The silly season | On Politics | Chicago Reader

Columns & Opinion » On Politics

The silly season

The City Council kick-starts the backstabbing process of ward reapportionment.

By

comment

With the City Council-led process known as reapportionment ready to begin, the time has come for me to offer my guide to ward mapping.

Take notes—it’s on the test . . .

The constitution’s equal protection clause requires that no political district has significantly more residents than another because that would be unfair, and would violate the sacred principle of one man, one vote.

It’s a sacred principle that’s ignored in presidential elections, as the 600,000 people of Wyoming have much more influence when it comes to electing a president than the 39.5 million residents of California. 

So we care more about sacred principles when it comes to electing Chicago aldermen than presidents. I can’t justify our system—only try to explain it.

To guarantee equal representation, we reapportion the city’s wards every ten years after the census tells us roughly how many people currently live in the wards as they were redrawn ten years ago.

The census just ended. So get ready for the council vote on a new map later this fall—with, no doubt, lawsuits to follow. More on those in a later column.

Chicago has roughly 2.7 million residents and 50 wards. So we have to draw a map in which each ward has about 54,000 people.

We could simply program a computer to divide the city into 50 similarly structured, square-shaped wards created without regard to class, race, ethnic, or corporate considerations.

Or we could put 50 aldermen in a back room and let them do their thing. 

And that means looking out for number one by cutting deals in which they get to keep the precincts that vote for them and dump those that don’t, resulting in wards that look like amoebas. And occasionally stabbing one another in the back. Like what happened in 2011, when they punished former Second Ward alderman Robert Fioretti for, among other things, the high crime of making them look bad with showboating rhetoric.

By the time they were done redrawing Fioretti’s Second Ward, he no longer lived in it. That’ll teach you, Fioretti!

Also thanks to redistricting, the Second Ward now contains most of the near north side’s aging industrial properties, which are on the verge of being redeveloped as high-end residential and commercial.

Thus in one fell swoop, the City Council punished Fioretti and made some developers even more fabulously wealthy than they already were. As making rich people even richer is what makes Chicago’s world go round.

As practical as it sounds, there are drawbacks to having computers blindly redraw the wards. For one, it cuts out the aldermen from having a say. Which is not really a problem to anyone other than the aldermen. But still.

For another, it does away with the concept of wards drawn to guarantee the election of Black or Latino aldermen by creating supermajorities of Black and Latino residents.

This requires another one of my famous history lessons. So here goes . . .

Traditionally, white people in Chicago would never vote for a Black person for alderman on the grounds that they, the white people, were super prejudiced against Black people. Not sure how else to put it.

To make sure that some Black aldermen were elected—and that Black residents would not have to be subjected to white aldermen who were hostile to Black people—the courts demanded that the council make sure there were at least some wards that were majority Black. And that the percentage of Black aldermen in the City Council more or less equaled the percentage of Black people in Chicago. 

As a result, Chicago has had about 20 Black aldermen—though how that’s helped any Chicagoan, Black or white, over the last 30 years is hard to say.

When it comes to citywide council issues, there’s not much difference between how white and Black aldermen vote. With a handful of exceptions, they generally voted however Mayors Daley or Rahm instructed.

In fact, going back to the days of old man Daley (that’s Richard J.), the Black aldermen were rather ignobly known as the Silent Six, in that there were six of them who rarely spoke unless it was to praise Mayor Daley. Then they couldn’t stop speaking.

So when you think about it, what has anyone in Chicago gotten from segregating the races other than, you know, segregating the races? Which, now that I think about it, is pretty much the point.

Also, over time I’ve come to the conclusion that the concept that one race will only vote for itself is outdated.

It’s never really been true when it comes to Black residents, who have always been far more tolerant and open-minded than their white counterparts.

Black voters in the Fifth Ward consistently voted for white aldermen like Leon Despres and Larry Bloom over Black challengers. Also, Black voters in the 18th Ward elected Thomas Murphy, a white man, even after their ward was redrawn in part to help a Black candidate get elected.

But white people voting for Black candidates over white candidates? That’s a relatively new phenomenon. First time I noticed it was in 2010 when Toni Preckwinkle won the Democratic nomination for Cook County board president in a race in which she was one of three Black candidates running against one white guy, Terrence O’Brien, who had an Irish name to boot.

OK, that’s not an aldermanic election, but, yes, some things have changed.

Would there be less council subservience to the mayor if we went to a computer-drawn map? Well, it’s hard for the council to be more subservient unless we officially change to a monarchy.

For instance, in 2011 the City Council unanimously voted for Mayor Rahm’s wretched budget. That’s the one that closed mental health clinics in high-crime neighborhoods, thus contributing to the madness and carnage that has followed.

The aldermen voted for the budget in part because they didn’t want Mayor Rahm working to eradicate them in the reapportionment that followed the budget vote. You might say they didn’t want to be Fiorettied.

As you can see, it’s challenging to defend our current mapmaking process. On the other hand, it’s entertaining—especially for someone who hosts a podcast about Chicago politics.

If I can’t save Chicago from itself, I might as well be entertained. Let the mapmaking begin . . .  v

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →