Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Chicago Ward Remap: A Lawsuit Waiting to Happen?

The Latino community blasts Rahm Emanuel and the City Council for approving a ward remap that underrepresents minority constituents.

Protesting the remap
Chicago residents protest the ward remap on January 11.
 

When the ward remap was rushed to a vote in the City Council on January 19, it garnered 41 “yes” votes, the minimum required to avoid putting competing maps before voters in a referendum. Mayor Rahm Emanuel expressed relief; now, he said, the lawmakers could move on to deal with important issues, like crime.

Some remap watchers, especially in the Latino community, felt anything but relief. An analysis from the Latino Policy Forum, which states that the city is “nearly one-third Latino,” blasts the new map for underrepresenting Latinos by giving them only 10 “Latino effective majority wards (i.e. 60 percent voting age population), “a mere 20 percent of City Hall.” While no expensive referendum looms—there was one after the 1990 census—a potentially even more expensive lawsuit waits in the wings.

Elisa Alfonso, Midwest redistricting coordinator for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), told me by telephone yesterday that her group, which is headquartered in Los Angeles with a regional office here, is “still studying” whether to challenge the map in court. She points out that there is “no statute of limitations as far as legal challenges go.” 

Former City Clerk Miguel del Valle, loser-by-a-mile to Rahm in the mayoral race (and now a self-described “retired elected official”) told me in a telephone conversation yesterday that Emanuel “muscled the map thorough” without giving aldermen, much less the public—there were no public hearing on this final iteration—any time to study it. A small group of aldermen led by Richard Mell made the final changes to the map in a private City Hall all-nighter. Tens of thousands of Chicagoans will find themselves in new wards with new aldermen, but they didn’t get a look at it. There was a manufactured sense of urgency in the air, says del Valle, even though the new map doesn’t take effect until the next municipal election in 2015. 

MALDEF’s Alfonso says that Rahm’s impatience was no surprise to her. “He barely had the 41 votes he needed; had he waited longer his support would have dissipated.” Weeks after the map’s passage, she still got emotional as she described watching the “appalling” process and the mayor presiding “with a smirk on his face.”

For del Valle, a lawsuit can’t come quickly enough. “Tortured configurations,” is his description—not good for neighbors who may live within a block of each other and yet be in different wards; not good for many aldermen who may find it tougher to serve constituents; but “pretty good” for Emanuel: “This map puts more power in the hands of the mayor because there will be more reliance on 311 and direct services accessed through City Hall.” (In Chicago, aldermen man the frontline; they’re the ones residents go to for help. In the best-run wards, aldermen and their staffers know residents, speak the same language, understand their problems and how to help fix them.)

Alfonso described a public hearing on the South Side in the week before the vote that “put a face on redistricting…. People talked about such things as how much more difficult is it for a school principal to help a family if the current ward becomes divided among three different alderman.”

Alfonso singles out Alderman Rey Colon, 35th, as one of the few “good guys” in this process—one of eight “no” votes and the only Latino to vote “no.” Colon told me yesterday: “I objected to being rushed. That’s how the parking meter deal happened.” He added, “I wanted time to absorb what people were saying at meetings. I didn’t like the sense we have to snap this picture now. I felt there was still an opportunity to come up with the best possible map, and this wasn’t it.” Colon said he fears the map will not withstand legal scrutiny because its “high deviations”—differences in ward populations, around nine percent—renders it “not equitable.” (Some aldermen will have as many as 4,000 more constituents to serve than others.) A referendum that probably would have put the map favored by the City Council’s Black Caucus and the Latino Caucus before voters would have been “appropriate,” he argues, and less costly than the lawsuit he sees coming.

An analysis published in the Chicago Tribune a few days after the new map was adopted quoted two members of the Black Caucus, explaining why, even in the wake of a startlingly large population decline of 181,453, they fought to keep from losing more than one African-American-majority ward. “Our position was to maintain African-American political power,” Alderman Pat Dowel (3rd) was quoted as saying of the council’s Black Caucus. “We’ve lost population, but we’re still the largest population in Chicago and that fact doesn’t change.” Alderman Howard Brookins (21st) the Black Caucus chairman, suggested that Latino and African-American aldermen were played off one another to benefit whites. [The census showed Chicago’s white population down by nearly 53,000.] “If we are the plurality in the city, why shouldn’t there then be more black aldermen than white aldermen?” Brookins asked in the Trib’s report  (The current City Council is comprised of 22 whites, 19 blacks, 8 Latinos, and one Indian American.) 

For del Valle, the map turns the sacred concept of “one person, one vote” on its head. In an attempt to keep as many African American-majority wards as possible—the final map keeps 18 of the current 19—despite the stunning drop in the city’s black population, aldermen created wards on the South and West Sides that have some 4,000 fewer constituents than their counterparts on the North and Northwest Sides.

The Latino population increased by about 25,000 this census, but in the last census the Latino population soared by 200,000, and Latino aldermen did not push then for power commensurate with their population—a mistake, they pledged, not to repeat. The new map has 13 Hispanic-majority wards, a gain of three, but, as noted above, only 10 have the 60 percent voting age population.  Also several have white aldermen—Richard Mell (33rd) and Edward Burke (14th) for example. Those aldermen, says del Valle, with some admiration for the high level of service they provide, have “patronage, power, influence, and money” to get stuff done for constituents and are not going anywhere anytime soon.

Cash and clout count, Alfonso maintains. She points to 43rd Ward Alderman Michele Smith, whose Lincoln Park base had earlier been slated to be split among five wards. Residents there not only have power, they have attorneys ready to pounce. In the end, most of Lincoln Park remains in the 43rd. The Back of the Yards neighborhood, on the other hand, remains split into five pieces. And the new map splits Chinatown up, too—“atrocious,” says Alfonso, who adds that the Asian community “was not much talked about.”

In the end, Rahm got his 41 votes, says del Valle, “because incumbents were mainly concerned about protecting their own re-election chances” and preserving their good relations with the mayor. (Could it be that a couple of the “yes” votes await specific favors from the mayor?)

“Redistricting one of the basic civil rights everyone has,” Alfonso says. “Citizens have been brainwashed into letting politicians have the last say.”  

An email to the mayor’s press secretary seeking a response was not answered by post time.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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