Chicago ward remap drama

The City Council attempts to redraw the city’s ward boundaries.
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If anyone on the City Council knows how to cope with lunacy, it’s Richard Mell. After all, the longtime 33rd Ward alderman’s been the father-in-law of Rod Blagojevich for the last 21 years.

So it seems fitting that Mell, chairman of the council’s rules committee, is leading the city’s ward remap—the nutty, cut-throat undertaking to redraw the boundaries of Chicago’s 50 wards.

This is mandated by state law every ten years, ostensibly to match shifts in population per the U.S. Census so each City Council parcel has an equal number of people. But the remap, which happens behind closed doors, is mostly a power grab resembling the final seconds of a game show.

This time around, a caucus of Hispanic aldermen is citing rising numbers (an increase of 25,000 people) as a reason to up Latino-majority wards from 10 to 14. The African-American caucus is trying not to lose any of its 19 black wards. It’s struggling against census figures showing the city’s black population decreased by about 181,000, 90 percent of the total drop of 200,000. Each new ward will have 53,912 people, if a map is delivered by the December 1 deadline. And that’s a big if.

Because of the drastic population changes, “We might not be able to get a map this time,” Mell told me at the Morgan Park High School auditorium after one of the six scheduled public ward-remap meetings. During the 2000 remap, Mell says he missed his 36th wedding anniversary. If 41 alderman don’t sign off on a new map, voters will choose one by referendum in the primary election in March.

At public hearings last week on the South Side, residents reminded Mell and several aldermen that in the racially motivated political power play, the council is losing sight of what matters. “We’re not numbers, we’re people!” said Vera Rowland, a 35-year resident of the southwestern 19th Ward, which could lose inhabitants from its largely African-American eastern border to the 21st and 34th wards. “We have a very special, integrated community, and that’s what we want to maintain.”

Dozens of residents and community groups gave similarly impassioned “Don’t remap us!” testimony. They’re worried about being drawn into a ward with a lower standard of city services like garbage pickup and street maintenance, with less community participation and with an unfamiliar alderman they didn’t vote for. The concerns are legitimate from those who could be annexed into a new ward, Mell says. “I’ve got a certain part of my ward that’s been there since I’ve been in office for 37 years. Do they mean more to me than the little portions that have been added? Yeah, of course.”

Rookie 19th Ward Ald. Matt O’Shea says he plans to fight to keep his diverse ward intact. “Some aldermen truly do care about the community,” he told me. “But most of them don’t. They give a shit about their power. They think, Oh, God, I can’t give up that one area where I get the most votes!”

During a remap hearing at South Shore International College Prep High School, several African-American alderman, including black caucus chairman 21st Ward Ald. Howard Brookins, defended the group’s proposed map that preserves the 19-ward power structure. In turn, Mell proposed this hypothetical to residents: Would you be okay with losing a black alderman if it would keep your community intact? “They had no problem with that at all, did they?” Mell said later. “These aldermen are not in tune with their constituents. The constituents are more interested in keeping their community than they are about having 19 African-Americans in the City Council.”

Meanwhile, new Chicago-based wonk organization the Pro Bono Thinking Society published its own ward map, based only on population at the census tract. In the proposal, the group writes, “Wards should not be created based on race, political implications, or for the benefit of any individual or individual group.” How reasonable. How un-Chicago.

The final public ward-remap hearing is Thursday 17, 10am–1pm, in the City Council Chambers at City Hall (121 N LaSalle St), second floor.

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