Tribune Editorial: The remap turf war is ridiculous. When will Chicago’s aldermen put voters before themselves?
Ald. Jason Ervin and the Aldermanic Black Caucus present a proposed ward redistricting map for Chicago at the Harold Washington Cultural Center on Nov. 22, 2021. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)
By the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board - December 3, 2021
It’s human nature to be territorial. People tend to protect their turf, whether it’s at the office, in the economy cabin of an airplane, or amid rush hour traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway.
For Chicago politicians, however, territoriality can take on grandiose dimensions. The ongoing donnybrook over the City Council remap serves as a perfect example.
The council’s Black and Latino caucuses have been fencing with dueling ward remap proposals for weeks — with neither side giving any quarter and both sides bent on only one mission: maximum political gain for themselves.
It’s a battle royale undertaken once every 10 years, when new U.S. census data sets in motion the decennial process of redrawing electoral boundaries at the local, state and congressional level. Ideally, redistricting should be guided by shifts in population and demographics. A congressional district that gains legions of new citizens should have new boundaries that reflect the shift.
In practice, however, remaps routinely devolve into secretive backroom affairs in which people with clout gerrymander their way toward, well, even more clout. What should be a civic exercise that empowers citizens becomes a selfish feeding frenzy that further empowers the powerful.
Where the City Council’s remap chaos is headed from here on out is anyone’s guess.
The latest U.S. census results show a 5% rise in the city’s Latino population, and a 10% drop in Chicago’s Black community. Black aldermen are pushing a map that sets out 16 Black-majority wards along with a ward with Black plurality. That map lays out 14 Latino wards, 18 white-majority wards and an Asian-majority ward, which would be a first for the city. The map should come with a large red flag pinned to it; it was crafted by Mike Kasper, the longtime election law adviser to former Democratic overlord and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.
The Latino Caucus’ latest map includes 16 Black-majority wards and 15 Latino-majority wards. Seems as if both sides are oh-so-close. A bit of give-and-take, a dash of compromise, and City Hall could turn its gaze to other, pressing issues — economic recovery from the pandemic, the ceaseless plague of gun violence, inequities in neighborhood investment. Nope. The stalemate between the two caucuses endures, and now the specter of the whole matter heading to a referendum in 2022 looms.
Squabbling aldermen have had their chance. Not only have they selfishly put their own interests ahead of what’s good for Chicagoans — they’ve kept everyday citizens shut out of the process. Yes, Ald. Michelle Harris, chair of the Rules Committee, said last week that public meetings will be held to give Chicagoans their say on the remap. Two meetings are slated for this upcoming week, and more sessions are expected in January. But this sudden embrace of transparency comes infuriatingly late, and only as the prospect of a referendum emerged.
Council members were given a golden opportunity to turn the remap into what it should be — an open, data-driven effort that gave the public a seat at the table. Earlier this year, the Chicago Advisory Redistricting Commission, a citizens group formed by the civic advocacy organization Change Illinois, drafted an independent, nonpartisan ward map that reflected the city’s diversity and kept largely intact communities of need. That document, known as the “People’s Map,” includes 15 majority Black wards, 14 majority Latino wards, two wards with more than 45% Latinos, an Asian-American majority ward around Chinatown and 13 majority white wards.
Why would City Hall power brokers ignore that map? Because it allows voters to pick their leaders — not the other way around. In a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Change Illinois Executive Director Madeleine Doubek rightly chastised the mayor for reneging “on your campaign promises to support independent redistricting.
“The City Council has failed utterly to deliver a process that involves community members,” the Nov. 30 letter continued. “Instead, council members have succumbed to perpetuating the historical backroom deals done in secret that have hurt Chicagoans for decades.”
We doubt anyone at City Hall will suddenly undergo an epiphany and realize the merit in Change Illinois’ perspective. Few governmental functions expose aldermanic selfishness like a decennial remap. But council members should remember that, though their self-serving behavior may have short-term value, it carries down-the-road risk.
Voters don’t forget aldermen who shortsightedly put themselves before the Chicagoans they were elected to represent. If those voters aren’t given a chance to have their say on the remap, they’ll express themselves at the polls in 2023. No amount of backroom gerrymandering can help an alderman voters believe they can’t trust.
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