A new Chicago ward map proposal would create the first majority-Asian ward and shrink majority-Black wards by two

Chicago ward map image
Chicago gets its first glimpse at a proposed city ward map. Mary Hall, Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Chicago ward map image
Chicago gets its first glimpse at a proposed city ward map. Mary Hall, Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

A new Chicago ward map proposal would create the first majority-Asian ward and shrink majority-Black wards by two

Chicago aldermen have released a ward map proposal that would create 14 majority-Latino wards, 16 majority-Black wards and the city’s first-ever majority-Asian ward that encompasses Chinatown, the council committee leading the process said Wednesday.

The long-awaited proposal would also create 18 majority-white wards, according to the Rules Committee, and one ward where the largest racial demographic, but not the majority of the population, would be Black. It’s unclear if this proposal is enough to prompt compromise in a stand-off between the council’s Black and Latino Caucuses who’ve both vowed to either maintain or increase their power in council.

The proposal also pushes indicted Ald. Carrie Austin out of her Far South Side ward. The second longest-serving alderman said Wednesday she will retire instead of seeking re-election in 2023.

“I’m going to retire but it wasn’t because of anything else. I was always going to retire,” she told the Daily Line. “That was already my plan. My kids wanted me to retire last election. But I just had a heart for what we were doing.”

The proposal was made public Wednesday after a chaotic week-and-a-half of delayed, cancelled or contentious committee meetings when the map was expected to be released and wasn’t. It could now become the working draft that aldermen tweak and tinker with for an undetermined amount of time in an effort to convince a supermajority of members to vote in its favor.

“Over the next days, months, we’re going to work together as a council to get a map that we can live with as a council and that we can represent to the city,” said Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th Ward, leader of the remap process.

“That’s why we didn’t want to rush a vote on this. It’s unfair for the citizens of the city to not be a part of this process.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who travelled to Washington D.C. this week and was not present for Wednesday’s meeting, said she had not yet reviewed the Rules Committee proposal. The mayor has largely avoided making public comments on the specifics of individual map proposals, but did meet with aldermen privately over the weekend to try to broker a compromise. She said she’ll continue to do so in the months ahead.

Chicago aldermen were working up against a midnight, Dec. 1 deadline to try to pass a map with 41 votes in order to avoid the possibility of a public referendum, codified by state law, that gets unlocked after the deadline passes. Now, starting at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, any 10 aldermen could ban together and petition for the referendum to send competing proposals to voters.

Aldermen involved in the process have maintained they are committed to continued negotiations, at least for now, though the council’s Latino Caucus has not ruled out the possibility of pushing for a referendum.

That means they could be wheeling and dealing for the next few months over the map that will determine the 2023 election layout. Even if a referendum petition is filed, the council could still continue to negotiate, and could still call off the public vote.

The map is based on new 2020 census data that show Latinos have surpassed Black Chicagoans as the second largest racial and ethnic group in the city. Overall, Chicago’s population is 31.4% white, 29.8% Latino, 28.7% Black and 6.9% Asian. Chicago’s Latino population grew by 5% since 2010 amidst a nearly 10% drop among the African American population.

Aldermen are not allowed to increase the total number of wards — so increasing majority wards in one community often means taking from another.

That has fueled long standing tensions between Black and Latino aldermen over the shape of political power in the city — a fight that has become quite public over the past few weeks. The Latino Caucus has said it will reject any map that doesn’t increase majority-Latino wards from 13 to 15, while the Black Caucus has said it would only give up one of its 18 majority-Black wards, though Wednesday’s proposal shrinks that to 16.

It remains to be seen whether Harris will be able to wrangle enough support for the newly-released map to avoid a referendum petition over the next few months.

The council’s Latino Caucus is likely to be disappointed by the proposal upon further review, according to Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th Ward.

“It’s difficult to assess what the proposal is,” Ramirez-Rosa said after Wednesday’s meeting, noting aldermen were given just paper copies of the map without a formal presentation. “But I think it confirms what we’ve expected all along: that the Rules Committee map slices and dices communities, and disenfranchises Latino voters … it appears to be a flagrant violation of the Voting Rights Act.”

Ramirez-Rosa added that even though Wednesday’s proposal may include 14 majority-Latino wards, only 12 of them, he says, have 55 to 60% Latino population. The remaining two have only just above 50%, he said, which could make it more difficult to elect a Latino representative.

Wednesday’s proposal would decrease majority-Black wards by two, for a total of 16. But there would be one Black “influence” ward, the 27th Ward, where the largest racial demographic, about 46%, would be Black, according to Ald. Jason Ervin, chair of the council’s Black Caucus, who is counting that as a win.

“What’s been presented today is 17 [majority-Black wards],” Ervin said. “The 27th Ward has always had a majority population, which we’re comfortable with, the alderman’s comfortable with. So as far as we’re concerned, it’s 17 wards.”

The referendum possibility

Both caucuses have previously released competing proposals or parameters for a proposal to the public with their preferred number of majority-minority wards — drawing hard lines in the sand and furthering the wedge between them — while awaiting a formal proposal from the Rules Committee.

Aldermen historically have been hesitant to take the referendum route, as it relinquishes their power to keep negotiating and come to an agreement on the boundaries of the wards where they themselves will be seeking reelection in 2023.

Both the Black and Latino caucuses — which represent demographics protected under the Voting Rights Act — have more than the 10 members needed to force a referendum.

The Latino Caucus published its map in October and vowed to increase the number of majority-Latino wards in the city by two compared to the last remap. It also proposed cutting the number of majority-Black wards by the same number — a proposal Black Caucus Chair Jason Ervin deemed a “non-starter.”

The Latino Caucus’ move to publish its own map proposal instead of negotiating on a single draft drew ire from Harris, who leads the process.

Meanwhile, the Latino Caucus has alleged it’s been shut out of closed-door Rules Committee meetings. As recently as Wednesday morning, the caucus renewed those accusations.

“Week after week we tried to schedule meetings, to say let’s sit down, let’s negotiate, let’s have a process that’s open and inclusive and transparent,” Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said at a news conference. “And every single week we were told ‘No, get into the map room one by one and map behind closed doors.’”

A new Asian ward likely, but not a “People’s Map”

One thing does seem to be sure this year: For the first time ever, Chicago will likely see a majority-Asian ward on the South Side.

The new map would turn the 11th Ward — the longstanding cornerstone of the Chicago Daley family dynasty and the current ward of Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson, who’s under federal indictment — into a majority-Asian ward by encompassing Chinatown.

Both the Latino and Black caucuses have endorsed the move for a majority-Asian ward.

Chicago’s Asian population has grown 31% in the past ten years, according to 2020 census data, from about 145,000 to 190,000. The greater Chinatown area saw Asian population gains in neighborhoods like Bridgeport, McKinley Park and Brighton Park.

Currently, the Chinatown community is split between three wards: the 11th, the 12th and 25th. Advocates say the lack of consolidation of power has made it difficult for Asian Americans — particularly immigrants — to advocate for issues like language access, pandemic assistance and a local high school for Chinatown residents.

As aldermen focus on reaching a compromise, another proposal may fall to the wayside. The so-called “People’s Map” was crafted by a resident-led commission that held nearly 50 public hearings and trainings dating back to June, according to its website, to guide its final proposal.

Their map, backed by CHANGE Illinois, would create, in part, 14 majority-Latino wards, 15 majority-Black wards and 1 majority-Asian ward.

The proposal has been formally introduced to City Council, but it currently lacks the public aldermanic sponsor needed to rescue it from the council’s Rules Committee. It would then need an additional 9 sponsors to get it on a forced referendum ballot.

Dissimilar to aldermen crafting the city’s ward boundaries, the commission says it did not prioritize protecting incumbents when creating the map — perhaps one reason they’ve seen difficulty garnering support for it. Instead, the commission said it focused on keeping communities intact, making wards compact, and protecting racial and ethnic minority communities.

“Communities of interest do not include relationships with political parties, incumbents, or political candidates,” the commission’s website reads.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who campaigned on a promise to create an independent avenue for new ward boundaries to be carved, commended the commission’s work but recently said she “doesn’t support that map in particular.”

Lightfoot has repeatedly called for public engagement on the map, but has largely deferred to council members to conduct the process.

The Rules Committee has so far held five public remap hearings, several of which consisted of presentations from city officials on the basic rules of the remap. Harris said Wednesday the committee will hold two public hearings on the map next week, then break for the holidays and come back next year with another series of public hearings.

Austin out, and who’s in danger

Wednesday’s map made clear what had been proposed already by the Latino caucus, the redrawing of the 34th ward — which encompasses West Pullman, Washington Heights, Morgan Park and Roseland neighborhoods — into a Near North area to account for increased population there. That move pushes Austin, 72, out of her ward, but the alderman said Wednesday she had long before intended to retire anyway.

Austin was indicted in July for bribery, along with her chief of staff, both accused of taking bribes from a developer in exchange for access to millions of taxpayer dollars for a project in the ward.

Austin was a staunch supporter of past mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley, and once held prominent positions on the city council. But under Lightfoot, Austin’s post as head of the budget committee was stripped, even before the federal investigation into her came into public view.

The map also changes the boundaries of the 14th Ward, currently represented by the city’s longest sitting alderman, Ed Burke, who’s also under federal indictment.

The map released Wednesday would exclude an area of the 14th, Garfield Ridge, that’s home to white Chicagoans in the otherwise heavily Latino ward, potentially making it hard for Burke to get re-elected. The Chicago Sun-Times has reported the mayor told aldermen she would veto any proposal that protects Burke, but Lightfoot declined to confirm that report on Wednesday, instead saying she’s been clear she does not think Burke should remain on the council.

In addition, the map released Wednesday places Daley Thompson in a majority-Asian ward, which could prove a challenge for his re-election. He had been pushing for his ward to be 48% Asian, rather than more than 50%.

The rules committee proposal would also shift the massive future Lincoln Yards development out of Ald. Brian Hopkins’ 2nd Ward and into Ald. Scott Waguespack’s 32nd. The fight for the megadevelopment has become a flashpoint in the larger remap fight. Hopkins pushed the project through City Council in 2019, while Waguespack opposed it.

Mariah Woelfel covers city government for WBEZ. Follow her @mariahwoelfel.