdin of Ward 1, the Chairman of the Committee at the center of the controversy. Federal law still mandates the redistricting process be completed, but the city’s timetable is now in limbo. Rather than risk a deadlocked 7-to-7 decision, which would have sent the map back to committee, Yurdin postponed a vote through the no-show until all fifteen members of the council are healthy and present. “The majority of the council believes this is a good plan and important to pass,” Councilman Yurdin insisted, explaining the absentees’ rationale.
Yurdin has received the brunt of public criticism over the map during public hearings over the last three weeks. In the disputed map, Yurdin’s East Side district will add a large geographic swath that includes most of Downtown Providence and the prized Jewelry District, which are currently split amongst two councilmen—Sanchez, and Principe of Ward 13. This consolidation of downtown, and the proposed partnership with the East Side, is the centerpiece of the controversy.
“It’s severing the relationship between the most economically advantaged from two of the most economically disadvantaged parts,” Principe said. Yurdin sees it another way: “we’re reconnecting all these neighborhoods, so that every part of the city has a voice. You have to look at the bigger picture: is this giving voters more power?”
Internal bickering amongst the council reflects the complexity of redistricting, which occurs once every ten years throughout the nation at all levels of government. The process involves numerical algorithms based on gains and losses in population, but also court decisions and legislation concerning voter equality. Collectively, it makes for a tricky concoction. “It’s not a circumstance of the Chairman of the committee dictating that he wanted it this way,” said Kimball Brace, the consultant hired by the city to work with the council in producing a draft of the map. “The fact is that the East Side is under-populated.”
Brace, who has 35 years of experience working with census data, spoke by phone prior to the vote’s cancellation, and delineated the difficulties of constructing any new map, particularly one in Providence. All redistricting across the country must uphold two primary tenets. First is the “one person, one vote” rule set by the 1962 Supreme Court case, Baker v. Carr, which requires numerical equality amongst voting districts. The decision outlines that no single district can deviate by more than ten percent from what an average district would hold. For example, in Providence, the target was 11,869 people for each ward, because that is one-fifteenth the total population.
Second, the 1965 Voting Rights Act prevents “retrogression” of minority voting power in redistricting, meaning that the number of majority-minority districts can’t be lowered in a new map. The disputed map increased the number of majority-minority districts, from nine as it stands, to ten in the future.“It’s important to look at the substance,” Yurdin said. “This map does some very good things.”
During four public hearings on the map throughout February, residents from the South Side and West End have dominated discussion, yelling insults like “KKK” at Councilman Yurdin, and criticizing his acquisition of downtown and the Jewelry district as a political land grab. “This is the economic exclusion of neighborhoods in the tremendous financial investment that will be made in downtown,” said Darrell Lee, the founder of BCOG Planning Associates, a South Providence Community Development Organization. He denounced the map during testimony by pointing out that Ward 1 only lost 500 in population. This deficit falls within the target set by courts preventing mandatory re-apportionment, Lee argued, meaning Yurdin’s district didn’t have to gain the financial strength of downtown Providence. Councilman Principe agreed. “When you look at downtown, there’s no voters there. There’s no people there. Statistically speaking, it doesn’t matter.”
But Brace countered that logic, explaining that Wards 2 and 3 demanded a change, and due to other factors, it left them little choice but to alter Ward 1 as well. He cited a 1983 court decision that requires Providence to maintain a border between Ward 3 and Ward 4, which are divided along the 126 freeway. This, along with its population loss, made Ward 3 the logical starting point for 2012 re-districting. These factors provided the impetus for the pinwheel-shaped direction the map took, folding downtown into Ward 1 and the East Side. “But when you get to the other side of the territory,” like Wards 11, 13, and 14, where much of the protest has come from, Brace said, “you’re usually left with the dregs of what remains.”
Anthony Scionni is a resident in Ward 14 on the North End, and has organized online and written petitions against the map. Scionni attended each public hearing, and if it’s passed, plans to call upon Mayor Taveras to veto the proposed redistricting plan. While the new lines angered him, how the process unfolded was worse for Scionni. “There was no transparency, everything was rushed,” he said.
Redistricting this year was hamstrung by inaction from the State Legislature, which left City Council just three weeks to draft its own new map. Until state re-districting is complete, which didn’t finish until February 9, the city council can’t begin. With the shortened timetable, only one proposal emerged from committee to be shared with the public, irking some city councilmen who were left out of the drafting stages.
Principe called the streamlined schedule “atrocious.” Sanchez said, “the process itself has been horrible. It hasn’t been transparent.” The two councilmen currently controlling downtown worked together to produce an alternative second map, which was presented at the fourth and final public hearing on February 22. Its most central difference was preventing the consolidation of Downtown. “Why give all the new redevelopment—probably the biggest project we will have in the next 100 years—and give it to the East Side?” asks Sanchez.
Yurdin and Brace insist economics plays no factor in redistricting. “My understanding of the councilperson’s role is to represent people in the district and give them a voice. And right now the people downtown don’t have a voice,” Yurdin says.
Both sides remain dug in, while the future of the map is dubious. Yurdin claims a vote will occur immediately after Councilman Zurier recovers from his operation. If the map is somehow forced through, Sanchez is prepared to block the measure by any means necessary: “We are definitely going to the court if we lose,” he said.
Brace admits that the nature of dialogue has been distasteful at times, but the reaction has been “par for the course” when it comes to re-districting. “Any time you make any kind of changes, people have a reaction to it. They don’t like change.”
MALCOLM BURNLEY B '12 is straddling Wards 1 and 2.