Gerrymandering on the ground: A redrawn Senate District 9 ties together ‘polar opposite’ towns

By: - October 24, 2022 5:43 am

Tasha Kilansky and James Dixon both live and work in Hinsdale, a small working-class town in the southwestern corner of the state that has been yoked together with Bedford in a newly drawn state Senate district. (Kate Brindley | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This is the first of a two-part series – a collaboration between the Bulletin and NHPR – about redistricting in New Hampshire. Coming tomorrow, a look at the new state Senate map and the partisan nature of redistricting.

Getting from Bedford to Hinsdale is an ordeal. Just 50 miles apart as the crow flies, the quickest driving route between these two southern New Hampshire towns takes you on looping local roads and maybe even a detour through Massachusetts. It’s not just distance that separates these two communities: One is a suburb of Manchester, with financial giant Fidelity as the biggest employer and well-funded schools. In the other town, residents look to Vermont for their local news coverage, and the local Walmart is a major economic driver.

Bedford and Hinsdale seem to have little in common on paper, but on Election Day they’ll find themselves yoked together in a newly drawn State House district, the two opposite poles of the new state Senate District 9. 

Around 25 percent of New Hampshire towns will be in a new voting district when they choose legislators on Nov. 8, the result of redistricting this year. In many cases, the changes will be minor, the border moved just a town over. But in some districts, the changes are significant, with a whole new partisan outlook. That includes District 9, which went from a swing district to one where Republicans have around a 5-point advantage. Getting there required a bit of political surgery, lopping off three Democratic-leaning towns and swapping them for ones more friendly to Republicans. Which is how Bedford and Hinsdale found themselves as brand-new political bedfellows in 2022.

Pictured on the left is the Bedford Town Hall, built in 1910. On the right is Route 63, one of Hinsdale’s two main roads that connect it to the neighboring town of Chesterfield. The fastest route between the towns that make up the two ends of the new state Senate District 9 takes over an hour and a half. (Kate Brindley | New Hampshire Bulletin)

“I would say that Bedford and Hinsdale are about as polar opposite as you can get in terms of the needs of the town,” said Mike Darcy, a Hinsdale resident who chaired the board of selectmen and now serves as president of the Hinsdale Economic Development Corporation. “Practically speaking, there’s nothing that the two communities have in common.”

Redistricting happens every 10 years, when politicians redraw voting districts to reflect population change. But gerrymandering, drawing lines for political gain instead of representing community interests, can be a blow to democracy that disenfranchises some communities and voters. The Bulletin teamed up with New Hampshire Public Radio to take a closer look at the partisan nature of redistricting that determined the legislative districts on the ballot this year.

We took a two-pronged approach, combining data analysis about the statewide partisan impacts of the new state Senate map with on-the-ground reporting from Hinsdale and Bedford.

Local leaders and residents from both towns said the new district isn’t coherent, is unfair to Hinsdale, and dilutes the voices of people who live in a part of the state where many already feel overlooked. Property values in Hinsdale are among the lowest in the state, said Darcy, while Bedford is among the highest. 

The district doesn’t make sense to many residents or leaders on the ground, but it did make sense to the politicians who were responsible for redrawing the maps. In the last couple of election cycles, District 9 was a true toss-up district with the Democratic candidate winning in 2018 by just over 1,000 votes, and the Republican candidate winning two years later by an even narrower margin. But in redrawing the district this year, Republicans removed the Democratic stronghold of Peterborough and put it into District 10. That created a Republican-leaning District 9, and increased the already-solid Democratic advantage in District 10.

Darcy calls his district the “new snake” – referring to the Executive Council District 2, which used to stretch across the entire state and was commonly cited as an example of gerrymandering. He believes contorting voting districts for political gain harms democracy. And he said it marginalizes Hinsdale residents. “I think that it takes voices away from the people. I think we’re going to see that in our district,” he said.

In addition to his local leadership roles, Mike Darcy is the operations manager for the Phelps Company, which sells brass window hardware in Hinsdale. (Kate Brindley | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Sharing a district with Bedford came as a shock to many Hinsdale residents, and it reinforced their sense that remote places like their town don’t matter to the power brokers in Concord. 

