Illinois Democrats Pass New District Maps In Partisan Vote

Illinois legislature special session
Illinois legislative roll call from a February 2021 file photo. Lawmakers in a special session Tuesday passed a revised map setting district boundaries. Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool / Associated Press, File Photo
Illinois legislature special session
Illinois legislative roll call from a February 2021 file photo. Lawmakers in a special session Tuesday passed a revised map setting district boundaries. Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP, Pool / Associated Press, File Photo

Illinois Democrats Pass New District Maps In Partisan Vote

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Democrats steamrolled through GOP opposition to pass new legislative political maps Tuesday, fumbled on ethics reform and fell short of striking a deal on a major clean-energy package hobbled by intraparty squabbling.

The one thing lawmakers accomplished was arguably the most important of all to them — fixing political boundaries drawn for all 177 House and Senate districts in a maneuver that could cement Democratic control of the legislature through the 2020s.

“These are good, fair maps that represent the diversity of the state of Illinois,” said Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, whose chamber passed the maps on a 40-17 partisan roll call after the House had done the same earlier in the evening.

The process of drawing new legislative boundaries — determining a community’s elected representatives — occurs after each census every 10 years. Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker already signed into law one set of new legislative boundaries that Democrats approved in May and that now are the subject of federal litigation.

But those districts drawn last spring relied on estimated census data due to federal delays in releasing Illinois and other states’ data because of the pandemic. Democrats plowed forward because the state constitution requires political maps be approved by June 30.

What lawmakers did Tuesday was approve maps composed of more accurate census counts but not without having to endure a loud and scrappy fight from outnumbered Republicans, who were powerless to stop the process.

“Today’s vote confirms that the Illinois Democrats have no interest in honest government. Contrary to their campaign promises, the House Democrats passed a legislative map that lacks any transparency or public input,” House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, said, referring to Pritzker’s campaign pledge to block a partisan-drawn redistricting plan.

“After lying to taxpayers once, the governor now has the opportunity to live up to his campaign promises and veto this politician-drawn map,” Durkin said.

As they face the prospects of another decade campaigning in Democratic-drawn districts, Durkin and his Republican counterpart in the Illinois Senate, Minority Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorne Hills, have filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to get the court to throw the maps out.

“The Democratic majority has abandoned their neighbors and the communities they represent in their quest to consolidate power at all costs,” McConchie said.

In the House, the highly-charged partisan debate turned hostile and personal.

State Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, R-Elmhurst, tore into the legislation’s Democratic sponsor, state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, D-Cicero, saying her reliance on lawyers to help her answer questions during the debate was “proof and evidence of gross incompetence.”

The comments drew a rebuke from both her Republican colleagues and Democrats, including state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, who said Mazzochi’s insult “makes me sick to my stomach.”

Earlier in the day, a handful of community groups also offered their criticism for the lack of time they had to analyze the new maps to see whether the new boundaries would mean more or less minority representation in Springfield.

“We simply don’t have enough reassurances that communities of color have had their voting rights respected,” said Ami Gandhi, with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

But Democrats defended their plan, repeatedly saying the maps will reflect the diversity of the state and making sure minority populations have representation at the state capitol.

State Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago, argued, for example, that the new maps would essentially allow Latinos — a population that census data shows has grown over the last decade in Illinois — to hold a majority of voters in about the same number of districts as the current legislative districts.

“There are roughly a dozen districts in this map that now allow the Latino population to have a significant say in electing a candidate of their choice,” Ramirez said. “This map also accounts for the growing Latino population, ensuring they’ll continue to have an impact on elections in the future.”

Meanwhile, on the other big issue of the day, the state Senate pushed through a sprawling energy package that would bail out Exelon’s financially struggling nuclear plants at Dresden, Byron and Braidwood, encourage wider use of electric vehicles and renewable energy, and deliver hundreds of millions of dollars in potential refunds to Commonwealth Edison customers.

Shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday, the Senate voted 39-16 to send the measure to the House.

Its lead sponsor, state Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, praised its clean-energy provisions as “one of the most sweeping investments our country has seen in renewable resources” and hailed its ethics framework as an answer to ComEd’s nearly decade-long, bribery-tainted lobbying in Springfield.

“There are no backroom deals or insiders influencing this process,” he said.

But even with the Senate’s vote, the bill’s fate wasn’t immediately clear since the Democratic-led House adjourned Tuesday night without a vote and no clear sense of when the chamber would reconvene. Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, said earlier he wouldn’t call the package for a vote unless it had Pritzker’s backing.

And through the day, the energy bill didn’t have that.

The key sticking point was the fate of the Prairie State Energy Campus, a coal-fired plant in downstate Marissa that powers dozens of Illinois communities, including Winnetka, Naperville and Batavia, among several suburbs.

The facility is regarded as one of the nation’s biggest polluters, and Pritzker threatened to veto any energy deal that didn’t contain a clear-cut closure date for Prairie State.

An earlier draft of the energy legislation crafted by Senate Democrats would have established carbon-emission caps on the plant and an eventual closure of Prairie State if it didn’t meet those thresholds. Earlier versions of the bill left open the possibility that the facility could operate indefinitely if it cleaned up its air pollutants, a non-starter for Pritzker.

The Senate bill that passed established a 2045 closure date for Prairie State, but the governor wanted the facility to ratchet down its carbon air pollutants ahead of that date. That language wasn’t contained in the bill that passed.

Before the Senate cast its votes for the bill, Harmon said the measure would make Illinois “the epicenter of the green economy” and insisted the Senate’s move would allow for “continued negotiations to make an excellent bill even better.”

“We can get this done,” Harmon said. “I believe the speaker and the governor both believe we can get this done in a matter of days.”

After the vote during the wee hours Wednesday, Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said the governor’s office “looked forward” to shaping the bill in the House.

She said the governor’s priority is to ensure Prairie State and a municipally owned coal-burning plant in Springfield both close by 2045 “with real interim emissions reductions consistent with previous bill drafts.”

Pritzker is “committed to working with the General Assembly to address some drafting errors in the Senate bill that the governor raised during talks [Tuesday] because they could have unintended legal consequences,” she said.

On other legislative fronts Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers stumbled in their bid to accept Pritzker’s revisions to a more broad ethics package than what the utility bill contained. The governor’s amendatory veto was overwhelmingly accepted in the Senate, but it fell a dozen votes shy of passing in the House.

The measure can still resurface in the House for another vote.

Tony Arnold and Dave McKinney cover Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @tonyjarnold and @davemckinney.