Showdown vote on Chicago ward map called off; public hearings next

Ald. Michelle Harris, chairwoman of the City Council’s Rules Committee, said delaying a vote will allow to public input while negotiations continue in hopes of avoiding a referendum, Chicago’s first in 30 years.

SHARE Showdown vote on Chicago ward map called off; public hearings next
Copies of a proposed City Council ward map were passed out at a Council meeting at City Hall on Dec. 1, 2021.

Copies of a proposed City Council ward map were passed out at Wednesday’s Council meeting at City Hall.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Lacking the 41 votes needed to avoid a costly referendum, the chairwoman of the City Council’s Rules Committee on Wednesday called off a showdown vote on a new ward map — dragging the once-a-decade struggle to craft new boundaries past the Dec. 1 deadline.

At a special Council meeting that lasted less than an hour, Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Council floor leader, introduced a citywide ward map crafted by Mike Kasper, who served for decades as the election law expert for deposed Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

As expected, the map includes 14 majority-Hispanic wards, one less than demanded by the Latino Caucus, and preserves 17 majority-African-American wards.

The precise racial breakdown of those and other wards was not immediately known. The lines of Chicago’s 50 wards are redrawn every 10 years based on the census. In the 2020 census, Chicago’s Hispanic population grew, while its Black population declined.

“We are going to demand the actual data. We can’t make any analysis without the data,” said veteran political operative Victor Reyes, adviser to the Latino Caucus, referring to the demographics of the proposed new wards.

“At first look, there’s a big difference between the number of Latino wards, where they place the new white ward and the Latino percentages of 14 Latino wards they do create. There’s a number of North Side Latino wards that they dilute in order to benefit or protect white wards. It also appears that they create a new 14th Ward for Ed Burke [east of Midway Airport] that excludes the home of Aaron Ortiz, who beat him for committeeman.”

Attorney Burt Odelson, another Latino Caucus adviser, pointed to what happened in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 20th wards carved by Kasper.

“They used Hispanics to fill in for stronger Black wards. It’s called ‘cracking.’ Instead of making one strong Hispanic ward, they took the Hispanics and divided them up into four wards. And they made the 35th Ward below 50% voting age population [Hispanic]. So, I don’t know if they’re counting that [as Latino] or not,” Odelson said.

Next step: Avoid a referendum

The law calls for a referendum on a map if the Council does not approve one by the Dec. 1 deadline — but only if 10 alderpersons petition for a referendum and introduce a referendum map to be placed before the voters during the June 2022 primary.

Another way to avoid a referendum — Chicago’s first in 30 years — is for a map to pass the Council with 41 votes.

The proposed Chicago City Council ward map, handed out Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 1, 2021.

The proposed Chicago City Council ward map, handed out Tuesday afternoon.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

After distributing copies of the proposed map and declaring her intention to hold two public hearings next week, recess for the Christmas and New Year’s holiday and hold more public hearings in January, Harris moved to adjourn Wednesday’s special meeting.

That will allow for public input while negotiations continue, in hopes of reaching 41 votes.

In an interview with the Sun-Times earlier Wednesday, Harris refused to discuss details of the map.

Nor would she discuss the decision to accommodate an explosion of white population in the downtown area and along the lakefront by positioning the new white ward south and west of the downtown area.

Harris said only that Kasper has crafted a “fair map to everybody in the City Council that sat in that room and wanted to draw their map.”

“We’re still leaving the process open so that other folks can come in and negotiate their map and still work on their map,” Harris said. “It’ll be a living and breathing document.”

Both the Latino Caucus map and the Rules Committee’s version place the 34th Ward of indicted Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) in or around downtown.

As expected, Austin, who has had a string of serious health issues, said she plans to retire from the City Council rather than fight the new map. Her ward has lost more population than any in the city. She was expected to retire before the last election, but stuck around to complete construction of a new firehouse on the Far South Side.

Tensions between Black, Latino caucuses

Earlier this week, Harris accused Latino Caucus Chairman Gilbert Villegas (36th) of running a “separate process on the side” of what’s going on in the map room.

