In 1924, the year North Attleboro’s Joe Martin was first elected to Congress, there were 16 House districts in Massachusetts. Thirteen of those were represented by Republicans.
When Martin was first elected speaker of the U.S. House in 1946, Massachusetts was down to 13 districts. Republicans controlled nine of them.
By the time Martin was last elected to Congress, in 1964, Massachusetts was down to 12 districts, but Democrats now outnumbered Republicans, 7 to 5.
It’s a vastly different political landscape now. Massachusetts has just nine congressional districts, thanks to the population boom in the Sun Belt states.
All nine Bay State seats are held by Democrats. The GOP has an extremely uphill battle to reclaim any of those seats, especially after a Democratically-controlled legislative committee unveiled a new congressional map that again leans heavily toward Boston and its liberal, wealthy suburbs.
That map has gained heat largely because it puts Fall River and New Bedford in separate districts. Opponents of the proposed map note that the two cities — home to the largest concentration of Portuguese Americans in the country — share a culture, a health system, a transit system, a chamber of commerce — even a craigslist page. And with disproportionately working class and immigrant populations, they argue a unified South Coast voting bloc could more effectively advocate for its interests.
The proposed districts also highlight the vast change the people of the Attleboro area have experienced for their representative in Washington.
In the 42 years Martin served in Congress, his district largely mirrored Bristol County, from the Attleboros in the north to the South Coast cities of Fall River and New Bedford. By the end of his tenure, however, the district had spread considerably to the north, allowing a woman from Wellesley, 36-year-old Margaret Heckler, to defeat the aging former speaker in the 1966 Republican primary.
The Attleboro area’s representation took a sharper turn to the left after the 1980 census.
That’s when Massachusetts had to reduce the number of congressional districts from 12 to 11. The overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature reshaped the map to pit liberal freshman Democrat Barney Frank against Heckler, the only Republican in the congressional delegation.
Frank defeated the moderate Heckler by a surprisingly large margin. Ever since then, much of the Attleboro area has been represented by liberals: Frank, Jim McGovern, Joseph Kennedy III and now Jake Auchincloss. Except for a four-year span when moderate Republican Peter Blute represented part of the area, our representatives in Washington have leaned left while this area is more middle of the road, perhaps tilting to the right.
In addition, our representation has come strictly from the north: Frank lived in Newton, Jim McGovern in Worcester, Blute in Shrewsbury, Joseph Kennedy III in Brookline and now Jake Auchincloss from Newton. In fact, in the 2020 Democratic primary to decide the party’s nominee to succeed the outgoing Kennedy, there were eight candidates: five from Brookline, two from Newton and one from Wellesley.
So, Fall River and New Bedford are not the only ones who should have a beef with the new congressional map. The political ideology of those northern towns is vastly different from the more right-leaning Bristol County communities.
Suburbs like Brookline, Newton and Wellesley are not suburbs like Mansfield and Wrentham and certainly are nothing like industrial communities transitioning to suburbs like Attleboro and North Attleboro. And they have little in common with a large industrial city like Fall River, trying to find its way in the high-tech 21st century.
Here’s another big difference: money.
Brookline, Newton and Wellesley are not just suburbs, they are wealthy suburbs. The average household income in Brookline is $162,000, in Newton, it’s $197,000 and in Wellesley, it’s $277,000. Compare that to $92,000 in Attleboro and $110,000 in North Attleboro. In Fall River, it’s a little under $58,000, just 21% of Wellesley’s.
Of course, the biggest problem with all this — not just in Massachusetts but across America — is that congressional districts are drawn by the majority party with the intention of keeping that party in the majority.
Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, put it perfectly this week at a legislative hearing on the proposed map.
“Voters should choose their politicians,” he said. “Politicians shouldn’t choose their voters.”