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Carving Time Approaches

What if instead of gerrymandering wards we moved to a grid system?

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With the recent release of census data, the gun's sounded for the start of my favorite political sport.

I'm talking about ward reapportionment, in which the City Council adapts the ward map to a decade of demographic changes.

Every ten years, after the census count has been completed, aldermen and other legislators see how many folks live here, and rearrange the maps accordingly. What's at stake is nothing less than the constitutional principle of one man, one vote. No person's allowed to have any more representation than any other—which means that every ward in Chicago has to have roughly the same number of residents.

Sometime over the summer, the mayor and aldermen will get down to the business of shuffling precincts around in order to equalize each ward's population. The new map will have to be approved by the end of the year—right around budget time—so the full circus will be in force as we get to watch 50 aldermen invoke all sorts of high-falutin' platitudes to justify preserving their political hides.

In 2001, the last time the City Council redistricted, Chicago had about 2.9 million residents, or about 57,900 people per ward. Over the last ten years the population fell by about 200,000 (roughly 7 percent), according to a report the census bureau released this month. There are now about 2.7 million people living here, or 54,000 residents per ward. The largest decline came in the black population, which fell by 17 percent, from roughly 1.1 million to 888,000. This drop really shouldn't surprise you. Black people have either been gentrified out of integrated communities like Uptown or literally moved out of their communities, as when the CHA demolished Cabrini-Green, the Henry Horner Homes, and the Robert Taylor Homes.

I first witnessed the glorious Chicago spectacle that is reapportionment back in 1981, shortly after I moved to town. In that instance, Jane Byrne brought in former 31st Ward alderman Thomas Keane as a map-making consultant. Keane had been to the first Daley what 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke has been to the current one—a water-carrying, allegedly eggheaded chair of the council finance committee.

Unlike Burke, Keane did time on federal corruption charges. (In fact, he was only a few years out of the pen when Byrne tapped him for the redistricting gig.) The challenge for him was to satisfy the needs of Byrne's council loyalists while punishing her enemies—all within the confines of a dramatically changing city. Back then, more blacks were moving to Chicago, and many white politicians were saying that if we didn't act fast, we'd become another Detroit (plus ça change . . . ).

Between 1970 and '80, Chicago's black population grew to roughly 40 percent of the overall population, and black activists were demanding 20 majority-black wards, up from 16. But as Keane explained it to me at the time, there are consequences in every move when reconfiguring a ward map. Move out a precinct here, and you have to move in a precinct there to equalize the population. Appeasing one alderman means upsetting another. Byrne and Keane also had to decide whether to pacify the activists by creating new black-majority wards or protect the incumbency of a few white party hacks.

In the ensuing council debate, the bellyaching went on for hours. Seventh Ward alderman Joseph Bertrand complained, "I can't be elected from the Seventh Ward because I now live in the Fifth." Thirty-second Ward alderman Terry Gabinski griped he'd lost some of his most loyal voters: "After ten years of going to churches, to weddings, social events, and testimonials, I've got to start all over again." Listening to one black alderman after another talk about meeting the needs of the people, 50th Ward alderman Berny Stone declared, "I fought for myself, not the people, so don't make me throw up." Blacks wound up with 18 majority-black wards.

During the 2001 City Council reapportionment debate, one alderman after another heaped praise on elders Burke and Richard Mell. "Alderman Burke has a ward that is now 74 percent Hispanic, and Hispanic people love him," said 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio. "And Alderman Mell—we just changed his name. Alderman Mell is now Ricardo Molina."

The result of the last creative redistricting is a gerrymandered political map in which wards come in all sorts of unusual shapes: the First Ward kind of looks like Bart Simpson urinating, the 32nd Ward looks like a dog, the 25th has short robotic arms.

In this year's reapportionment, the challenge will be to accommodate the clamor of Hispanics for more supermajority Hispanic wards against the clamor of incumbents (especially the black ones) to please, please save my seat! Aldermen tell me that there's a good chance that black wards will be lost on the southwest side, the near south side, and the west side.

It's a good bet that alderman Burke will maintain ward boundaries he prefers, even though Rahm Emanuel has threatened to take away his finance committee chairmanship. But you can definitely expect the council to make life difficult for nettlesome independents like 32nd Ward alderman Scott Waguespack, who will be lucky if they don't figure a way to redistrict him into Guyana.

The goo-goo in me would like to suggest that we do away with redistricting by the City Council and go to a straight grid system. Just have a computer divide the city into 50 squarish wards with the same number of residents, regardless of race or ethnicity. That way, black politicians would have to learn how to appeal to white voters (hey, it worked for Obama), white politicians would have to learn how to appeal to Hispanics and blacks, and so on.

Fat chance. How did former 20th Ward alderman Cliff Kelley put it during the 1981 reapportionment debate? "As someone once said of this council, Ali Baba was fortunate. He only had to work with 40 thieves." And they weren't in charge of divvying up the goods

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