Redistricting maps custom-made for Illinois Democrats

June 2, 2011

By Kristen McQueary

During debate this week on Illinois’ new map of congressional districts, Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) hoisted a newspaper from 2001.

The article detailed state lawmakers’ discontent with the redistricting map, which back then was drawn by incumbent congressmen from both sides of the aisle. They were allowed to design their own districts with Democrats and Republicans striking handshake deals.

Cullerton used the newspaper story to further a point. The process this time around, he said, was more transparent than 2001. Members of Congress did not personally sketch their own boundaries.

“I was here 10 years ago when we had one hour to vote on a map drawn by all the incumbents,” Cullerton said. “The map we passed this year is so much more compact and splits fewer counties.”

Still, by virtue of their incumbent status and their party’s control in Springfield, Illinois Democrats customized a map that jeopardizes five freshmen GOP members. The Democratic map-makers factored into their proposal incumbents’ addresses, district offices, favorite churches and potential opponents, according to interviews with those familiar with the process.

Congressmen did have input, although not as intimately as a decade ago when former U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller, a Morris Republican, insisted on including his parents, which resulted in a strangely-shaped 11th District.

Aides of U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, Democrat of Chicago, studied vote totals precinct-by-precinct to ensure his new district maintained his strongest pockets of support and dumped his least popular. He also wanted certain churches kept where possible.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. , Democrat of Chicago, picked up territory throughout eastern Will County where he supports construction of an airport. The strategic move gives him more credibility on the project because he can no longer be criticized for engaging on an issue outside his district. Jackson’s opponents during election time often urged him to mind his own district, not the airport. Now he can do both. 

And a potential opponent to U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, Democrat of Western Springs, found himself drawn out of Lipinski’s southwest suburban district. John Atkinson of Burr Ridge has been raising money to challenge Lipinski in the 2012 primary election. Now, by virtue of a pen stroke,  Atkinson is no longer in Lipinski’s district.

Atkinson said he has not decided where to run.

Lipinski said the new map does not guarantee a clear field for his re-election prospects.

“We don’t know where anyone is going to run at this point, so you can’t really say I’ve been spared any possible primary opponent or general election opponent,” he said.

Lipinski said he was satisfied with the boundaries of his district, which include his boyhood home in Midway Airport’s bungalow belt. The working class neighborhood sustained by airport jobs gave his father, former U.S. Rep. William Lipinski, the nickname “Bungalow Bill.”  

His district also includes loyal Democratic wards of Chicago’s South Side and U.S. Cellular Field where the White Sox play. Lipinski said he is a Cubs fan but happy to host Sox park anyway.

Others familiar with the map-drawing process who asked not to be named grumbled that Lipinski got special treatment. Lipinski’s father and the Illinois House Speaker, Michael Madigan, share a long political alliance. Madigan’s aides played a key role in designing the map.

Lipinski said he spoke to Madigan and Cullerton about how his district might look.

“I had conversations with them about what I was interested in,” he said.

Population shifts and the need to protect minorities drove the confines of his new territory, pushing him farther southwest, he said, not his relationship with Madigan.

Members of congress were invited to view the map in Springfield two weeks ago, before the measure was released publicly. Some representatives, including U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, Democrat of Chicago, made the three-hour drive from Chicago. Map-makers didn’t want to fax or e-mail copies of the map for fear any public release would stir controversy before they were complete.

Quigley, who lost a significant number of voters from his Northwest Side base under the new map, said he was allowed to view the boundaries on a computer screen, but he did not provide much input. He compared the process to “being in a roller coaster with no steering wheel.”

“People say the process isn’t political but it is,” he said. “What is unnecessary are some of the things people do on both sides of the aisle to see how much they can hurt the other side. There’s not much I can do about it except serve the constituents under the current map and get myself known in the new parts of the map.”   

Cullerton and Madigan’s chief map spokeswoman, state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, Democrat of Chicago, said the maps were drawn to abide by state law and the federal Voting Rights Act.

Cullerton said political considerations did not drive the map’s boundaries.

But he also said this of the highly partisan Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is counting on Illinois to swing power in the U.S. House back to their control: “The DCCC is very happy with the fact that it’s a very fair map.”