The People V. The Proposed Chicago Ward Map

The People V. The Proposed Chicago Ward Map

On December 1st, Chicago City Council’s Rules Committee presented a proposal for the city’s next ward map, distributing it for the first time in full. Without 41 supporters, the council did not vote before the deadline; any 10 members can now file a competing map for voters to choose from in the spring.

According to Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), a member of the Latino Caucus and Democratic Socialist Caucus, the Rules Committee’s process has been opaque and exclusive. The committee’s legal counsel, Mike Kasper, met with aldermen individually or in small groups to see the boundaries of their wards. Kasper offered adjustments only within certain boundaries and without clarity on who would get the final say. Up until the December 1st deadline, council members could only piece together a vague image of Kasper’s draft by comparing notes from their individual rendezvous in the map room.

“The Latino Caucus opted to go for a more transparent process,” Ramirez-Rosa said. With their allies, they released a draft of the Chicago Coalition Map in October with a call for discussion and negotiation, held listening sessions with community groups, and made changes based on public comment. Ramirez-Rosa said other council members were engaged in “a game of brinksmanship,” confident that the Latino Caucus was in a weak position and would crumble before the deadline. 

News coverage of the stalemate has focused on an impasse between the Black Caucus and the Latino Caucus. Both the Black Caucus’s own map and the Rules Committee map call for 14 Latino-majority wards, while the Chicago Coalition Map calls for 15. 

But Ramirez-Rosa said reducing the story to a tribalistic squabble between the Black and Latino caucuses obfuscates significant issues of entrenched power. According to him, the proposed map disenfranchises both Black and Latino working class communities and may even be illegal.

“In reality, this process is going to determine who governs our communities, and which communities have a voice over the next 13 years…Will communities that are facing displacement and gentrification be able to stand up to developers? Kasper is functioning as if he still has Madigan propping him up.”

Rules Committee legal counsel Mike Kasper was an adviser to disgraced former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan for decades. Ramirez-Rosa charges that Kasper was working without transparency to protect certain remnants of the Machine and allies of Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Running for mayor in 2019, Lightfoot campaigned on taking redistricting power away from the city council, giving an independent commission the job of mapping. After a grueling census process encumbered by COVID-19 and funding cuts by the Trump administration, she abandoned the plan. Aside from encouraging public involvement and transparency, she has largely left the alders to their own devices. Lightfoot was on a lobbying and fundraising trip last Wednesday; with the deadline passed and the door open for a referendum, a mayoral veto is off the table.

With no clear path to a publicly funded independent mapping process, the nonprofit CHANGE Illinois launched the Chicago Advisory Redistricting Commission in spring of this year. CHANGE Illinois maintains that Chicago’s wards are historically gerrymandered by aldermen, reducing efficiency in city services and disempowering communities by dividing their neighborhoods between two or more wards. 

CDSA organizer Rory G. served as one of 13 commissioners, a nonpartisan group Rory described as “a ragtag band of random Chicagoans.” The Commission’s stated priorities in mapping were essentially identical to the aldermanic proposals, namely, to maintain contiguous and compact districts according to recognized community areas, while satisfying census data and Voting Rights Act requirements. But Rory distinguished the independent process in both political and procedural terms. Unlike in the halting caucus negotiations or the closed-door Kasper map, the Commission held 31 public hearings in person and virtually, and they listened to hundreds of hours of testimony from Chicago residents regarding the boundaries of their communities.

“Redistricting is important,” Rory said, “because it’s upstream of other political issues.” When organizers cut turf for canvassing, they typically target residents with an alderman who might be moved on an issue, or one who is vulnerable to a challenger. But when we look at the map, it’s a preposterous botch of blocks without a basis in community relationships. By disregarding alders’ own addresses, not to mention funders, developments and potential challengers, the Commission aimed to produce a map that gives communities the final word on the bounds of their neighborhoods. 

The resulting “People’s Map” notably reduces lobsterishness, but also shifts a number of ward boundaries dramatically. Englewood, currently represented by six alders including democratic socialist Jeanette Taylor (20th), is consolidated to a single ward in the Coalition’s “People’s Map.” Logan Square, including Ramirez-Rosa’s 35th ward, gets split between two; the Kasper map divvies the neighborhood up between four wards, with Gilbert Villegas’ 36th slithering from Dunning down to the east edge of Humboldt Park seven miles away, without any whole neighborhood contained in it.

Rory argued that sitting aldermen can’t be expected to put community members’ interests ahead of their own reelection. With an incentive to maintain some constituencies and politically isolate opponents, communities get gerrymandered out of electoral relevance, regardless of the particular alderman’s political orientation.

“Doing things the way you’ve always done them,” said Rory, “gives the same result you’ve always gotten: corruption.”

Mayor Lightfoot’s only comment on specific map quirks was a promise to veto any map protecting her favorite aldermanic antagonist, alleged Burger King extortionist Ed Burke . The longest-serving alderman survived indictment and the death of the Machine in the largely Hispanic 14th ward by maintaining a long, crooked finger on the map, pointing into predominantly white Garfield Ridge. The only alderman Kasper mapped out of their ward is also facing indictment for corruption — 34th ward Alderwoman Carrie Austin, who said she will retire rather than run in a different ward.

On Thursday morning, 15 members of Chicago City Council filed a new version of the Chicago Coalition Map for consideration by voters during the spring primary. This doesn’t close the door on a city council agreement, but they need to reach 41 votes to avoid the referendum. For the People’s Map, the path is even steeper. Without any aldermanic support, it would take a standstill in city council negotiations or an accelerated campaign to reach the required 10 alders to move an opposing referendum.

Rory argues that community input on redistricting is a political project. The People’s Map would create the first majority Asian ward (all three maps make Chinatown whole) in a Chicago ward map, owing to Asian American community organizing. Still, most Chicagoans are mostly in the dark on the process, and even the boundaries of their own ward. According to Rory, for socialists to meaningfully engage in redistricting, “We need to understand more about the process to make it alive and current and relevant to Chicagoans.” 

City Council is on the clock. By May 28, 2021, they must either reach an agreement and call off the referendum or attempt to persuade voters to back one Chicago ward map in particular gives residents the best shot at representation for the next decade.

While Ald. Ramirez-Rosa supported the map submitted for referendum, he remains hopeful the council will reach an agreement before then. “The path to 41 is not by strong-arming people. The path is to sit down and negotiate in earnest,” he said. “Our primary concern is…how do we make sure that our communities are kept whole?” 

The Rules Committee will hold a public hearing on the process this Friday, Dec. 10 at 1 p.m. Compare all three proposals and the current Chicago ward map here.