CHICAGO — A newly proposed ward map would carve Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) out of her Far South Side ward — but she said she’s not upset about it.
Austin, who’s served on City Council for nearly 30 years, said she’ll likely retire rather than run for a new term under the proposed map.
The proposed map was revealed Wednesday. Austin’s ward has seen an exodus of Black residents since 2010, leading it to be among the least-populated wards in Chicago. Under the proposal, the 34th Ward would move from the Far South Side into portions of The Loop, West Loop and Near West Side to accommodate population booms in those areas.
Another proposed map from the Latino Caucus would also take Austin’s ward north, centering it on the West Town area.
City Council has not voted on the maps, increasing the likelihood of a contentious referendum next year where voters would decide on which map is used for the next decade.
But were either of the proposed maps to pass as-is, they would cut Austin out of the Far South Side ward where she’s been alderman since 1994.
Austin told Block Club she plans to retire rather than seek re-election in a new ward, but she is reserving the right to make an “official” announcement later.
“I just think that my time here, my years, I’ve given everything,” she said. “I have to think about me first for once in my life, so that’s what I’m thinking about now.”
Austin said the 34th Ward being shifted Downtown “just takes the number,” while “the ward itself is still fundamentally intact under a new ward in the proposed map.” She didn’t push back when leadership sought to move the ward.
“All I did was just look at it for the betterment of the South Side Black aldermen and those that it would affect, so therefore they just took the number,” she said.
After the meeting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot praised Austin, saying “she’s been a fierce fighter for her community.”
“Ald. Austin made the determination that she would give up her ward as part of this remap process, that’s a heck of a thing,” she said.
Lightfoot also said the allegations against Austin “aren’t even remotely the same” to that of indicted Ald. Ed Burke (14th), who Lightfoot has repeatedly said should resign.
“Every time that I’m down there, anytime there’s a project there, any time that she’s talking about her community, she has a fire for them and advocating for people in the area that many people in the city don’t know much about and never been to. So I think that would be a big important part of her legacy,” she said.
Austin’s move is not entirely unexpected: The second-longest-serving alderman has had health scares in recent years and also is under indictment, as she and her chief of staff Chester Wilson Jr. have been accused of taking bribes from a real estate developer.
Austin, 72, has been charged with one count of conspiring to use interstate facilities to promote bribery, two counts of using interstate facilities to promote bribery, and one count of willfully making materially false statements to the FBI.
According to the indictment, Austin accepted home improvements, appliances and furniture starting in 2016 from a contractor working on a $49.6 million project in her Far South Side ward. That company was slated to build a 91-unit apartment building, plus make infrastructure upgrades throughout the property, like new streets, lighting, landscaping, and sidewalks.
The unnamed contractor, referred to as Individual A, provided Austin with kitchen cabinets, two “brand new” and “expensive” sump pumps, and a dehumidifier, according to the indictment.
In June 2019, Austin was questioned by the FBI. She denied taking anything from Individual A “other than a cake,” according to the indictment.
In October 2017, the contractor told Wilson he would pay for a portion of a new HVAC system at Wilson’s rental property because, “you help me a lot, and I’ll help you,” the indictment states.
Austin and Wilson later authorized giving taxpayer money from Austin’s “aldermanic menu funds” to help the construction company with infrastructure improvements in the ward, according to the indictment.
The feds also alleged “that on multiple occasions in 2017 and 2018 Austin coordinated with the construction company owner to seek the city’s release of TIF and other payments.”
Austin was appointed to her ward seat by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1994, replacing her husband, Lemuel Austin, who had been the area’s alderman until his death.
Austin had incited controversy even before the charges; in 2019, a WBEZ analysis by Dan Mihalopoulos highlighted how her relatives have benefited from nepotism. At least seven members of her immediate family were government employees, with Austin personally hiring four of them, including two of her sons, a granddaughter and a daughter-in-law, the analysis found.
The FBI raided Austin’s office in June 2019, as well.
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