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Next step in ward map fight: 15 City Council members flex referendum muscle

The petition doesn’t mean Chicago is headed for a costly referendum. But it puts the Council on the clock: If there’s no agreement by 40 days before the June 28 Democratic primary, Chicago voters will make the decision for them.

City Council members hold a special meeting, Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 1, 2021, where the proposed new ward map was distributed.
A proposed new map for Chicago’s 50 wards was unveiled at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Fifteen City Council members put their trump card on the table Thursday in the high-stakes political poker game to redraw Chicago’s ward boundaries based on 2020 census data.

They petitioned the city clerk’s office for a referendum on the new ward map filed by the Latino Caucus that includes 15 majority-Hispanic wards — two more than now — based on a 5.2% increase in Chicago’s Hispanic population.

The petition does not necessarily mean Chicago is headed for a costly referendum, its first in 30 years.

It simply puts the City Council on the clock. If there is no agreement by 40 days before the June 28 Democratic primary, Chicago voters will make the decision for them.

“We would love to not have to go down that route. But we have to prepare ourselves,” said Ald. Gilbert Villegas, chairman of the Council’s Latino Caucus.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), center, speaks to Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), left, and Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) during a special City Council meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (center), chairman of the City Council’s Latino Caucus, speaks with Ald. Ariel Reboyras (left) and Ald. Roberto Maldonado at Wednesday’s Council meeting.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“The process in dealing with the legal counsel for the Rules Committee has not been in good faith. … He has not treated our caucus as a protected class. He has not treated us the same way that he’s treated the Black Caucus. That’s a problem,” Villegas said of Mike Kasper, the longtime adviser for deposed Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who drafted the Rules Committee map embraced by the Black Caucus.

“We’re still open to negotiations. But they have to be serious negotiations. Or else we have this option. … We’re tired of having our communities used as backfill in order to prop up other wards. We have population growth. We want it to reflect in opportunities to elect representatives from that community.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the Black Caucus, said the Latino Caucus has every right to pursue the referendum option one day after the Rules Committee unveiled its own proposed boundaries for Chicago’s 50 wards. That map has 14 majority-Hispanic wards — one more than now.

“I wouldn’t call it a trump card. It’s part of the process. That doesn’t end the process. The Council still has an opportunity to come to an agreement,” he said.

As for Villegas’ claim that Hispanic voters are used to backfill African American wards, Ervin countered the Latino Caucus map does the same to black voters.

“It takes over 30,000 people away from the 16th Ward. It takes over 10,000 people away from the 24th Ward,” Ervin said.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) speaks during a City Council meeting to approve the 2022 city budget at City Hall on Wednesday morning, October 27, 2021.
Ald. Jason Ervin, chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus, at a Council meeting earlier this year.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The referendum is not the only political option the Latino Caucus is pursuing.

Villegas said he’s also meeting with the independent mapmaking “people’s commission” to explore the possibility of an alliance with CHANGE Illinois.

The CHANGE Illinois map created by that 13-member commission has 14 majority-Hispanic wards; two “Hispanic influence” wards; 15 majority-Black wards; and one Asian American ward.

“We have provided the most transparent process thus far. Our map was out six weeks ago. … We put some communities back together, moved some things around [based on] what we heard from the public. They appreciate that,” Villegas said.

Madeleine Doubek, executive director of CHANGE Illinois, said her group is “exploring every possible option to get the People’s Map to people, so they can have a voice and a vote and keep their communities whole and a map that makes sense for them — not a map that makes sense for re-electing incumbents.”

The independent commission is also “open to making revisions if it works within the principles the commission adopted for itself,” she said.

Doubek has accused Mayor Lori Lightfoot of walking away from a campaign promise to take the once-a-decade political bloodletting out of the backroom and hand it over to an independent commission.

During a Zoom call with reporters from Washington, D.C., this week, Lightfoot argued that having never been an elected official, Doubek “may not appreciate” that “governance is different than running a campaign.”

“We all would have liked for a different process and certainly a different outcome. … But it’s easy to be a critic in the cheap seats. When you’re in the thick of things and trying to manage and juggle a lot of different personalities and a lot of longstanding sentiments and feelings, it’s much more complicated,” the mayor said.

As for Doubek, Lightfoot said: “She can be critical. That’s her right. [But] … trying to force-feed a City Council to please the likes of Madeleine Doubek and others is just not realistic.”

Doubek countered that the difference between running for office and governing is “not an excuse” to abandon campaign promises.

“She very much ran a campaign to quote-unquote ‘bring in the light’ and deal with corruption and bring transparency and people-centered government to the people. That’s why they voted for her,” Doubek said Thursday.

“People are fed up and disgusted with politicians who … promise one thing and do another. We’ll see what that looks like when Election Day rolls around.”