Let’s finally put Chicago — not self-serving aldermen — first in redrawing the city’s wards

Going back to Chicago’s earliest days, redrawing the city’s ward map has been an insiders’ game. That has to end.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot, shown in October as she delivered her first budget address before the Chicago City Council.

If done the right way, the upcoming remap of Chicago’s wards could change the city council for the better.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

With all the talk these days about what’s needed to build a more equitable Chicago, here’s a reform that can’t be left off the list: A fair and proper remap of the city’s 50 wards.

The City Council is legally required to come up with a remap ordinance by December 2021. An equitable ward remap would help assure that all corners of Chicago are equally heard and represented in City Hall.

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The decennial remapping process, unfortunately, is handled by aldermen and political powerhouses who historically have redrawn war boundaries to protect their seats and punish their political enemies, rather than look out for the rest of us.

Going back to Chicago’s earliest days, drawing the city’s ward map has been a game of insider deal-making, rather than an exercise in creating a more responsive and democratic City Council for all.

But with many of the old guard aldermen who for many years held sway over the mapping process now either retired (such as former Ald. Richard Mell), or politically sidelined (paging Ald. Edward Burke), the city stands its best chance in generations to draw a fair, sensible and inclusive ward map.

The time has come to fix this once and for all.

Ending gerrymandering ‘critical’

An example of how the city’s wards are badly drawn:

The reasonably compact Englewood neighborhood has a population of fewer than 15,000 people across just 3 square miles. But that single neighborhood is carved up among six different wards.

In fact, a mile-and-half drive straight down 63rd Street from Halsted Street to Damen Avenue will take you from the 20th Ward through the 16th and 15th — and back to 16th again.

One the other hand, there’s the 2nd Ward, which bobs and weaves across seven North Side neighborhoods from Streeterville to Bucktown.

All of this leaves many residents wondering what ward in which they live, and who represents them in the City Council. In some wards, those remote, politically tacked-on areas also receive less attention from their alderman — and can’t do much to vote the alderman out.

“Chicago stands at a precipice right now as we seek to fix the systemic racism that has left people out and held our city back,” said Madeleine Doubek, executive director of CHANGE Illinois, a non-partisan group that advocates for the reform of elections and government.

“Ending ward gerrymandering and giving residents their power and voices is critical to this process. We need a map that puts the people first,” she said.

An independent commission?

Fixing this mess will be a big challenge and require a thoughtful approach, particularly this go-round.

For instance, how will the remap process address the ongoing historic population loss of more than 200,000 residents from Black neighborhoods on the South and West sides?

Or that there are no aldermen of Asian heritage despite the distinct and growing presence of Asian Americans in at least two areas: Chinatown/Bridgeport on the Near South Side and the West Argyle Street community on the North Side.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot last year supported forming an independent citizens’ commission to remap ward boundaries.

“I live in the 35th Ward, and the ward has no relationship to neighborhood boundaries,” Lightfoot said in a WTTW interview then. “We can’t afford to keep carving up communities that isn’t fair to them or doesn’t give them fair representation.”

We’d like to see more about how the commission would work — and, most importantly, who would be on it — before taking sides on that idea. The devil, just as in when drawing ward boundaries, is in the details.

But we’re firmly behind the spirit of the idea, which is that there has to be a better way to redraw ward boundaries every 10 years than to leave the job solely in the hands of those — aldermen with turf to protect — who got us in this mess in the first place.

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