On a blustery March day, 11th Ward Ald. Nicole Lee made the rounds at Phoenix Restaurant in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood. Over steamed buns and noodles, she presented herself to would-be Chinese voters.
“This was a long, hard fight, to get this Asian-majority ward,” Lee said.
For decades, Chicago’s Chinatown leaders and residents worked to consolidate their political voice under one ward instead of being split into two or three wards for so long. They finally got their wish last year when the ward maps were redrawn — with support from the Black and Latino caucuses — to create the city’s first Asian-majority ward. The 2020 Census showed that Chicago’s Asian population had grown 31% between 2010 and 2020, especially in the greater Chinatown area that includes neighborhoods like Bridgeport and McKinley Park.
Now in the upcoming April 4 municipal runoff, the 11th Ward has its chance to elect an Asian American onto City Council. But there are two candidates: incumbent Lee, whom Mayor Lori Lightfoot appointed last year following Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson’s resignation after being convicted of federal corruption charges; and Anthony Ciaravino, a longtime cop for the Chicago Police Department. If he prevails in the runoff, the city’s first Asian-majority ward could have a white alderman.
“We have to come together as a community … to show that we’re ready for what we asked for,” Lee said. “When you ask for a majority ward, you’re asking for representation, so we have to see that through.”
But appeals to representation alone may not win Lee’s case next month. In February, she was the top vote-getter, with 31%; Ciaravino came in a close second with 29%. The 11th Ward’s voting age population is just over 50% Asian, according to a WBEZ analysis of 2020 Census data. The ward is about 27% white, 18% Latino and about 3% Black.
Lee, who is Chinese American, drew supporters from across the ward and received a third of the vote in majority-Asian precincts, a third in majority-white precincts, and a third in precincts with no racial majority, according to a WBEZ analysis of election results.
Another Chinese candidate, Don Don, the third place finisher overall who won most of his support from voters in Chinatown, carried another third of the vote in majority-Asian precincts. Ciaravino won about one-fifth of the vote in majority-Asian precincts, but his strongest showing was in white precincts where he carried 47% of the vote.
Last Tuesday, Ciaravino dropped off coffee cake to seniors who played bingo at Taylor-Lauridsen Park in Canaryville, on the south end of the 11th Ward. He was not campaigning there — doing so on city property is prohibited — but that didn’t stop the bingo players from telling him how they felt.
“Why the heck did they change the damn ward?” asked one senior as Ciaravino was walking out.
“A lot of residents are very upset,” Ciaravino told WBEZ. “They feel like they’ve been shoved to the side. They feel like an unwanted child.”
He said the fight for the Asian-majority ward — and the subsequent remap — has resulted in splitting up the ward for many elderly “matriarchs who have deep, embedded generational roots over 100 years” in the area.
Ciaravino said he did not think Asian representation on the City Council is important, but that he has a lot of “friendships and fellowships and brothers and sisters in that Chinatown community.”
He also said the influence of the Daley political dynasty, while not as powerful as it once was, still lingers in the ward and the city. Five mayors have come from Bridgeport, including Richard J. and Richard M. Daley. The latter Daley has endorsed Lee in the race. Her father, Gene Lee, is a former Daley aide convicted of stealing from charities in 2014.
Political dynasties aside, Ciaravino said he is the best man for the job because of his nearly 30 years of experience in law enforcement. While both he and Lee say public safety is the top issue in this race, Ciaravino said Lee does not know enough about Chicago Police policies, special orders and federal mandates to make the 11th Ward safer.
Ciaravino said the police beat where Lee herself lives had the highest number of robberies in the city in 2022. There were 114 robberies recorded in beat 914 in 2022, which was the highest number of robberies in a police beat, according to Chicago Police Department stats from the city’s data portal.
Robberies represent fewer than 4% of all reported crimes citywide but about 15% of all crimes in the Armour Square community area and police beat 914, which Ciaravino highlighted. But data also show that neighborhoods in the 11th Ward are relatively safe compared to other areas of the city. The overall number of reported crimes per 1,000 residents last year and the number of homicide and non-fatal shooting victims per 1,000 residents since 2019 in Armour Square and Bridgeport are below the city’s average, according to a WBEZ analysis of CPD crime data.
While public safety is at the center of the 11th Ward race, voters have other issues on their mind as well, including the ongoing fight for a new neighborhood high school and the economic development of Chinatown, one of the few remaining Chinatowns in the country that are still growing.
Lee, who last week exchanged endorsements with mayoral candidate Paul Vallas, said at an 11th Ward debate on Saturday that she has begun proving herself on the job in the past year. Ciaravino said at the debate that Vallas’s endorsement of Lee was a shock.
The question for the ward, ultimately, is who will show up at the polls on April 4 and whether residents will vote along racial lines, said Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, a civic education and advocacy group.
On Feb. 28, 11th Ward residents turned out to vote at a higher rate than the city overall, with about 45% of registered voters casting a ballot, compared to the citywide rate of 36%. But there were still wide gaps in turnout within the ward, particularly along racial lines. Turnout in majority Asian precincts was 42%, while turnout in majority white precincts was 60%.
“A lot of times people would point out that Asian American voters don’t vote,” McKibben said of the lower rates of voting among the population. “It’s hard because [of] language barriers and cultural barriers” and a lack of trust in government.
McKibben said the most important goal for her organization is increasing voter turnout.
“Regardless of the outcome of this particular election, we want to keep working toward making people feel that their voices matter,” McKibben said.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang. Amy Qin is a data reporter for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @amyqin12.