“That’s crazy,” said Tasha Kilansky, a Hinsdale resident. “Why would we be a part of that district?” Kilansky manages the newly opened Smoke Land, right across the street from Hinsdale’s Town Hall. While Kilansky said she believes politics is important, she hasn’t been following the redistricting process closely.

“I really don’t know much about Bedford. I’m still flabbergasted as to the fact that we’re with them,” she said. “It’s so far away.”

James Dixon, another Smoke Land employee and Hinsdale resident, echoed her surprise. Neither were optimistic about Hinsdale’s representation at the State House. “I don’t think they care about us,” he said. “Nobody ever comes down here to see us. … We’re not important.”

Bedford residents, on the other hand, say they are well represented and don’t expect the new district to disrupt that. Both incumbent Sen. Denise Ricciardi and her Democratic challenger, Matthew McLaughlin, live in Bedford, all but guaranteeing the town will be top of mind for the next senator, while the far western edge of the district will remain peripheral. 

Bill Foote, a member of Bedford’s school board, said he knows Ricciardi personally. “That’s one of the benefits of having your district senators in your town, especially in such a sprawling district,” he said. “Bedford pretty much wags the whole district. It’s like having your own personal representative in Concord.”

Foote is somewhat familiar with Hinsdale, which is located in Cheshire County because some of his family members live there. The towns have nothing in common, Foote said. “It’s absolutely political,” he said. “Gerrymandering is real.” But Foote, a Republican, considers it politics as usual.

It was news to some Bedford residents and community leaders that the town now shares a district with Hinsdale. Some had never heard of it before.

Reverend John Sawyer of the Bedford Presbyterian Church was among them. He had to look up Hinsdale on a map and was surprised by how far it is from Bedford. Sawyer said Bedford residents live in a bubble, and even perceive Manchester, one town over, as far away. 

Rosa Markos is a young mom and immigrant who moved to Bedford from Manchester about a year ago. Markos said she hasn’t been following redistricting or paying attention to state politics because she doesn’t have her citizenship yet. “We moved mainly because of the school district,” she said. Markos said there’s a lot of programs for children in Bedford, such as a toddler group and yoga class. “It’s great. It’s very family friendly.”

Rosa Markos moved to Bedford from Manchester because of the town’s well-resourced schools. (Kate Brindley | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Dixon and Kilansky said a lack of activities for kids is a big problem in Hinsdale.

Marc Murai of Bedford had never heard of Hinsdale either. He’s a registered Democrat and believes redistricting is important not just to Democrats, but for democracy. “I believe in representation for everyone – equal representation, not just representation for those who happen to live in a wealthy town like Bedford,” he said. “When you’re redistricting, it should be done fairly.”

But in terms of policy, residents and local leaders of the towns say there’s not much uniting the two ends of the district. 

“The district doesn’t really make sense in terms of commonality of interest,” said Chris Bandazian, who serves on Bedford’s town council. The differences between the communities are great, he said: the transportation corridors are different, they don’t share medical facilities.

He thinks it’s unfair to Hinsdale to put it in a district dominated by Hillsborough County, where voters are concentrated enough to determine the outcome of any given election. Candidates wouldn’t have to win over Hinsdale voters to win the election; they could just campaign in Bedford and satisfy that constituency.

“Their votes are very diluted here, and in some areas we’re in direct competition,” said Bandazian, who pointed to the state’s 10-year transportation plan, where both Hinsdale and Bedford are vying for different $50 million to $100 million infrastructure projects.

“We would definitely want to have our things funded rather than them, and the Senate is pretty influential in that,” he said.

Hinsdale could have been in a district with surrounding towns that have similar needs and demographics, Darcy said.

“I think it’s very transparently to take a past Democratic senator out of contention in this district, and also to take some Democratic votes out of this district,” Bandazian said.

Jeanne Dietsch, a Democrat from Peterborough, won the 2018 election and served one term as the state senator for District 9. Peterborough was removed from District 9 and is now lumped into a Democratic-leaning District 10, along with Keene. She lost to Ricciardi in 2020 by 409 votes, or around 1 point. 

Regardless of the motives, these are the maps that will shape the next decade of local politics in the new District 9, meandering all the way from Bedford to Hinsdale – connecting the two towns by politics, if nothing else.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.