Rep Dickinson’s “Report” From Smith Hill – Part 2 of 3, Redistricting: “the Speaker had identified three [Democrat] representatives whom he was determined to prevent from being re-elected.”
Following is Part Two of the five page letter that Representative Spencer Dickinson (D-South Kingstown) sent in the last few days to constituents to make the case for voters to choose him over his Democrat challenger in Tuesday’s primary. ( Part One. Full letter as a PDF.) Beyond partisanship, the letter is a valuable insight both for District 35 and around the state because it offers an eye-opening and disturbing first hand report into the workings of the Rhode Island General Assembly.
As we began our second year, the big agenda item was redistricting. Looking at the final maps, it was clear that the Speaker had identified three representatives whom he was determined to prevent from being re-elected. One was Rene Menard, a retired Woonsocket firefighter, who, though lacking a law degree, may be one of the best lawyers in the building. His great uncle was speaker, and Rene has served for 22 years. He cannot be bought, is fearless on the floor, and reads every bill. He finds and points out embarrassing defects in what comes out of Committee, and often forces amendments, corrections and delays.
The second was Bob DaSilva, a Pawtucket police officer who lives in East Providence. While he is an imposing man, in many ways he seems just like any other legislator. Anyone can stand up and speak, to voice an opinion, explain a viewpoint. But Bob is different. He has a gift. While Bob is talking, people actually begin to change their minds. This is a threat to the speaker that has caused him embarrassment on a number of occasions. The speaker needed to get rid of these two, not just to take them out of the equation, but to show his power and to set an example. To teach a lesson to other legislators.
The third person on the list of examples, people who had to go, and whose defeat would put fear into others, was me. While I am not happy with the treatment, I am proud and flattered, as a freshman legislator, to be in the company of Rene Menard and Bob DeSìlva.
At first the plan to get rid of me was a simple one. Mike Rice had voiced his intent for a rematch with me just hours after the last primary was over. He had lost the primary because he had let down his guard. Now he believed he could do better. It was no secret that he was in communication with the speaker’s office and hoped for some key assistance.
When the possibility of a challenge showed itself, I had no problem with it. It’s a free country. He was entitled to a rematch.
As the redistricting issue began to be considered in the fall of 2011, it appeared to me that it would have little impact. My district, District 35, had an excess of about 600 residents. The neighboring district, District 34, was lacking about the same number. Federal law required moving the line to balance the population. Since there were no special problems in neighboring districts, the answer was simple. The first map prepared by the consultant reflected that. It moved the line to shift 600 people. I saw Map A, was not surprised, and took on a false sense of security.
In spite of the usual jokes about gerrymandering, the fact is that federal law does not allow moving district lines for the sole purpose of achieving a specific political outcome.
Recent Rhode Island history provides an example. In 1982, there was no election for the Rhode Island senate. Incredible but true. A court suspended the election, the senators were held over for half a term, and a special election was held the following June.
This happened because senate leader Rocco Quattrocci wanted to rid himself of a troublesome young senator, Richard Licht. He instructed the redistricting consultant, Kimball Brace, the same consultant who thirty years later provided this year’s redistricting, to design a district which would prevent Licht’s return. Licht had the resources for an expensive lawsuit. He sued and he won.
This time the goal was to eliminate me. Mike Rice’s candidacy was the vehicle. Mike was a known quantity. He had said he would fully support the speaker. Mike was a good candidate but he needed a boost. The change of 600 people, in the part of the district where Mike had not done well, just wasn’t enough. He needed the kind of redistricting that was intended to bring about a political result.
Brendan Fogarty works for the speaker. You and I, as taxpayers, pay him over $85,000 a year plus a $22,000 health care package. He does not come cheap. He has an office in the basement of the state house and a title that belies the fact that most of the representatives have never heard of him.
So when a skilled hand was needed to redesign District 35 to assure Mike Rice’s victory in a primary, Brendan was more than available. He did the job, carving out 3,000 people who populated the area where Mike had not done well.
Unfortunately, with the cutting out of a large block of unfriendly voters, Mike’s house was also not in the district. No problem, a little zigzag to put the house back in the district took care of that. A masterful job. I think it would be accurate to say that starting around that time or earlier, Brendan’s primary responsibility in the speaker’s office was making sure I did not come back. If you agree with that outcome, you probably think your tax dollars and mine are being well spent.
As he has done so many times before, the speaker called in the votes of his loyal followers, they went along, and the redistricting bill passed. A special token from our colleagues for Dasilva, Menard and myself. The hardest part for me was the realization that even if I survived, I had years ahead of me working in a room with people for whom I have such low regard. This was particularly hard when I thought back to my earlier days in politics when the leaders had a different kind of integrity. Their word was gold and they made sure the rest of us learned to treat each other with respect.
The plan to replace me with Mike lasted six or eight weeks and then it began to look as though it wouldn’t work. I don’t know what role Brendan Fogarty played in making the speaker aware that the plan was weak. But soon the chief of staff, who had made the deal with Mike Rice, was dispatched to knock on Mike’s door and tell him the bad news. Mike would not be running. Kathy Fogarty was a stronger candidate. She would run instead. Rice was not happy but he didn’t have much choice.
Kathy Fogarty is a serious candidate. She is smart and she has spent years on the town council. Brendan is a skilled campaign manager. They have put together some credible local endorsements. Her chances of winning are good.