The 2020 census numbers released last week figure to reinvigorate a long-standing power struggle at Chicago City Hall between Latino aldermen representing an ever-larger political base and Black aldermen seeking to maintain influence even as their constituency continues to significantly erode.
That battle will play out in the weeks to come as the City Council attempts to redraw the city’s 50 wards ahead of the February 2023 election with Latinos supplanting Blacks as Chicago’s second-largest racial and ethnic group.
“It’s absolutely going to get ugly. You’ve seen precipitous population loss in the African American community and you’ve seen some growth in the Latino community,” said Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd. “I think that both are going to come in with a head of steam, and they’re going to draw some pretty extreme maps.”
U.S. census data showed the city’s Black population fell by nearly 10% over the last decade, with a loss of nearly 85,000 residents. Black residents now make up nearly 29% of Chicago, down from more than 32% a decade ago.
At the same time, the Latino population grew by more than 40,000 and that group now represents nearly 30% of the city’s residents. White Chicagoans make up 31% of the population.
Remapping the city’s ward boundaries is always a contentious process, pitting the political self-interests of sitting aldermen to make their ward more politically advantageous for reelection against the shifts in population. Add in the factors of race and ethnicity, and the process can become more volatile.
After months of backroom wrangling, aldermen approved a ward map 10 years ago with 18 majority-Black wards and 13 majority-Latino wards.
Today, there are 12 Latino aldermen on the council — longtime Southwest Side Ald. Ed Burke, who is under federal indictment, represents the 13th majority-Latino ward. There are 20 Black aldermen on the council, with two representing majority-white wards on the North Side.
The City Council has seen dramatic turnover in the last decade, with 35 of the 50 wards — 70% — electing a new alderman. After the 2019 election, the City Council for the first time in its history no longer had a majority of white aldermen.
It’s against that backdrop that a new crop of aldermen will attempt to draw new ward maps that are supposed to be of substantially equal population — meaning about 55,000 people. Laws protecting Blacks and Latinos from discrimination, however, allow variations in the numbers.
Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th, who chairs the council’s Latino caucus, said that, armed with the new population data, his caucus is going to be “more aggressive about making sure our community is at the forefront of investments, of representation, of everything.”
“Diversity and equity has not been working for us right now. We need parity. We’re the largest minority in the city, we’re almost a third of the city’s population, we’re only 40,000 behind the Caucasians and as a result of that, we want our fair share,” Villegas said.
“I know being in politics that if you wait to be given something, we’ll be waiting forever,” he said. “We’re going to be more aggressive as a caucus in making sure that there’s representation, whether it be through appropriations and budgets, appointments, positions. We’re going to demand that.”
Villegas declined to say how many council seats he thinks Latinos should gain, saying more data is needed. But he made clear he wants more than the 13 the caucus now holds.
Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th, who chairs the council’s Black Caucus, said aldermen need block-by-block numbers, not broad figures, before the potential for a new map can be fully understood.
He said the caucus “anticipated there were going to be adjustments to the population,” but he said he intends to fight to maintain “the political power and representation of African Americans in this city.”
“I don’t see a reason why 18 Black wards cannot be drawn,” Ervin said, indicating he intends to maintain the seats now held by his caucus.
That could be possible. Despite the loss of nearly 180,000 Black residents in the 2010 census, the remap reduced the number of majority-Black wards by just one. At the same time, Reilly said Latinos were poised to gain an additional seat but didn’t get it.
Since both Blacks and Latinos are protected classes under voting laws, the maps for those majority wards traditionally serve as the starting point for negotiations. In the past, Reilly said, white aldermen would sit back and wait and “pick the lesser of two evils and work on them around the margins.”
“It all starts with those two caucuses,” Reilly said. “It makes sense to start with them rather than to have Caucasians draw their dream map. That’s just not realistic.”
Northwest Side Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th, said he believed the only way a political brawl can be averted is if some Black aldermen simply give up their turf and retire.
“Hopefully in these meetings, people could sit down and be civil, but I think it’ll help that some people aren’t coming back,” Sposato said. “And if those people say, ‘I’m not returning, take my ward and create a new ward someplace else,’ that’s the only way I can see it not being a knockdown, drag-out fight about this.”
Stacy Davis Gates, the vice president of the politically influential Chicago Teachers Union, said the new ward map should represent a larger goal of seeking to repair policies that have marginalized people of color.
“I would hate for this discussion to devolve into how many wards or how many districts will be majority Black. The discussion has to be bigger than that,” said Davis Gates, who also is the head of United Working Families, a quasi-political party that backed seven winning candidates in the 2019 elections.
Rather than fight over political power, she said Black and Latino aldermen should create a coalition and recognize that engaging in a power struggle only serves the interests of the white majority.
“White supremacy to me looks like melanated people fighting over boundaries at the expense of the real fight of investing in people,” she said. “It’s not about what white people get or don’t get. It’s actually about Black and brown leadership, fighting each other and missing the moment to fight for the investment that goes to the people in their communities. That’s the fight.”
Of course, a coalition of Black and Latino political leadership long has been elusive in Chicago politics. The one true exception was the election of Harold Washington as the city’s first Black mayor in the 1980s.
“We have to understand, the enemy is not those who need. The enemy is generations of false promises. The enemy is the type of politics of reduction that has helped to build this mess that we’re experiencing right now,” Davis Gates said. “If we’re going to get to a place of seeing each other, it has to be a coalition of willing and not exclusion — and not fighting over crumbs.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot ran on redistricting reform as a candidate, but has yet to suggest any sort of independent map process for the City Council. She said earlier this year that she would prefer a more transparent process than the remaps of the past, but suggested she did not plan to introduce her own fair map and instead would partner with aldermen.
Lightfoot’s communications director declined to comment on how the city’s shifting demographics might impact the drawing of new ward boundaries.
A new ward map for the Feb. 23 city election is supposed to be in place by December.
For the council to adopt a new map, 41 aldermen must vote in favor. Otherwise, competing maps would go before voters.
Aldermen have typically sought to avoid the referendum and loss of control. A decade ago, the ward map that’s still in place was approved with the bare minimum number of votes. But Reilly notes that longtime City Council veterans like Dick Mell and Patrick O’Connor are no longer around to cajole colleagues and hammer out a compromise.
A potential referendum is “absolutely in play this time and so that makes the map drawing process way more delicate for the Black and Latino caucuses,” Reilly said. “If they get too far afield, 10 aldermen will band together and go nuclear and force ballot measures. So, this is going to be a really, really interesting remap process.”
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