Racially Polarized Debate Over Ward Map Widens Breach, As Deadline Approaches

The racially polarized fight over the boundaries of the ward map that will shape Chicago politics for the next decade intensified Monday as the breach between Chicago City Council’s Black and Latino caucuses widened amid claims of “gaslighting” and backroom dealing.

The Chicago City Council has until Wednesday to approve a new ward map based on the results of the 2020 census. If 41 alderpeople do not agree on a map before midnight, the final decision could be made by voters for the first time in 30 years via a referendum.

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The acrimony spilled into full public view Monday afternoon during a meeting of the Chicago City Council’s Rules Committee that was delayed for more than two hours as alderpeople attempted to revive closed-door negotiations that broke down over the weekend.

Rules Committee Chair Ald. Michelle Harris (8th Ward) did not unveil her proposal for the ward map, saying that she was waiting on members of the Latino Caucus to respond to her latest effort to broker a compromise.

While praising the City Council’s “white aldermen” for privately negotiating the boundaries of their wards in the closed-to-the-public map room at City Hall, Harris blasted the City Council’s Latino Caucus for putting out their own map. In all, Harris said 36 of the City Council’s 50 members participated in that process, which could leave her five votes short of avoiding a referendum.

Harris said that once the committee's proposal was released, it would not be likely to change. That would seem to conflict with Mayor Lori Lightfoot's demand, which she repeated on Monday, for alderpeople to allow members of the public to have a substantive chance to review a proposed ward map before a vote.

Harris' statement brought a furious response from Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th Ward), who accused Harris of pitting the Black and Latino caucuses against each other in the battle over the new ward map.

Villegas accused Harris of running the “least transparent” map making process anywhere in the state and poorly serving Chicagoans of all races and ethnicities.

However, Harris defended the process she has overseen as one that was designed to be respectful of all City Council members by not allowing one alderperson to claim part of the territory now represented by one of their colleagues without his or her permission.

Several times Harris said the map was “fluid, it's liquid, always changing.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward) accused Harris of “gaslighting” the members of Latino Caucus by suggesting they refused to negotiate with their colleagues.

Instead, Ramirez-Rosa said it was Harris and Rules Committee lawyer Michael Kasper who told him and other members of the Latino Caucus told they could not submit proposals to include territory now in other wards — unless those census tracts were majority Latino.

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th Ward), a close ally of Lightfoot, said she had the same experience.

“It hasn't been a give and take, at least for me,” Sadlowski-Garza said.

Always fraught, this year’s remapping effort is particularly tense because of the city’s changing racial makeup. While Chicago’s Black population dropped 10%, its Latino population jumped 5% and its Asian American population surged 30%, according to the 2020 census.

While the Black Caucus is determined to draw a map with at least 17 wards with a majority of Black voters, the Latino Caucus has demanded a map with no fewer than 15 wards with a majority of Latino voters. Both groups have endorsed calls from Asian American groups in Chicago to craft a ward centered around Chinatown that has a majority of Asian American voters — but neither group wants that ward to reduce their share of political power.

There are now 18 wards with a majority of Black voters and 13 wards with a majority of voters who are Latino.

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 is designed to protect the voting rights of Black, Latino and Asian residents. 

Since Chicago’s population in 2020 was 2,746,388 residents, each ward should have 54,928 residents, according to data presented to the Chicago City Council.

After deferring to the City Council for months, Lightfoot said Monday at an unrelated news conference that she attempted to broker an agreement on a new ward map during negotiations during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, but was unsuccessful.

“It is unfortunate that it is coming down to the last minute,” Lightfoot said. “There has to be transparency.”

Lightfoot declined to say how long the public should be given to review a proposed map or whether she would reject a map if it failed to meet that standard.

“The process has been very tough, there is a lot of emotions that have built up on all sides,” Lightfoot said. “I think people need to come to the table, play the long game and get something done. Whether the council is going to be able to get themselves organized in a way that makes it happen, I don’t know the answer to that.”

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

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