Massachusetts is the birthplace of the term “gerrymander,” and that’s exactly how critics of the 4th Congressional District describe its boundaries. The 4th splits Fall River and runs some 50 miles north to include several of Boston’s wealthiest suburbs. 

The southern half of Fall River belongs to the ninth congressional district, a predominantly coastal district stretching from New Bedford to Plymouth to Cape Cod and the islands. 

A group of business and nonprofit leaders from the South Coast, including the New Bedford Economic Development Council’s president Anthony Sapienza, Blue Harvest Fisheries CEO Keith Decker and the restaurateur Steve Silverstein, recently signed a letter calling the congressional map “the worst in a century.”

“The argument that municipalities get twice the representation if they are split is a canard that has been used to justify the gerrymander for generations,” the letter said. “The state’s other leading regional centers — Boston, Worcester, Springfield and Lowell — all have consistently been represented by residents of their cities and have been well-served as a result.”

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said it’s been a century since the city sent one of its own residents to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

“The last member of Congress from New Bedford itself was a gentleman named Joseph Walsh, who lived on Hawthorne Street,” Mitchell said. “He left Congress in 1921.”

Their criticisms are aimed at a committee of state legislators weighing redistricting proposals this month at the State House. Redistricting happens across the country every ten years, as demographic changes recorded in the latest Census demand the recalibration of voting districts so they are roughly equal in population.

Fall River and New Bedford were split into separate districts during the last round of redistricting in 2011, even though the cities share much in common: large urban school districts, a decades-long opioid crisis, the largest concentration of Portuguese-Americans in the nation, and an early stake in America’s offshore wind industry. 

Advocates say grouping together communities with similar interests can amplify their voice in national politics. Beth Huang, a political organizer with the Drawing Democracy Coalition, a progressive group that has advised the committee on its maps, said splitting Fall River into two congressional districts has the opposite effect. 

“Fifty-thousand people from Fall River cannot have a substantial influence over a congressional district that's nearly 800,000 people,” Huang said. “However, with a combined population of somewhere close to 200,000 people, certainly Fall River and New Bedford can have a strong influence over a congressional district.”

Fall River’s politicians see it differently, complicating a proposal that might otherwise have sailed through a redistricting committee focused on centering legislative districts around voters of color, who form a growing share of Fall River’s electorate.

“Fall River is in need of a bunch of help, and we believe having two congressional people to help us in Washington is not a negative thing,” Mayor Paul Coogan said at a hearing on redistricting this summer.

State Rep. Patricia Haddad, a Democrat from Somerset, said even if the cities were combined, the South Coast still might not field a candidate. 

“I want to point out that the South Coast had an opportunity to have someone run in this last election, and while I personally thought about it, there weren’t other people serious about doing that,” Haddad said. 

All nine of the Democrats who campaigned last year to lead the 4th Congressional District came from Brookline, Newton or Wellesley — suburbs of Boston where the median family income is more than triple that of Fall River or New Bedford. The winner of the election, Congressman Jake Auchincloss of Newton, said this summer that he would prefer to keep northern Fall River within his district.

Bill Keating, the congressman who stands to absorb northern Fall River if the 4th is redistricted, said that “all views should be heard."

It’s not clear when exactly the redistricting committee will unveil its preferred congressional maps for a final round of public input, but the maps must be finalized before candidates pull nomination papers next spring. 

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at bberke@thepublicsradio.org.