It’s easier when you pick your voters

Chicago’s gerrymandered ward map is the forgotten participant in Tuesday’s City Council elections.

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Chicago City Council, meeting on May 29, 2019.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot presiding over her first Chicago City Council meeting, in May 2019.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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Pop quiz! Pencils ready? Then let’s begin.

The 23th Ward is located:

a) North of the 13th Ward.

b) South of the 13th Ward.

c) East of the 13th Ward.

d) All of the above.

Opinion bug


Answer: “d” — the 23rd looks like a reverse capital F, closing its jaws around the squirming 13th, one of the many tortuous shapes created last year when the ward map of Chicago was gerrymandered into a crazy jigsaw puzzle, diluting the power wielded by voters Tuesday.

And we wonder why so many stay home.

While early voting this year was historically high, voter turnout was still sluggish: 32.1 percent. Not even a third.

Money was out in force, casting its proxy ballot — $1.2 million of Super PAC cash injected into the Chicago City Council races by real estate agents and various business interests.

There were the usual last-minute shenanigans — anonymous flyers and phone calls, “concerned residents” blasting emails demanding certain candidates drop out, citing old speeding tickets and dusty alleged misdeeds.

The Council races were the usual dog’s breakfast of the serious and the silly. Nine incumbents ran unopposed; others faced mobs of opponents in roiling battle royales. Almost a third of the Council either retired or announced their decision not to run — some because they are indicted or fancy themselves mayor, an office no Chicago City Council member has been elected to since 1876.

This high turnover is ironic because, thanks to our am-I-toast-yet? mayor, the City Council is more of an actual branch of government than usual.

“It is crystal clear that the Chicago City Council has buried its rubber stamp and has become a genuine legislative body,” a University of Illinois Chicago report claimed last year.

The $142,772 alderpersons pay themselves might seem enough to make you or me stick around. But the typical Council member has a thriving legal practice or other business, and these are not mere side hustles. Never forget: Being an alderperson is officially a part-time job. The temptation to mix (city) business with (private bucks) pleasure can be irresistible, as the 30 alderpersons convicted of corruption or pleading guilty to felonies since 1972 can attest.

Back to that map. The rococo shapes are an attempt to thwart demographics. There are slightly more Hispanics than Blacks in Chicago, but more Black-majority wards than Latino wards, 16 to 14. Lightfoot, asked about the rude gesture to democracy, gave one of her trademark not-my-table shrugs.

“I didn’t draw any lines,” is what she actually said. “I wasn’t in the map room.”— the moral equivalent of responding to soaring crime in Chicago with, “I didn’t shoot anybody.”

Another reason Democrats can sneer at Republicans: It’s crude to try to throw out the results of elections just because they don’t go your way. Far more elegant to quietly stack the deck beforehand to be nearly certain they will. The 36th Ward, as redrawn, expelled half its former residents, is a noodle more than 8 miles long, and in places, barely a block wide.

New boundaries for Chicago’s 36th Ward are shown in light purple.

The new boundaries for Chicago’s 36th Ward are shown in light purple. That ward’s incumbent Ald. Gilbert Villegas slammed the new boundaries, saying the ward resembles a snake:

City of Chicago

What else? Mueze Bawany, challenging three-time Ald. Debra Silverstein for the 50th Ward seat, was confronted with his 2019 anti-Israel comments on social media.

“F--- Israel and f--- all you Zionist scum,” Bawany had written. He apologized, which almost makes him a profile in courage compared to mayoral candidate Paul Vallas, who started imagining racist interns, then mystery hackers, when asked to explain his Twitter feed’s tendency to give a thumbs-up to bigots. Maybe that same hacker embraced the FOP.

My shoe leather reportage this election consisted of phoning Sam Royko, the lawyer running in the 1st Ward, and suggesting lunch. We set a date, then he backed out and was never heard from again. Just as well. The media always identifies him as the son of columnist Mike Royko, credulously assuring readers he bears a well-known last name. Yeah, in the 1990s. Now, not so much. I once asked a roomful of bright-eyed journalism students at Loyola if the name “Mike Royko” meant anything to them. One hand went up.

The great columnist once called Council members “the lowest form of political life.” Some things never change.

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