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Chicago Ward Map Fight Rages On As Wednesday Deadline Looms

The City Council must vote by Wednesday on a new ward map — but they're running out of time to come up with a map to vote on.

Homes, buildings and the Chicago skyline, as seen from above the Bucktown neighborhood on Nov. 16, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Less than two days before the City Council is scheduled to vote on a ward map that will dictate Chicago politics for the next decade, alderpeople appear no closer to agreeing what those boundaries should be, increasingly raising the possibility of a costly referendum.

The heavily politicized process spilled into public view during a Monday hearing, as alderpeople accused each other of racism, sexism and lack of transparency over the historically behind-the-scenes mapping process.

City Council has until Wednesday to approve a new ward map with at least 41 votes. If it’s approved with anything less than that supermajority, any 10 council members who didn’t support the proposal can back a competing map to send to voters in a June referendum.

But with a vote tentatively planned for Wednesday, alderpeople are running out of time to present something to vote on.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Alderpeople gather in the Council Chambers during discussions surrounding the creation of a civilian commission overseeing the Chicago Police Department during a City Council meeting on July 21, 2021.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot stepped into the discussions over the weekend to hammer out a deal, but to no avail. The mayor has largely remained on the sidelines during the battle and remained steadfast it’s up to the City Council to reach the supermajority.

At a separate press conference Monday, the mayor called for “transparency” in the process but wouldn’t commit to vetoing a map that didn’t provide Chicagoans a chance to review it before a City Council vote. 

“People have to see a map, and many aldermen haven’t seen a map, I haven’t seen a map per se,” Lightfoot said.

One major conflict is between the council’s Black and Latino caucuses, which are battling for enough representation in the new wards amid shifting demographics.

The Latino Caucus is demanding 15 majority wards, up from 13, to account for population growth among Latinx Chicagoans. The Black Caucus is resisting calls for fewer than 17 majority wards despite Black Chicagoans increasingly leaving the city since the last census.

The Black Caucus unveiled a plan last week that included 14 majority Latino wards, but Latino Caucus leaders said anything fewer than 15 wards was a non-starter.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) at a City Council meeting on June 25, 2021.

The Rules Committee, which handles redistricting, met Monday and was set to release the map it’s been working on behind closed doors since the summer. But committee chair, Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) said she held it back in an effort to continue the “dialogue” needed to “work together to get us where we need to go as a City Council.”

But the hearing devolved into heated arguments, with some alderpeople saying they’ve been shut out of negotiations.

Latino Caucus chair, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), blasted Harris for presiding over “the least transparent process ever.” Harris said she wouldn’t face the same criticism if she were a man, and criticized Villegas for running his own “separate process” outside of City Hall’s map room before trying to forge a deal in the final days.

“I’ve asked you all to come into this space, and typical male, you all think you can run over me, come in and be part of the process and then want to kick it back on me and talk about it not being transparent,” Harris said. “All you had to do was walk into the space, and I feel that had I been a Black man or a white man I’d have got treated differently.”

Villegas pushed back, saying the Latino Caucus map had support from his female colleagues and the Rules Committee process had been an “equal opportunity to really shortchange the Latino community despite the growth in the Latino Community.”

The Latino Caucus proposal has backing from 15 alderpeople, making it unlikely an alternate map could be approved with a 41-vote majority without a compromise. But Villegas seemed resigned that a map would be approved over his objection Wednesday.

Previously, Villegas has not ruled out supporting an alternative map to put up for a referendum or backing a costly legal challenge if a map is approved without 15 majority Latino wards. 

“You’re going to go ahead and pass a map, you’re going to go ahead and disenfranchise the Latino community and it’s really disheartening,” he said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) reads a paper at a City Council meeting on June 25, 2021.

The Black Caucus has drawn the overall territories of where it believes 17 majority-Black wards should be, but has not outlined the specific boundaries, instead choosing to build support within the Rules Committee process. 

Despite Harris’ invitations to everyone to meet in the map room to negotiate their particular ward boundaries, several Latino Caucus map supporters said they were blocked from those talks.

Southeast Side Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) said when she went in to negotiate “the map that I drew was not on that screen, and I was told I can only go within these boundaries. So for me, that’s not a give and take.”

A separate City Council meeting, called for by supporters of the Latino Caucus map, was canceled Monday morning in the “spirit of good faith and continued negotiations,” according to Villegas.

The caucus warned a “referendum remains a real possibility,” saying “a map that disenfranchises minorities will require a referendum and will invite litigation that could cost taxpayers millions.” 

The Rules Committee will meet again on Tuesday at 1 p.m. where it could be asked to vote on a map proposal. A special City Council meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday, where the full body could take a final vote on the map.

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