Racially Polarized Debate Over Chicago Ward Map Moves Closer to Referendum

Members of the Chicago Black Caucus acknowledged Tuesday that negotiations over a new ward map that will shape Chicago politics for the next decade remain deadlocked, and moved to ask Chicago voters to set the boundaries of the city’s 50 wards.

By filing the map crafted by the Chicago City Council’s Rules Committee and backed by Black Caucus with the city clerk’s office, the likelihood grew significantly that the June 28 primary election ballot will ask voters to decide what the ward map should look like for the first time in 30 years — unless 41 alderpeople can agree on a map before May 19.

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Rules Committee Chair Ald. Michelle Harris (8th Ward) said the map ensures “fair representation for all Chicago communities by preserving historic Black wards, expanding Latino representation and adding the city’s first Asian American ward.”

Thirty-three alderpeople support the map backed by the Black Caucus — eight short of the votes needed to avert a referendum in June.

A proposed Chicago Ward Map supported by the Chicago City Council's Black Caucus. (Provided)A proposed Chicago Ward Map supported by the Chicago City Council's Black Caucus. (Provided)

Several supporters of the map backed by the Black Caucus said a referendum would be very costly for Chicago taxpayers and prove to be a distraction from the issues facing city officials, including crime and the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, there is no evidence that asking Chicago voters to craft the city ward map based on data from the 2020 census will cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, as reported by WTTW News.

Supporters of the map backed by 15 alderpeople and the Chicago Latino Caucus said the decision by Harris not to ask the Rules Committee and the full City Council to endorse the map they created was an acknowledgment “that there aren’t enough alderpeople who support a backroom deal,” according to a statement from Ald. Anthony Beale (9th Ward).

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at an unrelated news conference Tuesday that she would not endorse either ward map, and urged both sides to reach an agreement to avoid putting the decision in the hands of voters.

“There is still time for compromise,” Lightfoot said.

While both Harris and Beale did not rule out future negotiations and said they were open to making a deal, an agreement remains unlikely amid a racially polarized dispute over the map that will shape Chicago politics for the next decade and determine the balance of power between Black, Latino and Asian Chicagoans.

The City Council’s Black Caucus has refused to accept a map that creates 15 wards with a majority of Latino voters as demanded by the Latino Caucus. 

Instead, the map submitted to the City Clerk’s office Tuesday crafts 16 wards with a majority of Black voters, one ward with a plurality of Black voters one ward with a majority of Asian voters and 14 wards with a majority of Latino voters.

Harris said the map submitted to the clerk’s office makes only minor changes to the proposal reviewed during a series of public meetings that frequently descended into chaos.

That map also serves to protect a number of the very alderpeople who helped craft its boundaries by letting them pick their own voters and punish their enemies and boosting their allies.

In several cases, likely challengers found their homes moved from one ward to another. State law will allow them to run in whichever ward they choose during the 2023 election — but they would have to move if they win and choose to run for reelection under state law.

Harris declined to answer a question from WTTW News about whether she was prepared to defend those choices to voters during what promises to be a hard-fought and tense campaign.

A proposed Chicago Ward Map endorsed by the Chicago City Council's Latino Caucus and Change Illinois. [Provided]A proposed Chicago Ward Map endorsed by the Chicago City Council's Latino Caucus and Change Illinois. [Provided]

In addition, the map backed by the Black Caucus carves out choice parts of the wards now represented by members of the City Council who are on the opposite side of the debate. For example, the revised Black Caucus map moves the former U.S. Steel manufacturing site, which could be redeveloped, from Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza’s 10th Ward to Ald. Greg Mitchell’s 7th Ward.

Sadlowski Garza is a member of the Latino Caucus and supports the group’s map, while Mitchell, a member of the Black Caucus, backs the map crafted by Harris.

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.

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.

Maps from both groups would redraw the 11th Ward to create a ward centered around Chinatown with a majority of Asian American voters, carving up the heart of the political empire that elected former Mayors Richard J. Daley and Richard M. Daley and ruled the city for decades.

The Black Caucus’ map would move the 34th Ward — now on the Far South Side, which saw a steep drop in population during the past decade — to the booming area south and west of the Loop.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th Ward), the second longest serving member of the City Council, plans to retire after her term ends in 2023.

Austin is awaiting trial on charges she took bribes and lied to FBI agents. Austin has pleaded not guilty.

The map supported by the Black Caucus also shifts the massive Lincoln Yards development from Ald. Brian Hopkins’ 2nd Ward to Ald. Scott Waguespack’s 32nd Ward. While Hopkins shepherded the proposal through a highly contentious approval process in 2019, Waguespack opposed the proposal.

However, the Latino Caucus map keeps Lincoln Yards in Hopkins’ ward, as he wants. Hopkins supports the map crafted by the Latino Caucus, but has told reporters he did not sign on to the Latino Caucus map because of Lincoln Yards.

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

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