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In racially divisive Chicago ward remap fight, something’s got to give as deadline nears

Latinos on the council are fighting for two more seats, reflecting population growth. African Americans aim to hold onto what they have despite a population drop.

The Chicago City Council’s Latino Caucus offered this version of a new city ward map, which would add two Latino-majority wards to reflect population growth. Despite a drop in the number of African Americans living in Chicago, the council’s Black Caucus is trying to hold what it has.
The Chicago City Council’s Latino Caucus offered this version of a new city ward map, which would add two Latino-majority wards to reflect population growth. Despite a drop in the number of African Americans living in Chicago, the council’s Black Caucus is trying to hold what it has.
Provided

With the city budget finished, the Chicago City Council is expected to turn full attention to drawing new ward boundaries, setting up a potentially wild one-month race to complete the task by a Dec. 1 deadline.

History would suggest that aldermen will tinker around the edges, work out their differences and put forward a compromise map that makes as few waves as possible, if only to simplify their own lives.

Some aldermen are predicting that’s exactly what will happen again. Most of them hope so.

But there’s a big complication: how to accommodate a growing Latino community that is seeking greater representation without violating the voting rights of the city’s shrinking African American population, whose leaders say they are determined to keep what they have.

Factor in a Chinatown community that’s pushing for the city’s first majority Asian American ward along with a big influx of new mostly white residents near downtown who have overfilled their existing wards, and you can see why there is considerable uncertainty over whether the council can work out its differences by the deadline.

If not, they’re looking at either a racially sensitive referendum next June between competing map proposals or a court challenge, possibly both.

The council’s Latino Caucus made the first move a week ago, convincing 15 aldermen to endorse a map that would include 16 majority African American wards, 15 majority Latino wards — two more than there are now — 15 majority white wards and four wards in which a mix of minority groups comprise a majority.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), who chairs the Latino Caucus, called his group’s map a “first attempt to put forward something.”

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th).
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th).
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Villegas also said his caucus will insist on 15 Latino-dominated wards.

“We’re pretty firm,” said Villegas, who thinks Latinos deserved an additional council seat last decade. “We can’t be shortchanged again.”

The Black Caucus that Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) chairs has submitted proposed boundaries that would yield 18 majority African American wards, same as now, and he said doesn’t plan to settle for less.

“We don’t see a reason that can’t be done,” Ervin said.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).
Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Unlike the Latino caucus, Ervin said the Black Caucus doesn’t intend to offer its own version of a map for all 50 wards, saying that’s better left to the aldermen who live in those areas.

That leaves unanswered how the Black Caucus proposes to find enough residents to fill its 18 wards without causing major disruptions to other wards’ current boundaries.

The segregated nature of Chicago’s neighborhoods — with Latino communities more often bordering Black communities than white communities do — makes it more complicated.

Ervin said the Black Caucus proposal displaces no current aldermen and wouldn’t adopt the extreme step suggested by an independent redistricting group to split the 19th Ward and use the mostly white residents of Beverly and Mount Greenwood to fill out two African American wards.

Burt Odelson, an attorney for the Latino Caucus, argued that 2020 census data showing African Americans with 29% of the city’s population, down 85,000 from a decade ago, no longer justifies 18 Black wards.

“They’ve lost population, which means they lose wards,” Odelson said.

Ervin said the Latino Caucus’ argument for a “proportional” split among Blacks, Latinos and whites would violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

He said he expects the council’s rules committee, chaired by Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), to present a joint map proposal in the next seven to 10 days.

It takes 26 votes to pass a map. But 34 are needed to override a mayoral veto.

If any proposal gets 41 votes, there could be no referendum. Anything short of that would mean any 10 aldermen who hadn’t supported the winning proposal could put their own map up in a referendum.

It’s not clear how the courts would view a situation in which the interests of one protected class under the Voting Rights Act, African Americans, conflict with another, Latinos.

“Hopefully, we don’t get to that point,” Villegas said.