Independent Commission Unveils Proposed Ward Map, As Focus Shifts to City Council Battle

Video: Chaundra Van Dyk of CHANGE Illinois joins “Chicago Tonight” to explain the proposed map (Produced by Evan Garcia)

An independent group unveiled a new map of Chicago wards based on the 2020 census Wednesday that was crafted to keep neighborhoods together — but faces stiff political headwinds as members of the Chicago City Council begin in earnest to jockey for power.

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The final map crafted by the Chicago Ward Advisory Redistricting Commission would increase the number of wards where Latinos make up a majority of residents by one to 14, while reducing the number of wards with a majority of Black voters by three to 15 wards.

The proposed map will “put an end to crazy, carved up lobster wards,” said Michael Strode, a member of the commission created by a coalition of community groups led by Change Illinois.

The map also includes 13 wards where a majority of residents are white, while the voters in each of the seven remaining wards are split among the city’s racial groups.

The map ensures that the Austin, Avondale, Back of the Yards, Englewood and Logan Square neighborhoods are kept together. The current ward map divides each neighborhood into several wards, making it difficult for residents to make their voices heard or get city services, according to the commission members.

The map also carves a new ward out of parts of the 11th, 12th and 25th wards to create a ward with a majority of Asian American voters centered around Chinatown that includes Armour Square and the northern part of McKinley Park.

Concentrating Asian American voting power in one ward could ensure that the community speaks with a clear voice through that ward’s alderperson on issues including the need for a new high school in Chinatown, the need to combat rising hate crimes against Asian Americans and ensure that those who don’t speak English can access resources designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 and recover from the economic catastrophe caused by the pandemic, supporters said.

“For the ordinary person, it is hard to know who to talk to,” said Grace Chan McKibben, the executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, known as CBCAC. “We have the momentum. We have to get it done. I see it as a matter of fairness.”

Creating a Chicago ward with a majority of Asian American voters would fulfill a push that began in 1991 with unfulfilled demands that Chinatown not be divided between two wards. Demands for a ward with a majority of Asian American voters comes as Chicago’s Asian American community grew by 31% in the past decade, according to the 2020 census.

“If we only look at facts, there is no other way,” said C.W. Chan, CBCAC founder and board member. “It would uplift Asians Americans all over Chicago.”

David Wu, the executive director of the Pui Tak Center and a member of the CBCAC board, said he did not think that creating a ward where the majority of voters are Asian would hurt efforts to expand Latino political power in Chicago.

“We just have to break through,” Wu said. “We have created the momentum.”

Ald. Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th Ward) has backed calls for his ward to be redrawn to create a ward where the majority of voters are Asian, but supporters of the push said they have gotten a cool reception from Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th Ward), who is set to be tried later this month on federal charges that he filed false tax returns and lied to federal agents.

Ald. George Cardenas (12th Ward) is running for the Cook County Board of Review in 2022, and if successful, would not seek another term on the City Council in 2023, when the new maps could take effect.

That means the 30-year path to a ward with a majority of Asian American voters runs straight through the 11th Ward, the heart of the political empire that elected former Mayors Richard J. Daley and Richard M. Daley and ruled the city for decades.

Chan acknowledged it will be no easy feat to strike at the heart of what is left of the Daley political machine.

“That is the million-dollar question,” Chan said. “I don’t think anyone has a crystal ball.”

Those supporting the effort to draw a new ward map that includes a majority of Asian voters are also concerned their push will get lost in the struggle to draw a map in a city where Latinos saw their share of Chicago’s population rise 5% from 2010 to 2020 and Chicago’s Black population dropped 10%, according to the 2020 census.

“This is not a new demand from this community,” said Grace Pai, the executive director of the Chicago chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “We are very rapidly growing. This community’s voice has been split for so long.”

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th Ward), the chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus, has said he is determined to craft a map that maintains 18 wards where a majority of voters are Black.

At the same time, Latino Caucus Chair Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th Ward) has vowed to ensure that the new map reflects the city’s growing Latino population — and ensures they have an equivalent amount of political power. Latino leaders in Chicago have said the 2011 remap did not accurately reflect Chicago’s Latino population and vowed in January not to “get played again.”

The current ward map, which took effect in 2015 after years of legal challenges, includes 13 wards where a majority of voters are Latino. It is unlikely the Latino Caucus would support a map with just one more ward that has a majority of Latino voters.

While the city’s overall population grew 2% between 2010 and 2020, neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides that are struggling with violence after decades of disinvestment recorded a drop in the number of residents. That will complicate the Black Caucus’ efforts, since just three wards with a majority of Black residents gained population, according to the census.

Two of the wards drawn by the commission would be approximately 45% Latino, making it possible for a Latino candidate to win an aldermanic election, commission members said.

Now that the proposed map is complete, the commission members will turn their attention to turning up the political temperature on alderpeople, who have been drawing their own map behind closed doors since mid-July, with just one public hearing that did not include any indication of what boundaries are under consideration.

“We don’t have anyone in the room where the maps are being drawn,” Pai said. “It is tough.”

Former Ald. Ameya Pawar, who represented the 47th Ward from 2011-19, is the only Asian American to ever be elected to the Chicago City Council.

State law requires Chicago wards to be “nearly equal as practicable” while being as “contiguous” and “compact” as possible while complying with the Voting Rights Act, which ensures that Black, Latino and Asian Americans can exercise political power in keeping with their population.

Since Chicago’s population in 2020 was 2,746,388 residents, each ward should have 54,928 residents, according to attorney Mike Kasper, who was hired to advise 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris. The chair of the City Council’s Rules Committee and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s floor leader, Harris will lead the remapping effort.

If 10 alderpeople agree on an alternative map — either the one drawn by the commission or another proposal — it would force a referendum that would put the competing maps up to a vote, officials said. The deadline to trigger a special election on ward maps is Dec. 1.

But that would require alderpeople to give up the power to pick their own voters, while punishing their enemies and boosting their allies.

The process underway to craft the boundaries for each of Chicago’s 50 wards is much the same as it was in 2011 — even after then-candidate Lightfoot vowed to empower an independent commission to craft the maps and put an end to handshake deals between political rivals.

Pai declined to rule out a legal challenge if the ward map approved by the City Council or voters did not include a ward with a majority of Asian American voters.

“We hope it doesn’t come to that,” Pai said. “The City Council has an opportunity to put equity at the forefront of this effort. The city can come out of this with fairer representation.”

Contact Heather Cherone: @HeatherCherone | (773) 569-1863 | [email protected]

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