Remapping hits city streets

By Darryl Holliday

A person could live his or her whole life in one Chicago home and still have lived in several different wards.

Following the release of Census data in February and congressional redistricting that occurred in June, Chicago’s City Council will redraw many of the city’s ward boundaries as required by law by December 1.

Every 10 years, legislators recast the invisible lines that define the state map in an effort to equalize populations, causing—at times—drastic changes to residential and political life in the city.

The highly contentious process affects every resident in several important ways, but the notoriously nontransparent remappings are rife with political deals, a lack of public engagement and, especially in the case of the ward redistricting, nearly inevitable racial tensions.

“I think it will be [contentious] primarily because Latinos were badly cheated in the last round,” said Dick Simpson, head of the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former city alderman. “African-Americans might have to lose some of the gains they’ve made in the past.”

This year, tension may stem from an exodus of approximately 180,000 members of Chicago’s black population, a decrease in the city’s white population and a notable rise in the Latino population during the last

10 years, bringing the city’s population down to around 2.7 million.

Each ward will need to contain roughly 54,000 residents to reflect the decrease, resulting in the redrawing of many.

Because the City Council is in charge of this particular round of reapportionment—the council’s Rules and Finance committees in particular—it’s worth mentioning the racial breakdown of the council and how that relates to the city’s racial demographics.

The 50-member council is made up of 22 white, 19 black, one Asian and eight Latino aldermen. There’s no rule stating that an alderman needs to be of the same race as the majority population that he or she represents, but this tends to happen more often than not. The “rule” can be similarly applied to the 44th Ward, which encompasses “Boystown”—it’s not entirely coincidental that the city’s first openly gay alderman represents

the ward.

The population shifts that Chicago has seen in the past 10 years will mean that some wards will need to give up seats for others to gain.

“With the redistricting, Latinos are looking to add four to six majority Latino wards, which will mean reducing the African-American and white wards by approximately three or so,” Simpson said. “By sheer population they’re due.”

While Latinos make up roughly a fifth of the City Council, they now make up nearly a third of the city. An increase in Latino majority wards, by the numbers, should eventually lead to an increase in

Latino aldermen.

However, there are only so many seats on the chamber floor and non-Latino aldermen likely won’t give them up readily.

But the reality is that the city’s changing demographics will force change regardless.

Either that or lawsuits.

Racial conflicts involved in ward redistricting since the 1960s have, in most cases, led to court cases and frequent changes in the balance of power, according to Simpson.

This year, a forthcoming election could complicate matters further. Petitions for ward committeemen are due in November, and it’s not clear which set of maps they will run under. Members of the council would like to get the new maps drawn as soon as possible—Thanksgiving seems to be the preferred unofficial deadline. But approval of the new map could take longer, especially if enough aldermen object—leading to a ballot referendum.

But as with redistricting cycles in the past, community organizations are taking an active role in engaging residents.

This is to prevent gerrymandering—the redrawing of district lines to the disadvantage of minority populations—but, in general, to raise awareness on an issue that operates largely under the radar.

“It’s a civic education question,” said Jocelyn Woodards, a consultant to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “Redistricting is a bedrock principle of our American democracy. We’re reeducating the public on what’s at stake and [its] ability to elect a representative of [its] choice … some members of the council may not feel a connection to their communities sometimes, so we hope to reengage the community in holding elected officials accountable.”

One example of this may be seen in the 33rd and 14th wards, where longtime Aldermen Richard Mell, chair of the council’s Rules Committee, and Ed Burke, chair of the Finance Committee, preside over wards that have an increasingly Latino majority, despite the two aldermen being white.

It’d be unfair to say that Mell and Burke preside over wards in which they don’t represent the needs of their majority constituents, but power is in play with remapping, and the two aldermen are arguably the most powerful aldermen currently sitting on the city’s council.