Redistricting for an urban voice in the state Senate

With all the controversial topics being discussed in Concord this year, the decennial redistricting process hasn’t been on the radar much.  That’s not good news for Manchester, though, which has been oddly gerrymandered, with its political influence in the state splintered, for at least the past decade.

One topic that gets a lot of attention in New Hampshire is how often the North Country is overlooked, due largely to its low population and despite the amount of tourism revenue it brings in.  Less discussed, though, is how tilted state senate districts in the southern tier are toward suburbs at the expense of the state’s largest cities.

With just under 110,000 residents, Manchester could neatly support two senate districts of its own, with each of the state’s 24 senate districts to be comprised of roughly 54,853 people after the 2010 census.  Despite this, Manchester is currently divided into three districts (16, 18 and 20), all of which encompass suburbs with demographic profiles and legislative priorities that are much different than those of the Queen City.  Currently, two of these three senators are residents of Manchester, but even if all three are Mancunians, they must represent–and if they hope to be re-elected, satisfy–the needs and priorities of voters in suburbs as diverse as Hooksett and Dunbarton as much as the voters of Manchester.  This ends up depriving the state Senate of a uniquely urban voice, which could represent the needs and desires of residents in the state’s largest city, as well as urban areas too small to have their own senator, such as Portsmouth and Concord.

Sen. Lou D'Allesandro (D-Manchester), represents SD20 (Manchester Wards 3, 4, 10 & 11, and Goffstown); first elected 1998.

According to people like James Howard Kunstler and Robert Putnam, residents of cities as well as rural areas tend to be more connected with their communities and more aware the mutual reliance of neighbors upon one another than do those who live in suburbs, where residents tend to be more transient, disconnected and isolated.  Fortunately, suburban growth in New Hampshire is generally spread out among many small towns, and is not as extensive or as isolated as suburbs in many other areas of the country, so those observations might not apply as much to New Hampshire suburbs as they do in, say, the Sun Belt.  Some of the largest suburbs, such as Bedford and Hudson, include areas that are intrinsically tied to the larger cities they abut.  Still, while the residents of these towns may share some of the concerns and needs of urban residents–as evidenced by the support of Bedford, Merrimack and other suburban town councils for the Capitol Corridor commuter rail project–their legislative priorities and demographic profiles are likely very different from residents of Manchester or Nashua.

Sen. David Boutin (R-Hooksett) represents SD16 (Manchester Wards 1, 2 & 12, and Bow, Candia, Dunbarton and Hooksett); first elected 2010.

When senate districts in the Merrimack Valley divide the largest cities among several districts stretching into distant towns, it’s easy to see how the votes and concerns of urban residents are underrepresented in the legislature.  Splitting the densest, most urban areas of Manchester (and the entire state) among three senate districts means that there is almost never a strong voice for urban interests in the state.  That’s unfair to Manchester, as well as the state as a whole, which stands to benefit in terms of tax revenue, economic development and image as the state’s largest city grows and becomes increasingly attractive.

Sen. Tom De Blois (R-Manchester) represents SD18 (Manchester Wards 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9, and Litchfield); first elected 2010.

Also of benefit to the more rural areas of the state is how many interests of cities and rural areas may dovetail in unexpected ways.  In both cities and rural areas, preservation of open space and promotion of traditional development patterns are paramount concerns; both areas benefit from tourism; both are prime contributors to the room and meals tax; both would benefit from a move away from a tax structure that incentivizes greenfield development; both would benefit from imporvements in transit and bike infrastructure; both contain walkable nodes; and on and on.  The interests of the growing–and sometimes bloated suburbs in the southern tier–are at times at odds with these interests, as they compete with one another and with neighboring cities for property tax revenue, highway expenditures and so on, although many of these towns have begun adopting more positive growth and planning policies lately.

Of course, the best future would be one in which New Hampshire towns and cities–whether urban, rural or suburban–would not be so beholden to development of open space and sprawl in order to shore up local property tax bases, and in which neighboring towns and cities would work together toward efficient and comprehensive regional solutions.  In the meantime, residents of Manchester and other urban cities deserve equal and dedicated representation in the state Senate.  And New Hampshire deserves the benefits of a stronger urban voice there.

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