Regional coalition mounts bid to preserve Sixth District

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / April 7, 2011

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As the state weighs how to eliminate one of its 10 US House seats, a new area group will be making the case for preserving the Sixth District.

The committee, which is being organized by the North Shore Alliance for Economic Development, will be chaired by two former Sixth District representatives, Michael J. Harrington, a Democrat, and Peter G. Torkildsen, a Republican. Other members will include leaders from the business and nonprofit sectors, according to the Salem-based alliance’s executive director, William E. Luster.

“We understand that redistricting is going to be a very political process,’’ Luster said. “However, the Sixth Congressional District offers regional coherence because we have hard borders of New Hampshire on the north and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. It’s shown consistent population growth across the entire district, and the North Shore has always been maintained as a district. So we think we have geography, population growth, and history on our side.’’

Luster said the new advocacy committee, the Congressional Redistricting Working Group, will also try to make the case that “having a congressional district that represents the North Shore provides a better opportunity for growth,’’ and pointed to business clusters — from tourism to manufacturing — that the alliance has identified in the region.

And, he said, the group will highlight the overall “commonality of interests’’ that exists in the Sixth District. In addition to the business clusters, he said, that commonality is defined by a regional transportation system, regional organizations, and regional tourism efforts.

The economic development alliance, led by a board of directors comprising elected officials and business leaders from 30 area communities, provides support for companies looking to set up or expand operations in the region.

Massachusetts is losing a House seat due to a nationwide population shift determined by the 2010 Census. Deciding which seat will be consolidated into its neighbors’ is a key task of the Legislature’s Special Joint Committee on Redistricting, which is holding hearings across the state, including at Lynn City Hall on June 20.

The 36-community Sixth District, which stretches from Saugus to Amesbury, and from Rockport to Bedford, has been represented by John F. Tierney since 1997.

Luster said the Sixth District group will be sounding its arguments to the Legislature’s redistricting committee and area lawmakers.

State Senator Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat who is cochairing the committee with state Representative Michael J. Moran of Brighton, said the panel welcomes input from the public, both at the hearings and in meetings that groups may wish to schedule with it.

“When you are faced with losing a congressional seat, you are going to hear from every region of the state, and you are going to hear compelling arguments for why their district should be saved,’’ Rosenberg said. “It’s all part of the process, and we are happy to meet and talk with these organizations.’’

He said the committee will not be drafting any new maps until after the public hearings are completed in early July, and he could not speculate on whether the Sixth District might be preserved.

“At this moment, every district is safe. At some point, decisions have to be made. But at this point, this is the listening and learning stage,’’ he said.

State Representative John Keenan, a Salem Democrat who is a member of the redistricting committee, said he is going into the process with an open mind.

But, he said, he believes the Sixth District could make “a very strong case for itself,’’ based on the constitutional and other principles on which the committee will have to make its decision, and he noted its geographical compactness and regional identity.

Tierney, a Salem Democrat, said in a prepared statement that “the cities and towns that make up the Sixth Congressional District have remained relatively consistent since the Civil War, and I believe our district should and will stay together.’’

Harrington, who represented the district from 1969 to 1979 and now lives in Beverly, said that the Sixth is probably one of the only remaining districts “whose core has remained the same through the history of our current governance.’’

He also cited geography as a compelling reason for keeping it together, and pointed out that with its compact shape, Essex County — most of which is in the Sixth — is the “pluperfect definition’’ of what the Supreme Court in a 1960s decision said a district should look like.

Torkildsen, who represented the district from 1993 to 1997 but now lives outside its confines, in Chelmsford, said he is happy to participate in the effort to preserve the Sixth.

“The Sixth District has a lot of overlapping interests in terms of industry, in terms of tourism, and really to split it up for any reason I think would be a big mistake,’’ said Torkildsen, noting that “with a couple of exceptions in 200 years it’s pretty much been intact as a district.’’

Robert Bradford, president of the North Shore Chamber of Commerce, said his group has made preserving the Sixth District one of its top priorities for the first half of this year.

Noting the many jobs created from federal contracts that flow into the region to defense and other companies, Bradford said the business community is “afraid that will get diluted’’ if the Sixth is split into other districts.