13-member ‘people’s commission’ will draw new boundaries for proposed Chicago ward map

The nonprofit group CHANGE Illinois and its civic partners hope their ward map can trigger a referendum by getting votes from at least 10 aldermen. But that’s not going to happen, if veteran City Council members have their say.

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The city plans to reopen the downtown area June 3, 2020.

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A 13-member “people’s commission” with four Black members, three Hispanics, three who are Asian Americans and three white members was showcased Tuesday to redraw Chicago’s ward boundaries — but veteran aldermen essentially said: “No dice.”

By training and bankrolling a panel of everyday Chicagoans with their own legal counsel and re-districting expert, CHANGE Illinois and its powerful civic partners hope to create a version of a Chicago ward map capable of triggering a referendum by attracting the votes of at least 10 aldermen.

But that won’t happen if veteran City Council members have anything to say about it.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s assistant City Council floor leader, said aldermen have their finger on the pulse of their communities and are uniquely qualified to draw the lines.

“I came in 2003. Thirty-eight [incumbents] in that election are no longer in the Council. So, you can’t really say that it is incumbent protection,” Cardenas said.

“It’s about representation. It’s about knowing the neighborhoods. Knowing what the needs are. … [You can’t put that] in the hands of somebody else who doesn’t know the neighborhoods, doesn’t know the crime rates, doesn’t know economic development that needs to happen, the projects that are ongoing.”

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, said crafting a new ward map is a “legislative function” and aldermen plan to carry it out, as the Democratic-controlled Illinois General Assembly just did.

“There’s no fear. It’s just a legislative function. This is what we’re elected to do. We’re elected to pass budgets. We’re elected to do all types of things. This is part of our responsibility and that’s what we plan to do,” Villegas said.

Education Committee Chairman Michael Scott Jr. (24th) said the Black Caucus is hell-bent on preserving the 18 majority African American wards, even after a precipitous drop in Black population over the last decade.

“I have no idea what this independent mapmaking will do — especially on the West Side, where we’ve been under-represented for so long. To draw one of us out is going to be something that, I think, is a non-starter,” Scott said.

“To have someone who I don’t know, as connected ... as the aldermen are — I don’t know if they will draw a map that is going to be suitable for the folks that I represent. It’s gonna be difficult … especially if they’re not having conversations with us, to turn that over and say, ‘Make a complete map that is based solely on what you think the population needs are.’”

DePaul University professor Dr. Christina Rivers, who served on the committee that selected the commission members, countered that Chicago has a “well-documented history of discriminatory housing practices” fueled by “redlining, restrictive housing covenants, exploitive lending practices, unequal property assessment practices and block-busting.”

That has led to “entrenched political and economic marginalization of African Americans and other communities of color” that has “persisted for generations,” she said.

“This marginalization has also been reinforced by Machine-based, monolithic, partisan re-districting practices that Chicago’s ward system has so long been steeped in and that results in representation that, too often, does not reflect the needs and preferences of ward residents,” Rivers said. The commission, chosen from a pool of 430 applicants, includes Chicagoans from “different races, religions, ethnicities, ages, genders and life experiences.”

Members begin two weeks of training immediately, with pro bono support provided by the Mayer Brown law firm. Public hearings will follow in neighborhoods across the city and continue all summer.

“We believe they will create a ward map that more fully reflects the richness of Chicago’s ward and neighborhoods, including the variation of interests within those wards and neighborhoods, instead of allowing those interests to be over-shadowed by partisan priorities,” Rivers said.

Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to create an independent commission to draw new ward boundaries to coincide with the 2020 census. But she has taken no steps to honor that promise and faces stiff resistance if she tries.

“The mayor is certainly aware of this. We’ve been open and transparent about it with everyone in the city of Chicago,” said Madeleine Doubek, executive director of CHANGE Illinois.

“I don’t know whether she’ll be supportive of this commission. I certainly hope so, based on what she campaigned on and her long history in championing independent re-districting.”

In late January, a proposal by Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) for City Council hearings on an “equitable redistricting process” ran into a buzz saw of opposition from the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus.

Lightfoot responded by acknowledging aldermen “have a very specific role to play and they should.”

But she argued that the old process needs to change.

“This can’t be a backroom, closed-door deal that the public has no insight into because, whatever the product is, it is not gonna have legitimacy. And for those aldermen concerned about reelection, a good way to invite a challenge is to completely lock the public out of the process,” the mayor said.

The commission members are: Rory Gilchrist, Ahmed Khan, Jonathan VanderBrug, Apriel Campbell, Deborah Williams, Debbie Liu, Sravan Suryadevara, Alejandro Espinoza Olazaba, Chris Kanich, Alyssa Rodriguez, Allen Linton II, Lyzeth Mondragon and Mike Strode.

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