Brown: Black leaders mount remap opposition

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Nobody ever expected Illinois legislators would agree to overhaul the way they draw their district boundaries without a battle, but the first shot in opposition still came out of nowhere.

A group called The People’s Map, comprised mostly of African-American business and civic leaders, recently sent a letter attacking the well-heeled redistricting campaign as a “political ploy to hurt minorities and middle class families throughout Illinois.”

The surprise broadside prompted a strong rebuke from Independent Maps, the organization trying to win approval for a constitutional amendment that would take legislative redistricting out of the hands of state lawmakers and turn it over to a commission.

Independent Maps spokesman Jim Bray issued a statement saying The People’s Map was “employing scare tactics and making outrageous claims” about his group’s efforts.

If all this seems a little esoteric, that’s because it is. But what it shows you is the high-stakes political fight underlying the redistricting discussion.Just remember: he who controls the map controls the balance of power in Illinois.

OPINION

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John Hooker, a former Commonwealth Edison vice president, is identified in the The People’s Map letter as the group’s chairman. I could not reach him for comment. Hooker was recently named chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Among the other individuals named as signatories on the letter are retired ComEd Chairman and CEO Frank Clark, who was recently named president of the Chicago Board of Education; Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis; Chicago businessman Elzie Higginbottom; and the Rev. Leon Finney Jr., CEO of The Woodlawn Organization.

A CTU spokeswoman said Lewis “does not recall lending her name to this letter.”

Those are some pretty big names in the African-American community.Two little-known Hispanics also appeared on the letter: John Barrera, listed as director of the Hispanic Business Foundation, and Myra Garcia, director of Latinos of Berwyn and Cicero. Never heard of them or their organizations.

Also signing the letter was Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana, whose politically active union would be a logical choice to fund the opposition campaign.

None of the others whose signatures appeared on the letter could be reached to independently confirm their involvement with The People’s Map.

Left unexplained was who actually is organizing the opposition from The People Map. I can pretty much promise you John Hooker didn’t come up with this idea on his own or write the letter that carries his name.

The People’s Map letter was sent to individuals who in the past have expressed support for the Independent Maps Amendment.

As the party in power in the Legislature, Democrats tend to be most suspicious of changes to the redistricting process, especially with new Gov. Bruce Rauner making it a priority of his turnaround agenda.

But many Democrats have also voiced support for redistricting reform. Former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar are among those who have endorsed the Independent Maps Amendment.

Count me among those who think it would be a good idea to shake up the political status quo in Illinois by changing the redistricting process. The way it stands now we allow incumbent legislators to pick the constituents most likely to re-elect them, instead of letting voters pick their representatives.

Just the same, I can’t totally discount the concerns that changing the system might inadvertently undercut certain protections for minority communities built into current law, although I am certain the main people pushing the Independent Maps Amendment aren’t intentionally seeking to dilute minority voting rights, contrary to what the opposition group is alleging.

Independent Maps believes it is building in sufficient safeguards by putting language from the federal Voting Rights Act into the Illinois Constitution.

“We respect and honor the civil rights battle waged by African Americans, Hispanics and Americans of all races,” the Independent Maps group stated in a letter in response to Hooker’s group. “Those who fought the long battle for civil rights were valiant and heroic, and we must not turn back the clock. Voting rights must be protected and expanded.”

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