CHICAGO — After decades of little-to-no City Council representation, Asian Americans may soon have their own ward, as the Latino and Black caucuses have now committed their support to a new map.
Asian Americans are the fastest growing population in Chicago and now make up 6.9 percent of the city, according to the 2020 census, but there is not a single majority Asian ward in the city nor an Asian aldermen. Ameya Pawar, who is Indian, was the first and only Asian American alderman, representing the 47th ward from 2011 to 2019.
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), who chairs the Latino Caucus, told Block Club the caucus has committed to changing its proposed ward map to create a majority Asian ward centered around Chinatown on the city’s Near South Side along the Chicago River.
“We had a follow up meeting with the Asian community leaders and the Chicago Coalition map has committed to ensuring there will be an Asian ward that has 50 percent plus one, making it a majority Asian ward,” he said.
The map won’t need to change much — the Latino Caucus plan released in October included a ward centered around Chinatown with a 49 percent Asian population, but the failure to create Chicago’s first majority Asian ward drew criticism.
Black Caucus Chairman Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) told WTTW last week his caucus has also committed to a majority Asian American ward. The caucus has yet to release a proposed map, with Ervin saying members are working behind the scenes to gain the support of more council members before introducing a map through the Rules Committee.
Chinatown is currently served by the 11th and 25th wards. The greater Chinatown area, home to many Asian residents outside of Chinatown, reaches into the 12th Ward to the west.
Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, said the creation of a majority Asian ward would be “historic.”
“It gives hope, not only for the Asian Americans in Chicago, but for Asian Americans around the country. Here we have a growing Chinatown, and we’re able to advocate for things like a new library, a new field house, and unifying the voices of the people,” she said. “Being able to achieve a majority Asian American ward would be significant and that’s why we’re so passionate about advocating for it.”
Chan McKibben cited the creation of a Chinatown High School as something a sole representative serving the area could focus on. Alds. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) and Byron Sigcho Lopez (25th), who represent the area, support the school, she said, “but I think that if there’s one person helping advocate and push for it, it may be more successful.”
Access to city services, grants and other programs, as well as breaking down language barriers is something a dedicated representative could help with, she said, citing state Rep. Theresa Mah (D-Chicago) as an example.
“I think having one person who understands the immigrant experience … and understanding the struggle with language access, understanding some of the cultural barriers, she was very effective in being able to, for example, advocate for funding for social service agencies,” she said.
“I think we’ve seen during this pandemic just how critical it is to have people in positions of power who are advocating for your community,” said Grace Pai, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
The Asian American community is diverse and complex, Pai said, but many people buy into the myth of the “model minority.”
“There are a lot of immigrant business owners and entrepreneurs who have not had access to, or been able to figure out, how to take advantage of the various programs and services that are available to them,” she said. “When we have someone who is really clear that their job is to represent our community, they’ll put in more effort to really understand not just Asian Americans in Chinatown, but Asian Americans citywide.”
Both Pai and Chan McKibben said they’ll continue advocating to not only ensure the creation of a majority Asian American ward in Chinatown, but that other pockets of Asian neighborhoods in Albany Park, West Ridge and near Devon Avenue are kept together inside one ward, even if the the Asian population can’t reach a majority.
While the Latino and Black caucuses now agree on the need for a majority Asian ward, they are at loggerheads on how to divvy up the rest of the 50 wards. Time is running out to reach a compromise map that could obtain the support of at least 41 aldermen needed to avoid a referendum that would let Chicago voters decide between competing maps.
Villegas is adamant the city’s new ward map must reflect the rising Latino population, while Ervin seeks to maintain 18 majority Black wards, despite a drop in the Black population since 2010. The Latino Caucus map reduces the number of majority Black wards to 16, while increasing the number of majority Latino wards from 13 to 15.
The Latino Caucus map is illegal, Ervin said last month, while not ruling out a court challenge if it were to pass.
“It infringes upon the voting rights of the African American community. So I believe that that map as passed as it is today will definitely face a very legitimate court challenge and most likely will be thrown out,” he said.
“That’s not accurate,” Villegas said Tuesday. “”We have attorneys working for us as well, and are following the three principles that we put forward; we’re following the data, the Voting Rights Act and what the citizens of Chicago want. So if you think that any attorney would put forward a map that’s illegal, that’s just nonsense.”
Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s floor leader who chairs the Committee on Rules, said Tuesday a special meeting of the City Council will be needed to vote on a new map.
With Chicago’s population now at 2,746,388 residents, all 50 wards must have roughly 55,000 residents, be contiguous and compact.
The second of three public hearings in the Committee on Rules will take place Wednesday afternoon. Another hearing is scheduled for Monday.
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