Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been hands-off during the “messy” process of redrawing Chicago’s ward boundaries, but will soon need to choose sides, even if it triggers a pre-election backlash from Black voters.
That’s the pull-no-punches bottom line from political operative Victor Reyes and attorney Burt Odelson, two veterans of past remap wars who helped the City Council’s Latino Caucus draw a new ward map that calls for Chicago to gain two majority-Hispanic wards, a result of their 5.2% population increase.
Their map rekindles historic political tensions between Blacks and Hispanics because Hispanic gains would come at the expense of Black wards. The proposed map has 16 majority Black wards — down from 18 — after a 9.74% drop in Chicago’s Black population.
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 has, so far, remained above the fray.
It won’t last. It can’t.
Some time before the Dec. 1 deadline, she will either have to sign or veto the ordinance approved by the City Council.
“If the city passes a map that is patently illegal, it’s gonna go to referendum and it’s gonna go to litigation. … It’s going to seep into the next election. … She could end up in the worst of all situations,” Reyes said.
“She’s in a no-win situation. She either has to be fair to all communities or unfair to whites and Latinos and do the political thing, which is to support a map that is not legal and is not reflective of the Census. … She tries to position herself as a mayor who will do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. This is a perfect situation where she needs to do the right thing.”
Lightfoot is hardly entering the remap battle from a position of political strength.
In Round 1 of the 2019 mayoral sweepstakes, Lightfoot did not win a single Black ward. Willie Wilson won 14 of the city’s majority African American wards. County Board President Toni Preckwinkle captured the rest and finished second in the wards Wilson won.
If Lightfoot signs a ward map that eliminates two majority-Black wards, she risks alienating the Black voters she desperately needs to stand a chance of winning a second term.
“It’s a no-win situation because the Latino population is now the highest minority population in Chicago. She’s a product of the African American population,” Odelson said.
“The only win for the mayor here is to follow the law and follow the data and stay above the fray. Otherwise, she’s going to not make one of the minority groups happy. Which could result in 30% [backlash] at the polls.”
The Latino Caucus has asked Rules Committee Chairman Michelle Harris (8th) Lightfoot’s floor leader, to hold a hearing on their version of the new ward map. If she refuses, three Hispanic Council members are prepared to call a special City Council meeting to force the issue, Odelson said.
“Since the 1990 Census, the Hispanic population has gained 286,000 people and the African American population has lost 275,000 people. That’s the important number. That has to be reflected in the map or it won’t stand constitutional muster in federal court,” he said.
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, countered that the map drawn by the Latino Caucus is “illegal, inappropriate” and selfishly motivated.
“They didn’t think about anyone other than themselves,” he said.
Asked what price Lightfoot would pay for signing a map that includes fewer than 18 majority-Black wards, Ervin said, “I’m not concerned about the mayor having to make that decision. It’s never gonna happen.”
If the Latino Caucus refuses to compromise, Chicago could be headed for a costly referendum.
It takes 26 votes to pass a map, 34 votes to override a mayoral veto and 41 votes to avoid a referendum on the map.
But Reyes sees another path forward — one requiring fewer votes.
“You could get 36 votes. And even if the aldermen are not happy, they just don’t sign onto a referendum map,” he said.
“If we find a path to accommodate what the Black Caucus needs— not what they want ... then you’ll get to 36 or 37 votes and no referendum.”
For decades, the remap process was dominated by a powerful mayor unafraid to flex political muscle and two white political powerhouses: now-indicted Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and now-retired Ald. Dick Mell (33rd). Former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, was the heavy hand behind the scenes, protecting his Southwest Side turf.
Without those players — what Reyes called the “Gray Hair Caucus” — the process is “a lot different and a lot more democratic.” But, he added, it’s also “a lot more messy.”