CHICAGO — A coalition of civic groups is launching an independent citizens commission in an uphill effort to produce a new ward map “for Chicagoans created by Chicagoans” instead of a few powerful aldermen.
Under the coalition’s vision, a volunteer committee of “independent community members” will select 13 Chicago residents to sit on the commission to create a map of the city’s 50 wards. Organizers hope the citizen-backed map will get enough City Council support to set up a referendum vote in spring 2022 to allow Chicago voters to choose between the map and another version expected to be created by aldermen and Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Led by Change Illinois, with the support of good government and neighborhood groups from across the city, the coalition will train and pay for the commissioners, provide a remapping expert to advise the group and organize community meetings to solicit feedback before redrawing a “resident-centered” ward map.
Madeleine Doubek, executive director of Change Illinois, said “the days of deals over backroom maps are done.”
“It’s time to end ward gerrymandering that protects incumbents,” Doubek said at a Tuesday news conference. “It’s time to give residents the power, and we’re calling on them to use their voices to shape their city for the future.”
Chicago is required to redraw its legislative districts every 10 years to account for population changes following the U.S. Census. The city must be separated into 50 contiguous wards, each with roughly the same number of residents.
Securing the necessary support for a citizen-drawn map will not be easy.
State law requires 41 aldermen to approve a map without a referendum. If 10 aldermen sign on to support the independent map in City Council, it would trigger a referendum to allow voters to decide between competing proposals.
But drawing ward maps is a heavily politicized exercise led by the city’s influential aldermen.
Historically, the controversial process has favored incumbent council members and allies of the mayor, carved up neighborhoods and been used as a tool to punish wayward aldermen by removing their constituency from the ward so they can’t be reelected.
Despite campaigning on a pledge to have an independent commission draw the ward maps, Lightfoot has changed her position on the issue, saying aldermen should be involved with the process. And with population shifts in the city, the chairs of the Black and Latino caucuses have said their top priority is retaining or expanding the number of wards with majority Black and Latino populations.
The independent commission has the backing of several heavyweight civic organizations, including Common Cause Illinois, The League of Women Voters, Rainbow Push, the Latino Policy Forum, the Metropolitan Planning Council and Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
The commission’s work will be financed by the Chicago Community Trust, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and private donors, including Joe Mansueto, Chicago Fire owner and Morningstar founder, and Steve Miller, founder of Origin Ventures.
Chicago residents have until April 9 to submit an application to serve on the commission. The selection committee, which includes former Ald. Dick Simpson, will then choose members the coalition hopes will reflect “the full geographic, ethnic, racial and economic diversity of the city.”
To help ensure diversity, applications are available in nine languages. Commissioners who “see the process through to completion” will receive a $5,000 stipend. To serve, applicants must be a Chicago voter aged 18 or older and not “have any political connections to aldermen or elected officials of any kind.”
Redrawing ward boundaries in 2021 will be a complex puzzle, as Chicago’s Black population has decreased since 2010, while its Latino and Asian populations are growing. The full results of the 2020 Census aren’t expected until September, Doubek said.
Past maps have left some neighborhoods, like Englewood, without a geographic center of political power. Five aldermen have some piece of Englewood in their wards.
“Our city has been manipulated into jigsaw pieces for the interests of a few and not the many, for the interests of those in power at the expense of everyday people from our neighborhoods,” said Monse Ayala, an organizer with Increase the Peace on the city’s South Side.
Ayala said her organizing experience led her to understand the “frustrations” of residents who don’t know who represents them.
“If they wanted to fix a street light, remove graffiti or get any city services, there were five different people who represented that one community,” she said. “That created a state of confusion and, in some of the worst cases, apathy between community residents.”
The 2nd Ward, represented by Ald. Brian Hopkins, famously looks like a lobster and doesn’t include any of the blocks that comprised the ward in the previous version of the map because of redistricting after the 2010 Census.
It’s widely thought the ward was redrawn so drastically to deprive former Ald. Bob Fioretti of his usual constituents and prevent him from being reelected because he was an opponent of then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
In January, Lightfoot described the backroom dealmaking between powerful aldermen as a “relic of the past,” but she has backed away from her earlier pledge to support an independent commission.
On Tuesday, spokeswoman Jordan Troy said Lightfoot “is committed to working with the council on a fair and open process that is more transparent and intentionally benefits the residents of Chicago.”
“Mayor Lightfoot has a long track record of taking on the political insiders when they’ve tried to draw maps to benefit themselves instead of their constituents,” Troy said. “As the city moves forward with its redistricting process following the completion of the 2020 Census, Mayor Lightfoot remains deeply committed to ensuring Chicago’s residents receive nothing less than full and fair representation in the redrawing of the City’s 50 ward boundaries.”
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), chair of the Black Caucus, and Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), chair of the Latino Caucus, have rejected the idea of an independent commission, saying aldermen know their communities best.
“We know these communities on the ground, backwards and forward,” Ervin told The Daily Line. Being “on the ground and understanding and knowing what’s happening” and nuances of “communities within a community” is important input that alderman provides in remapping, he said.
Maldonado argued an independent commission would not take into account “the integrity of the communities that really make Chicago a city of neighborhoods.”
Doubek said the group will “encourage” aldermen to “give this process a chance,” saying her coalition has spoken with several aldermen, including Hopkins and Andre Vasquez (40th), who introduced a resolution in January calling for a hearing on the remapping process and for the creation of an independent commission.
City Council must approve a map by Dec. 1, leaving the community coalition less than nine months to convince 10 aldermen to support the independent map and force a referendum.
“That gives the people of the city of Chicago the power to decide which map they prefer, and we believe in the power of the people,” she said.
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