On Dyer street, the median strip acts as one of many dividing lines between Rhode Island’s 1st and 2nd congressional districts. Providence is the only city in the state split in two. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)
Looking at the border of Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District, it’s shaped a bit like an upside down pirate hook.
The base is configured around towns along the northern border with Massachusetts as it curves through Bristol and Newport counties, the bend starting in Providence — a city that shares both the 1st and 2nd congressional districts.
“It’s sort of just capturing the Eastern part of the state,” said John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island. “There’s for sure some politics in play.”
Beginning in North Smithfield, the congressional line follows a mostly straight line south as it hits the Woonasquatucket River in North Providence.
In Rhode Island’s capital city, the dividing line snakes behind Providence College and through the Smith Hill neighborhood, bulging around the State House, and narrowing around the Providence River only to reopen around the Southeast part of the city at Roger Williams Park.
The Providence split exists for a reason, said Providence College political science Professor Adam Myers.
“Congressional districts have to be exactly equal in population after a U.S. Census,” he said. “You can’t really do that without splitting Providence.”
Though Myers said the line “won’t matter after 2030 because, by that point, we surely won’t have two congressional districts.
“These are artificial creations that exist for 10 years,” he said. (The state was within 14,000 people of losing a congressional seat heading into the 2020 census).
The urban-rural divide
Where the line does make a difference is in showcasing the partisan makeup of the two districts.
The Cook Political Report’s 2023 Partisan Voting Index found that the 1st district is 12 points more Democratic than the national average, while the 2nd district is only four points higher than the average.
A big reason for that, Myers said, is the same one seen around the country: the split between rural and urban voters.
In the 1st Congressional District, municipalities are either sizable cities or are directly along the coast.
Though the 2nd Congressional District also shares Providence and has the cities of Cranston and Warwick (along with nearly all the southern coast), it also contains the more rural towns along the state’s western border with Connecticut — towns with more Republican support.
Part of that was due to the way the map was redrawn after the 2010 census, which saw Burrillville ceded to the 2nd Congressional District, adding to its list of rural towns.
“At the time, it was believed that this was done to help former U.S. Rep. David Cicilline in his first re-election in 2012,” Marion said. “Statistically, your first re-election is the hardest. So in 2011 the General Assembly moved the boundaries.”
These rural towns, Myers said, tend to have smaller and less diverse populations because of their lack of access to the coast and other large waterways.
“Communities near large bodies of water industrialized early on which led to multiple waves of new immigrants,” he said. “Communities not near bodies of water experienced less population change and were more economically stable and culturally conservative.”
That economic stability is very much on display in the 2nd Congressional District, which has a higher median income compared to its neighbor to the East. According to U.S. Census data, the median household income in 2020 was $77,649, compared to $69,666 in the 1st District.
“The partisan divide in Rhode Island is like, in many respects, a tiny microcosm of the partisan divide you see everywhere,” Myers continued.
Marion added that the split between the East Bay also makes sense due to the affinity many Rhode Islanders have for their side of the waterway.
“What type of coffee syrup you use depends on what side of the bay you live in,” he said.
In terms of how these districts are actually represented, Myers said the line doesn’t really matter all that much.
“The Rhode Island congressional delegation seems to work in a unit,” he said.
Marion, however, said the split does play a role.
“It makes a difference for the people of Burrillville — they were moved completely,” he said. “Connections to neighboring communities matter for purposes of having a member of Congress looking after the interests of the district — geography has symbolic meaning.”
The dividing line also matters for candidates seeking to represent the districts.
In early August, Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos announced that she had moved from her home in Providence’s Silver Lake neighborhood — which is in the 2nd Congressional District — to a rental in the 1st District.
“I’m committed to the district,” Matos said in an interview earlier this month.
Only Spencer Dickinson remains outside of the 1st Congressional District, living in South Kingstown.
When U.S. Rep. Seth Magaziner ran for Congress last year, he started his campaign while he was still a resident of Providence’s East Side. He only moved to Cranston ahead of the 2022 primary.
What type of coffee syrup you use depends on what side of the bay you live in.
– John Marion, executive director for Common Cause Rhode Island
Constitutionally, members of Congress are only required to live in the state they represent, not the district. Emily Lynch, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, said the primary reason a candidate moves across that imaginary line is to build familiarity with constituents and showcase local roots — something that’s been prevalent in candidates’ ads, which are seen across the whole state.
“The more familiar you are with someone, you’re going to trust them more,” she said.
In contrast, Myers doesn’t think it really matters where a candidate lives — at least in Rhode Island.
“It’s a small, close-knit state,” he said. “Most Rhode Islanders have a sense of the geography of the state and the people of the state — and politicians certainly do.”
What irks voters, he said, are those who have never had a relationship with the district or state they seek to represent. Myers cited Hillary Clinton’s 2000 campaign to represent New York in the U.S. Senate. Though she won that race, Myers said Clinton’s move was seen as problematic.
“She had no relationship to the state prior to the 21st century,” he said. “If we’re talking moving about a mile or two — I don’t think it’s such a big deal.”
Lynch said this argument was also brought up in last year’s gubernatorial race with Republican Ashely Kalus, who lived in Illinois and Florida before buying a house in Newport one year before she lost to Dan McKee in election.
“The argument was she was a carpetbagger,” Lynch said.
What ultimately matters for a candidate’s familiarity, Myers said, is how often they can make headlines.
“People who watch the local news are oftentimes (as) aware of what the representative of CD1 is doing as they are with what the one from CD2 is doing,” he said. “The Rhode Island media market does not split at the boundary of the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts.”
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