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Fight over ward boundaries appears headed for costly referendum after Lightfoot fails to forge weekend compromise

After months on the sidelines, Mayor Lori Lightfoot jumped into the fray over the weekend, trying to bring the two sides closer together. It didn’t work, and now the mayor sounds almost resigned to a referendum.

Chicago City Council
Members of the Chicago City Council, shown meeting earlier this year, must pass a new Council ward map by Wednesday — and even if they do, the map would still need to be approved in a city wide referendum, unless the winning map has the support of 41 Council members.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago’s once-a-decade struggle to craft a new City Council ward map appears headed for a costly referendum after Mayor Lori Lightfoot tried — and failed — to forge a weekend compromise.

“I was invited by a number of different folks to get engaged — and I did. I convened a meeting over the weekend. We spent several hours putting issues on the table, trying to narrow those issues and get to some kind of consensus,” Lightfoot said Monday.

“Obviously, it was my hope that that would have happened over the weekend. Sunday at the latest. That didn’t happen. Those discussions continue. … It’s unfortunate that it’s coming down to the last minute. But there has to be transparency. People have to see a map.”

Lightfoot refused to say what she proposed, nor did she reveal whether she urged the Black Caucus to give up a second African-American ward to allow the creation of a 15th majority-Hispanic ward.

But she did sound almost resigned to a referendum — Chicago’s first in decades.

“They’ll either get something done, or they won’t. Obviously, Wednesday is an important date. But it’s not gonna be the last word, I don’t believe, on a map that’s gonna dictate what the wards look like over the next decade,” the mayor said.

“The process ... has been very tough. There’s a lot of emotions ... built up on all sides. People need to come to the table, play the long game and get something done. Whether the Council is gonna be able to get themselves organized in a way that makes it happen — I don’t know the answer to that. I’m gonna try to keep listening and talking and pushing. But ultimately, whether or not they get to 41 [votes] and a consensus is up to them.”

At the mayor’s insistence, the Council’s Rules Committee is expected to reveal its version of a citywide ward map shortly. But that didn’t happen Monday. There was only acrimony aired for all to see and hear.

“It’s really unfortunate that we are at this point. The Latino Caucus and others have made it clear that we are willing to compromise. But there has to be a real negotiation,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th).

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the Latino Caucus, decried what he called the “least transparent process ever” used to draw new ward boundaries.

“I’ve talked to people that map in different places. ... This is the worst. Here we are two days before this body is gonna take action on it and we [who] are being asked to support this haven’t even seen the full map yet,” Villegas said.

Rules Committee Chairwoman Michelle Harris (8th) accused Villegas of running a “separate process on the side” of what’s going on in the map room. Harris said she chose not to go public with a citywide map on Monday to give her colleagues another day to compromise.

“I’m trying to ask you all to come in the room, draw your map, get a map that you don’t love. None of us love our map. But one that you can live with. They’re not perfect documents. Many people — their wards have changed drastically,” Harris said.

When the citywide map is finally unveiled, it will be followed by a rapid-fire succession of votes — by the Rules Committee, probably on Tuesday, and the full Council on Wednesday just in time to meet a Dec. 1 deadline.

There is little doubt the map crafted by Mike Kasper, who served for decades as the election law expert for deposed Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, will have the 26 votes needed for passage.

But it takes 34 votes to override a mayoral veto and 41 votes to avoid a referendum.

There appears little chance a map with fewer than 15 Hispanic-majority wards will reach the 41-vote benchmark.

“If the City Council doesn’t draw 15 [majority Hispanic] wards, then MALDEF or a court will…There will be potential litigation,” Villegas said, referring to the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund, which advocates for Hispanic interests.

“There’s data there to support the creation of 15 wards. The numbers are there,” he added, referring to Hispanic population gains in the 2020 census.

Villegas said he called off a special Council meeting scheduled for Monday “in the spirit of trying to come to a compromise” after a “good discussion” with the Black Caucus over the weekend once Lightfoot jumped in.

“She made some suggestions, I guess you can say. ... She encouraged us to keep working at it. It was just kind of a simple encouragement message. That’s all it was,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), former chairman of the Black Caucus.

“She did not say that we needed [to give up a second Black majority ward, possibly at the expense of Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th).] She did not make that suggestion to us. And if she would have, we would have not taken that positively.”

On Sunday, one day after the mayor got involved, Kasper put out a feeler to the Latino Caucus that may or may not have been blessed by the Black Caucus: What if Coleman’s 16th Ward was redrawn in a way that increases its Hispanic population from 48% to 52%?

The answer was no, because 52% would not be “high enough” to guarantee the election of a Latino.

Coleman, daughter of former Ald. Shirley Coleman (16th), could not be reached for comment. Sources said the freshman alderperson went ballistic when she heard about Kasper’s offer, prompting the Black Caucus to reject the proposal.

Just days before the Dec. 1 deadline, two major roadblocks remain.

First and foremost is the demand for a 15th majority-Hispanic ward — two more than now—to reward Latinos for their 5.2% population gain in the census.

The map drawn by the Latino Caucus would carve such a ward out of incumbent Ald. David Moore’s 17th Ward and make its population 68% Latino.

The second major stumbling block is how and where to accommodate an explosion of white population in the downtown area and along the lakefront.

Sources said Kasper’s version of the new downtown ward takes in “pieces of the West Loop and pieces of the South Loop above the 25th Ward” in an apparent effort to protect two veteran incumbent alderpersons: Walter Burnett (27th) and indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

“They don’t want Burke to go all the way up to Little Village. They want to keep Burke out of Little Village,” said a source familiar with the negotiations.

“Why they’re deferring so much to Burke — I don’t get it. They say that it’s because he’s a 50-year Council member and why s--t on him?”

Even if those major issues were resolved, there are “smaller fires” to extinguish.

Take the demand that Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) be stripped of the Pullman community he has worked long and hard to rebuild in favor of the CHA’s Princeton Park complex.

Beale said there is “not a doubt in my mind” Lightfoot is behind the move to punish him in retaliation for his outspoken opposition to the mayor.

The Black Caucus is also no fan of Beale, who has repeatedly called out his fellow African-American Council members for settling for crumbs.

“It’s a total vindictive, manipulative, under-handed tactic. That’s total destruction of a master plan that I have worked on for years,” Beale told the Sun-Times.

Beale applauded Ald. Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th), his Council seatmate, for refusing to go along with the plan to strip Pullman out of his ward.

“I commend her profusely. I commend her for standing up for what’s right and for having integrity. Basically, we have an agreement, and she is sticking to the agreement,” Beale said.

Sadlowski-Garza said she’s been in the map room three times and, each time, she was “told I could only go west.” The map that she drew “was not the map that was on that screen.”

“That’s not a give-and-take. That’s not a collaborative effort,” she said.

“In one sentence, we say people are locked in. In the next sentence, we say this map is fluid. I don’t know what it is.”