Yes! group wants to map future of Illinois politics

Working quietly — trying to stay below the political radar as they toil in a brick-walled West Loop office, complete with a foosball table — a new group is running a massive petition drive across Illinois to change the way state lawmakers are elected.

As a practical matter, that means Yes! For Independent Maps is messing with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who also is chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, even though, under the proposal, no change could happen until after the 2020 census.

The Yes! campaign is based at 300 N. Elizabeth, just off Fulton Market. It is bankrolled in large part by big donations from wealthy Democratic and Republican players.

While Yes! has bipartisan backing from good government, civic and business organizations and does have volunteers, the drive is heavily dependent at this stage on paid petition passers who earn at least $10 per hour.

Yes! has collected more than $1.5 million in contributions since it launched last year. According to Illinois State Board of Election records, the biggest single donation, $100,000, came from former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who served under former President George W. Bush and then returned to Chicago.

Business executive J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat; the McCormick Foundation; Cubs executive Tom Ricketts and the Sam Zell Trust each contributed $50,000.

The major Yes! expense is for Democracy Resources, the Portland, Ore., firm employing the paid petition passers.

The initial goal of Yes! is to get on the November ballot a proposed “Illinois Independent Redistricting Amendment” to change the system for drawing the boundaries of the legislative districts for the 75 House and 38 Senate lawmakers serving in the Illinois General Assembly. If the petition drive succeeds, voters in November will be asked if they want to replace map-making lawmakers with a “restructured, independent redistricting commission” to draw the lines.

Even a casual glance at the highly gerrymandered Illinois legislative map shows the result of the present partisan system: To a political novice, districts look like they were drawn by a crazed Etch-a-Sketcher. To the thumb-on-the-scale partisans, the map is an outstanding work of art.

Getting a question on the November ballot requires at least 298,400 signatures of registered Illinois voters on petitions by the May 5 deadline.

Michael Kolenc, the Yes! campaign manager, told me they are aiming to collect between 450,000 and 500,000 signatures. Kolenc estimated that about two-thirds of the signatures will be produced by the paid passers.

A quick side trip: The Yes! remap campaign is not a part of another ongoing petition drive — for term limits in Illinois. The Evanston-based Committee for Legislative Reform and Term Limits functions as a front group to help Bruce Rauner, the GOP governor nominee beat Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

Rauner on Tuesday donated — and this is just the latest— $350,000 of his own money to the Evanston group, which is using a California petition company to collect signatures.

Back to Yes! and remapping.

Political district lines are redrawn every 10 years after each census.

In Illinois, since the Democrats are in power in Springfield, they drew the maps. The result: Democratic supermajorities in the state House and Senate (Yes! is not dealing with Illinois congressional districts.)

The general political rule in Illinois map-making, no matter the party in charge, is to draw lines to protect incumbents and punish enemies, with boundaries influenced by the constraints of the federal Voting Rights Act guaranteeing minority representation.

Kolenc said Yes! wants to change the Illinois Constitution to create an independent districting commission after the 2020 census “to take away the power from political leaders to draw state maps and to give it to an independent commission that will do it in a non-partisan fashion that is totally transparent.”

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown told me it was premature to comment on what moves Madigan may make.

Hurdles ahead

Kolenc anticipates all signatures on the Yes! petitions will be scrutinized by opponents to try to make sure the question never gets on the ballot. There also may be court challenges about whether the proposal passes constitutional muster.

“If there is organized opposition to this, it will mean there is a more robust campaign needed. So we’ll have to wait and see how the cards get dealt in the next coming months after we turn in petitions,” Kolenc said.

Besides the West Loop campaign office, there are Yes! operations in Joliet, Aurora and Rockford, with regional teams in other parts of the state. Kolenc has hired a field director, finance director, pollsters, a direct mail firm and lawyers.

A commission map may yield more competition, less chopping apart of communities and end rigging a district to guarantee the election of an anointed individual. That does not automatically translate to better public policy.

Democratic political strategist Tom Bowen, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s former political director, predicted if Yes! gets the question on the ballot, “it will pass because voters instinctively believe politicians shouldn’t be in charge of anything these days, let alone drawing their own maps.”

Quinn, Rauner on Yes!

Rauner: “Bruce’s focus is on enacting term limits, but he believes the independent maps petition drive represents an improvement over the current system and hopes voters will be able to vote on it November,” his spokesman, Mike Schrimpf, said.

Quinn: “He’s open to it, however this needs to be reviewed to make sure it protects against discrimination against minorities. He’s always been generally supportive of redistricting reform,” his spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, said.

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