She accused Villegas of sexism and urged him and his fellow Latino Caucus members to “come in the room, draw your map, get a map that you don’t love, but one that you can live with. None of us love our map.”

Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th) looks over the draft ward map distributed at the Chicago City Council meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th) looks over the draft ward map distributed at Wednesday’s Chicago City Council meeting.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

On Wednesday, Harris was asked what she believes is behind the criticism of her leadership and the perception she has empowered Kasper and favored the Black Caucus.

“I won’t be bullied. I won’t be pushed around in this process. I respect everybody. I talk to everybody. And anybody that wants to sit in the room and have a dialogue and a discussion, I’m down for it. But you cannot bully me and run over me,” Harris said.

Villegas said he’s not at all surprised Harris has called off the vote.

“I’m glad that they’re not having a vote today because it would be very hypocritical to talk about transparency and all of these other things that some of my colleagues ran on, then put forward a map today and vote on it an hour later without allowing at least 14 City Council members the ability to take a look at it,” he said.

Direct introduction of a citywide map to allow for immediate consideration at Wednesday’s meeting also would have required just 34 votes — well short of the 41 needed to avoid a referendum.

Villegas predicted the map he derisively called “Kasper’s Picasso” would include just 14 majority-Hispanic wards.

“What I’ve also heard is that some of these wards that are majority [Latino] are at 50%-plus-one, [or] 50.99. They’re really diluting the ability to elect a Latino and have put Latinos in jeopardy where they could potentially lose their seat over the next decade. So it’s going contrary to what the Voting Rights Act is supposed to do,” Villegas said.

Villegas hedged when asked whether he believes a referendum can still be avoided.

“We have been following the data and the Voting Rights Act. If people want to negotiate with us and have real discussion about compromise, then we’re ready. But we’re not going to continue to meet and be told the same thing over and over again: That you have to draw your maps within these boundaries that have been determined by Mike Kasper and the Rules Committee,” he said.

Villegas noted non-Latino wards have “historically utilized Latinos to back-fill their wards in order to gain population.” That’s what happened 10 years ago when, as he put it, a Latino ward was “left on the table.”

“We had another increase this decade and we want our fair share of representation,” Villegas said.

“We’re only seeking one new ward this cycle.”

Odelson said the caucus has created a political action committee to raise money that will be used to “help educate voters on the referendum.”

“It won’t be the precinct captain way. We’re gonna run it like an educational political campaign,” Odelson said.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), former chairman of the Black Caucus, bristled at the reference to “Kasper’s map,” saying in a text to the Sun-Times: “It does a disservice to all of us who worked hard on crafting a map.”

Mayor out of town

The mayor did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. During a Zoom meeting from Washington D.C., where she was meeting with White House and cabinet officials, Lightfoot branded the remap process primarily a Council function and bemoaned the fact that it has been “more contentious than it needs to be.”

“You guys are very fascinated by remap. It’s such an insider game. But what our residents care about is public safety ... whether or not they’ve got a job, health care, surviving the pandemic, worrying about what the next variant is,” she said.

“I don’t think remap rates on most residents’ radar screen — even though it’s something of great interest to politicians and some folks in the media.”

The mayor refused to confirm or deny having threatened to veto a new ward map that protects Burke, prompting the Black Caucus to make last-minute changes.

She would only reiterate her longstanding claim that Burke has “compromised himself in a way that makes him ineffectual — not only for the residents of his ward, but also as a member of the City Council. Government has to operate with integrity. ... There’s got to be some accountability, given the serious nature of the allegations made against him.”

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), the Council’s president pro tempore, presided over the meeting in the mayor’s absence.

During public comment, members of the Peoples’ Commission admonished alderpersons to make a clean break from Chicago’s “storied history of corruption, bribery and backroom deals” by signing on to their map and putting it on the ballot.

So far, not a single sponsor has signed onto that map, created by a 13-member independent commission.

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