When the 1st Congressional District expanded eastward to include Springfield back in 2013, Cheryl Rose recalls, the feeling among some residents was that “we lost our congressman.”
“I do feel that Springfield really dominates this district right now, and I feel underrepresented in that sense,” said Rose, a Dalton resident.
And now that another redistricting process is looming, Rose said, she is “nervous” the district will further expand to include more areas near Springfield and Worcester.
During a a virtual hearing Monday evening, residents of the 1st Congressional District were given an opportunity to share their viewpoints. Among the nine residents who testified before the Joint Committee on Redistricting, four were residents of Berkshire County, including Rose.
How the Massachusetts Legislature redraws maps during redistricting will shape the way that Berkshire County is represented in government for the next decade, and state lawmakers leading the process say they want to incorporate public input.
Locals and elected officials widely agree that all of Berkshire County should be kept in the same congressional district, and they’re mostly asking that Statehouse districts change as little change as possible. Districts covering Berkshire County will likely need to expand eastward, since the western regions of the state have not gained population as quickly as those in the east. The specifics, however, will be determined over the next few months.
Western Massachusetts districts tend to be geographically large, and a common concern is that further eastward expansion would force elected officials to represent a growing number of communities that each have unique needs.
Thomas Matuszko, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, said that it takes two hours to drive from one end of the state Senate district represented by Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, to the other. With 52 cities and towns, the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden district is the largest in the state.
Hinds has said he expects the district will need to add communities totaling 15,000 to 20,000 residents to get to the 170,000 range necessary for Senate districts. Further eastward expansion, Matuszko said, could “result in the residents of Berkshire County losing representation,” so he asked that districts add as few communities as possible.
“As the part of the state furthest from Boston and the seat of power, Berkshire residents already frequently feel that their issues and concerns are not understood or listened to by eastern legislators,” he said.
Matuszko also said he hopes lawmakers will keep predominantly rural districts near the lower end of population targets, in part to reduce geographic size and in part because the 2020 Census may not accurately reflect current population. The Census count, Matuszko said, “happened before the full impact of the COVID-19 urban exodus could be accounted for.”
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said that the “sprawling” district is part of why she believes Hinds’ constituents lack equal access to government.
“It makes a difference,” Farley-Bouvier said. “I actually call the Senate district a monster because it’s that big, and the variety of needs is that different.”
The 1st Congressional District is similarly large relative to the eight other congressional districts in Massachusetts. Represented by U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, the district includes 87 of the 352 cities and towns in Massachusetts. Congressional districts are growing from an average of 728,849 to 781,497 residents, and Neal’s district will need to gain 45,000 in population, a Neal spokesperson said.
Neal said his priorities for redistricting include keeping all of Berkshire County in the district and maintaining two Western Massachusetts seats in Congress. Neal, who formerly represented the 2nd Congressional District, has represented communities in Norfolk County and previously represented most of Worcester County during his career.
Those who testified Monday offered some differing perspectives over whether the 1st Congressional District should expand further eastward from its current northeastern border, into Franklin and Hampshire counties, or at its southeastern border, into Hampden and Worcester counties.
Some residents attested to commonalities that they believe Berkshire County shares with Franklin and Hampshire Counties. Rose, the Dalton woman, described herself as politically active and said she has worked on issues across county lines with Franklin and Hampshire Counties. She said those areas bear similarities with Berkshire County more so than parts of Worcester County.
David Greenberg, a resident of Colrain in Franklin County, said that although geography makes cross-county travel difficult, Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire Counties share a mostly rural nature: They have the three lowest population densities in Massachusetts.
“This means that we have several challenges in common,” Greenberg said. “They include funding our very large regional school districts, delivering public transportation services for our residents and providing broadband coverage to our communities.”
Greenberg co-founded WiredWest, a cooperative that has worked to help communities without broadband to build their own municipal networks. WiredWest, he said, provides an example of Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire County residents coming together over an area of mutual concern after for-profit broadband providers, citing low population density, had deemed their towns unprofitable.
A Hampden County resident, however, said that adding more Franklin and Hampshire communities to the 1st Congressional District would eat into the 2nd Congressional District, represented by U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester. Doing so, Jack Perenick said, would push the 2nd Congressional District into Middlesex County, possibly diluting its Western Massachusetts influence.
The Joint Committee on Redistricting will work on drawing new district maps in August, and the final data is expected in September, said state Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, who chairs the committee and presided over Monday’s hearing. Members of the public can continue to provide input to the committee through malegislature.gov/Redistricting/Contact.