Chicago Ward Remap, Incumbent Protection or Community Transformation?

It happens only once every ten years but has profound effects on communities of interest in the City of Chicago. An effective ward remapping isn't just about jobs for currently elected officials, but jobs and development access for entire communities. It isn't just about being able to elect politicians that share your race, but to acquire a new voice in how precious funds are shared. Ward remapping has the ability to gently transform communities or further push them farther behind. In Chicago, we have the haves and have-nots and the determining identifier can often be as simple as community racial breakdowns. It is no wonder we are in January and the city council has just now gotten around to passing a remap plan that can garner enough votes.

The problem has been well documented, due to a massive exodus of African Americans out of the city at the reported number of 181,000 and a suspected under-reporting from the recent census; the traditionally black wards have seen significant loss of residents that hardly warrants maintaining their current number of predominantly black wards. In reverse the Latino population has increased by 25,000 and was already underrepresented in the city council due to long term incumbents who now reside over predominantly Latino communities.

The obvious answer of redrawing black wards into Latino wards wasn't necessarily the best idea. For starters, the Latino population is hardly living in large enough communities to easily carve out additional wards to match their growth. The black community, while more segregated into areas, hardly can afford to lose any more power in city hall considering the very real economic realities of several of their neighborhoods.

The predominantly white neighborhoods? Other than the progressive caucus (who flirted with setting up their own mapping room) everyone has pretty much been working hard to stay out of the way. One alderman even signed onto both competing minority maps -- as if to say, 'Keep me out of this.' Interesting enough, one of Chicago's richest neighborhoods has been given a seat at the table not because the community needs to stay together for racial or economic disparity reasons, rather, affluent Chicagoans don't want to be mapped into someone else's ward. As they are a group who could afford to challenge any map that gets approved, concessions were made. You could almost envision the map makers Wednesday night checking household incomes as they decide if each condo complex will be located in Lincoln Park or one of its "lesser" neighbors.

Which brings us to where we are now, a compromise map that avoids a public referendum and one that was hurried so fast through council that the city didn't even have enough time to post the final map online before the vote. Sure there were other maps out there: the Mexican American Legal Defense And Education Fund (MALDEF) map, the Southside National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) map, The Pro Bono Thinking Society map, and a map by just a guy who felt it was so important that the wards be divided equally he named his map One Person One Vote map. If the hearings were any indication, those maps weren't even being considered. In fact during the entire time I sat in a South Side church hearing testimony, only once did I hear one of these maps even referenced.

So the votes are cast 41-8, a new map (which wont take effect until 2015) has been approved and still the drama hardly ends here. To maintain levels that do not match the very real census statistics, the black caucus had to bend the one-person-one-vote principal to the effect of almost a 5% shift in some wards. Meaning your alderman could have 5% less or more constituents to deal with than other wards in the city. It also opens an opportunity for a legal challenge from a well-funded group like MALDEF who appears to be currently working with the Asian community to bolster their lawsuit if one is needed. A strategy that might be either caucus's best play: negotiate the best deal you can then let an outside group use the courts to get you a better one.

It is difficult to say which map would have ultimately been wiser for Chicago residents. The Latino caucus map seems to have followed the one-person-one-vote principle and was maybe easier to defend in court, on the other hand, the Black caucus map clearly had the best compromise potential. Regarding the potential one-person-one-vote, I think maybe Chicago needs to just turn a blind eye toward the discrepancy.

One of my favorite online conversations occurred on Twitter when two people were discussing my diverse North Side neighborhood: Rogers Park. In their discussion one lady inquired how safe living in Rogers Park is because she heard it was bad. Her friend's response, "... it is North Side, bad not Englewood bad." That spot-on statement makes me at peace with the idea that my alderman might have to handle five thousand more residents. It also makes me ok with both minority caucuses fighting to figure out a creative way to acquire or maintain voices in city council.

For all the issues we have with crime in Rogers Park it isn't Austin bad; as bad as Gale Elementary is it is not nearly as bad as several of the CPS schools on the chopping block. While I would like to see the Indian Desi corridor on Devon maintained in one ward, it isn't nearly as important as keeping the Back of the Yard community together.

Whatever they came up with regarding the compromise map, it just has to help. Otherwise this exercise really was about jobs for currently elected officials and their families. What a wasted opportunity that would be.