The Chicago City Council could soon reach a deal on remapping the city’s 50 wards, though neighborhood groups and even the alderman in charge of the remap blast both the map-making process and the final product.
The City Council could soon reach a deal on remapping the city’s 50 wards, though neighborhood groups and even the alderman in charge of the remap blast both the map-making process and the final product.
“I don’t think anybody likes either one of these maps,” said Ald. Richard Mell, (33rd), chairman of the council’s Rules committee, which is in charge of the remap, at a public hearing Wednesday at DePaul University.
Mell was referring to the “Map for a Better Chicago,” endorsed by the Black caucus and powerful white aldermen – like Mell – and the alternative “Taxpayers Protection Map,” endorsed by the City Council Latino caucus and so named because it is less likely to produce a costly lawsuit against the city.
But for Mell, the goal is not a likable map but ending a process that happens after each decennial census. And ending the process requires at least 41 of 50 City Council members to agree on one map. “My goal is to get 41 votes for a map,” Mell said at the hearing. Mell wants to avoid both a lawsuit and also a March 20 public referendum on competing maps, which happens if the council cannot reach the 41-vote consensus.
Deal on the way, but legal concerns
Mell could soon get his wish. The Black and Latino caucuses are closing in on a deal where the Latino caucus scraps the Taxpayer Protection Map and supports a compromised Map for a Better Chicago. The Map for a Better Chicago basically stays the same except the 23rd ward on the far West Side acquires a voting age population that is 60 percent Latino, by picking off Latino neighborhoods from the already heavily Latino 14th ward. This would enable the Latino caucus to reach their stated goal of having a map with 13 majority Latino wards.
According to Howard Brookins, 20th Ward alderman and chairman of the black caucus, the only obstacle left is a lawyer to confirm the map can withstand a lawsuit. “There is an understanding and once there is an opinion to the legality of it, we think a deal will be reached,” Brookins says.
That would add the eight members of the Latino caucus to the 32 aldermen already in support of the Map for a Better Chicago – or 40 aldermen, leaving Map for a Better Chicago proponents needing to pick up just one more vote. Brookins says he is “confident that there will be sufficient enough aldermen” to get to 41 votes.
The Latino caucus is a bit more cautious. Victor Reyes, head lawyer for the caucus, said that given the request for a legal opinion it would be “difficult” to have the Latino caucus on board in time for the next City Council meeting, which is on Wednesday.
Plus, it is not a sure thing that the Map for a Better Chicago passes legal muster. The map probably adheres to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protects the representative interests of racial minorities. There will be the 13 majority Latino wards and 18 majority African-American wards. But it might deviate too much from the “one man, one vote” rule. Many wards on the far South and far West sides have up to five percent fewer than the median 53,912 people in each ward. Many far North Side wards have up to five percent more than the median.
With perhaps these deviations in mind, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund released their own “Equitable Map” with much smaller deviations. MALDEF – which is independent of the City Council Latino caucus – could be poised to take legal action.
“They have positioned themselves in a good way if that’s the way they go,” says Paul Sajovec, chief of staff for Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) – who supported the Taxpayer Protection Map and has not taken a position on the potential compromise map.
Against the Remap
Waguespack is wary of the Map for a Better Chicago for a common reason –it divides recognized Chicago neighborhoods. This point of view was repeated time and again at the public hearing on Wednesday, which was packed with 400 people.
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) received raucous applause from her home ward crowd as she blasted mapmakers for dividing her Lincoln Park neighborhood into five separate wards.
“Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and there are many neighborhoods,” the rookie alderman said. “The wards are gerrymandered so badly here that political accountability could be diluted and the neighborhood planning process could be very difficult.”
Several residents came up to the microphone to assail what they called a closed door negotiating process. In fact, the loudest and most consistent cheers during the night seemed to come whenever a commenter suggested cutting the number of aldermen from 50 to 25.
Besides divided neighborhoods, the biggest losers in any remapping are people without the clout to get some of what they want behind closed doors.
This includes rookie aldermen – like the 36th ward’s Nick Sposato – who will lose much of his constituency in any map proposal (and, with that, much chance of re-election). It also includes specific interests and minority groups besides Blacks and Latinos.
Andrew Kang, a senior staff attorney at the Asian American Institute, pleaded at the hearing, “for overall greater inclusion of our perspective,” explaining that the Map for a Better Chicago did not keep Asian American communities intact.
Are there any realistic prospects for remap reform? Ald. John Arena (45th) says that he is “absolutely” for taking the remapping out of the hands of the City Council, adding, “I know there is a handful of folks frustrated with this process – like folks in the City Council progressive caucus.”
But the people in charge of the process appear to be veteran aldermen who are looking to protect their power base while not running afoul of the Voting Rights Act or the “one man, one vote” rule. And they are trying to wrap up this unpleasant process now, no matter how flawed the outcome.
Image: Richard Mell courtesy of AP