Newest City Council member chooses sides in ward remap battle, but what difference will it make?

Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) is the 34th alderperson to back a map drafted for the Rules Committee and the Black Caucus. Both it and a map proposed by the Latino Caucus turn her ward into Chicago’s first with an Asian American majority.

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Nicole Lee was introduced Thursday as Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pick to be the new 11th Ward alderperson on the Chicago City Council.

The City Council’s newest member, Ald. Nicole Lee, has decided to support a new ward map backed by the council’s Black Caucus.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The first Asian American woman to serve on the Chicago City Council chose sides Wednesday in the bitter battle to redraw ward boundaries based on results of the 2020 census.

Newly-appointed Ald. Nicole Lee (11th) became the 34th alderperson to back the map drafted for the Rules Committee and the Black Caucus by Mike Kasper, who served decades as election law expert for now-deposed Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The Black and Latino Caucus maps both turn Lee’s 11th Ward into Chicago’s first-ever ward with an Asian American majority.

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But Lee argued the so-called “Chicago United Map” she favors is the “clear leader in creating the strongest opportunities for Asian American voters.” It also “keeps more of today’s 11th Ward together” than the Latino Caucus version, she said.

“It’s imperative for my community that our voices are strongly represented now and into the future. The Chicago United map provides the opportunity for just that for the 11th Ward,” Lee told a news conference prior to Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

“The Chicago United map keeps our community whole and intact as much as possible. And I’m confident it’s the strongest path moving forward.”

Lee characterized the wrenching exercise of redrawing Chicago’s ward boundaries as an “imperfect process.”

Although time is running out, she welcomes the chance to be “part of the conversation to get to a compromise that avoids a costly, post-referendum legal process entirely and will not further delay progress on the maps allowing communities like mine to move forward.”

“It’s time we came together to agree on a map that allows us to address many of the other issues affecting our city, including public safety,” Lee said.

Lee was appointed by Mayor Lori Lightfoot to replace convicted Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, whose uncle and grandfather were Chicago’s two longest-serving mayors.

Although there was considerable political intrigue about which of the maps Lee would choose, her decision to pick sides makes little difference.

Even at 34 votes, the Chicago United Map remains seven votes short of the 41 votes needed to avoid a costly referendum.

That means Chicago voters will decide the new ward boundaries on June 28 unless an eleventh-hour deal is reached in time to call a special council meeting and pass the new map before the May 19 deadline.

Frank Calabrese, the veteran mapmaker who carved out the boundaries for the Latino Caucus, said both maps turn the Daley family’s 11th Ward bastion into one with an Asian American majority.

“Our map is like 50.5% percent Asian. And their map is like 51% percent Asian,” Calabrese said, adding that the big difference is how that is accomplished.

“We have an interest in not chopping up McKinley Park. In order to make it an Asian ward, the Rules map goes into McKinley Park, where there is an Asian community. And we go into the South Loop, where there is an Asian community,” Calabrese said.

“The reason for that is Ald. [George] Cardenas is part of our coalition. We’ve also listened to community groups that don’t want to break up McKinley Park. So, our 12th Ward is basically just McKinley Park and then Brighton Park.”

As the council’s newest member, Calabrese said Lee is clearly “trying to fit in with some of her colleagues.”

But, he added, “I really don’t think it makes much of a difference. … If this does go to a negotiated settlement, I assume Ald. Cardenas’ 20 years of seniority is gonna outweigh” Lee’s “few weeks.”

The map drawn for the Rules Committee and the Black Caucus includes 14 majority Hispanic wards and preserves 17 African American wards, including one with a Black plurality.

The major roadblock to a deal between the Black and Latino caucuses is the demand for a 15th majority-Hispanic ward.

After leaving two Hispanic majority wards on the table 10 years ago at the behest of then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Latino Caucus simply will not settle for anything less.

That sets the stage for Chicago voters to decide between the Black Caucus map and the Latino Caucus map, which includes 15 majority-Hispanic wards — two more than now, based on a 5.2% increase in Chicago’s Hispanic population.

Two mayoral allies have warned suspending the council’s rules to allow the Latino Caucus to substitute and place before Chicago voters a revised map negotiated with CHANGE Illinois would set a “dangerous precedent” and only protect indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

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