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At Chicago City Council puzzle factory, job number one is to protect own turf

Alderpersons compete to control big developments, preserve sentimental attachments and survive in ward remap.

Although Chicago alderpersons are splitting into separate camps over how to redraw the city’s ward boundaries, there’s one point on which everyone seems to agree: Redistricting is different this time.

This process, which takes place once each decade following the census, has long been led by the most powerful senior white male alderpersons on the City Council with a heavy guiding hand from whoever was mayor.

But those powerful white alderpersons are either gone, or in the case of Ald. Edward Burke (14th), hamstrung by a federal investigation — and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, so far at least, has adopted a hands-off approach to the 2021 remap.

The result is bound to be more democratic than in the past but also messier, with nobody who can force a compromise.

If you’re wondering why I’m writing about the ward remap for the second consecutive day, it’s simple: I’ve always found it fascinating.

Drawing a new city ward map to “nearly” evenly distribute Chicago’s 2,746,388 residents between 50 wards is a lot like solving a jigsaw puzzle.

Except there’s a numeric element as well, as they try distribute those residents according to racial and ethnic demographics without violating federal voting rights protections for minority groups, which makes it more like a cross between a jigsaw puzzle and Sudoku.

Except unlike Sudoku, logic has nothing to do with the result, and the Council members are actually creating the jigsaw puzzle pieces as they go, not just finding where they fit.

To top it off, the only right answer is the one on which enough of them can agree while also passing legal muster.

There are slick computer programs that make the actual map drawing much simpler these days, but the computer can’t work out the political problems that are inherent.

Because no matter what they tell you, the first guiding priority for nearly every alderperson is drawing a map that will best enable them to be reelected.

Other important map-making considerations for alderpersons include retaining the locations of development projects on which they have been working, or business districts that are especially good for campaign contributions.

On occasion, we’ll learn after the fact that an alderperson has redrawn the ward boundaries to exclude the home of a likely challenger.

Most remap battles play out behind the scenes.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) are in a tussle over whose ward will include the Lincoln Yards development.

It’s currently in Hopkins’ ward. Waguespack, who used to represent the area, wants it back.

Veteran Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) is angry with a map proposed by the Council’s Latino Caucus because it would cut him off from the east end of his current ward, including the former Cabrini-Green area where he grew up and got his political start.

Burnett told me he wants to retain that area so he can still make good on his promises to allow some former Cabrini residents to return to as yet unbuilt mixed-income housing — and because the area also includes the home of his political mentor, outgoing Secretary of State Jesse White.

The problem, as the Latino Caucus saw it, is the 27th Ward under its current borders is majority white after an influx of new residents — and needs to be pushed further west if it is to regain an African American majority. Burnett has his own ideas of how to draw his map, as yet unrevealed to the public.

In revealing its map proposal Oct. 22, the Latino Caucus claimed 15 co-sponsors, but one of those sponsors, Hopkins, told me he was not really endorsing the complete Latino Caucus map, only the part that applies to his 2nd Ward. He said he could back another map if it also gives him the ward boundaries he wants.

That’s just a taste of how complicated it is to get the 26 Council votes necessary to approve a new map. It takes 41 to avoid a public referendum between competing proposals.

The Latino Caucus map treats some of the alderpersons currently under indictment as non-factors in the final outcome — taking away Ald. Carrie Austin’s 34th Ward entirely by moving it downtown while drawing a ward for Burke that would be unwinnable for him — or for an underling of his choosing.

Both changes make some sense and might end up in a final compromise. But Austin and Burke still get to vote on the map. And they’re not going to support that one.