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Aldermen approve new Chicago ward map, avoid ballot referendum on new boundaries

CHICAGO (CBS) -- After months of acrimonious fighting over the future boundaries of the city's 50 wards, the City Council on Monday approved a new ward map that will avoid having voters choose between two competing maps next month.

Aldermen approved the new ward map by a 43-7 vote during a special City Council meeting on Monday, just days before a deadline to avoid having the map decided by a ballot referendum during the June 28 primary elections. The new ward map will take effect with the 2023 municipal elections. Until then, aldermen will continue representing their current wards.

The new map, which sets the boundaries for Chicago's 50 wards for the next 10 years, has 14 Latino majority wards, 16 Black majority wards, one Black plurality ward, and the city's first-ever Asian majority ward – in the 11th Ward, centered around Chinatown.

For months, members of the city's Latino and Black caucuses had clashed over how many Latino wards the city should have, based on the 2020 Census, which saw the city's Black population dropped 10% while the Latino population rose 5%.

The Latino Caucus spent months insisting on a new map with 15 Latino majority wards, but the Black Caucus refused to budge on a map with only 14 Latino majority wards, and in recent weeks, several members of the Latino Caucus agreed to join the Black Caucus for a map with fewer Latino wards.

By forming a coalition of more than 41 aldermen behind one map, the City Council was able to avoid having the competing maps go to voters in a referendum in the June 28 primary election, which both sides have said would be a costly and politically-fraught battle over ward boundaries.

Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th), who has announced he is running against Lightfoot for mayor in 2023, and four other aldermen sought to delay the final vote on the new ward maps, but Lightfoot ruled out of order their request to "defer and publish" the ordinance setting out the new ward boundaries.

Under state law, items up for a vote by the City Council can only be deferred and published if they are being reported out of committee, not if they are being introduced directly to the full City Council, as was the case with the new ward maps approved on Monday.

While the debate over how to draw the new ward boundaries had been intense at times in recent months, for the most part aldermen were diplomatic in their discussion of the new map on Monday, praising each other for agreeing to a compromise in the end.

"Getting 41 or more of us to agree to anything is an extremely difficult task," said Ald. Maria Hadden (49th).

Ald. Sophia King (4th), who chairs the council's Progressive Caucus, praised the new map for protecting minority voices on the City Council, by maintaining 17 majority or plurality Black wards, increasing the number of majority Latino wards from 12 to 14, and creating the city's first majority Asian ward.

"I'm proud that we did what we needed to do to preserve protected classes first, and communities second," she said.

Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th), who voted in favor of the compromise map after initially supporting the Latino Caucus proposal for a map with 15 Latino majority wards, nonetheless said the mayor and City Council should ensure an independent commission, rather than aldermen, draws new ward maps in the future, and allows voters to have the final say on the proposed ward boundaries.

Sigcho-Lopez noted that Lightfoot campaigned on having an independent commission draw new ward maps when she ran for office in 2019.

"This is an opportunity for us to commit so in the next Census and redistricting process. We do not have to see what we saw in this time," he said.

While the new map won overwhelming support from the City Council, it was not without its detractors, particularly Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), who chairs the Latino Caucus and spearheaded their fight for 15 Latino majority wards.

Villegas, who is running for Congress, said while the City Council has avoided a referendum on the new ward boundaries, the new map nonetheless could face an expensive court battle, saying the boundaries of his ward could be "a real red flag" for someone challenging whether the map meets the state law requiring compact legislative districts.

Under the new map, the 36th Ward would stretch more than 7 miles along Grand Avenue, from the Far Northwest Side, just blocks from the border with suburban Elmwood Park, to the West Town neighborhood, just blocks from the West Loop.

Still, Villegas said he hopes aldermen can put their differences over the ward map aside.

"My community has been disenfranchised, and quite frankly cracked, but we have to move forward. There are a lot of issues that we have to face, and history will tell that this Latino Caucus challenged the establishment and we did our best job to try to get maximum seats possible," he said.

Lopez, whose newly drawn 15th Ward resembles the blades of a windmill, and includes parts of the West Englewood, Brighton Park, Gage Park, Back of the Yards, Chicago Lawn, and Canaryville neighborhoods, said the full map of all 50 wards resembles "a Tetris game."

Lopez noted that the new ward map still leaves some neighborhoods divided up between multiple wards, leading to confusion for residents, and making it a bigger challenge for neighborhood concerns to be properly addressed by the City Council.

"It's not going to be easy for many neighborhoods for the next decade. It's going to be a struggle," he said. "When you have neighborhoods that only have representation in one ward four blocks wide and half a mile deep, where you are going to have multiple aldermen trying to corral people together trying to address a local neighborhood issue, we've made that neighborhood suffer. We're going to make things more difficult."

Monday's debate briefly took an ugly turn as Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) traded barbs after Beale, who had sided with the Latino Caucus during the lengthy fight over ward boundaries, claimed he had received text messages from colleagues saying he couldn't go into the Black Caucus' map room, and was told that "orders were given to chop up the 9th Ward."

Ervin, who chairs the Black Caucus, vehemently denied Beale's claims.

"No sir, you were not locked out. Sir, you sold out. You were not locked out," he said. "When the Black community's political survival was at stake, you walked away from us to go somewhere else. Why? We do not know. No orders were given to chop up the 9th Ward. No orders were given by anybody but to preserve the Black Chicago."

An infuriated Beale demanded, but did not receive, an apology for being called a sell-out.

"There's no stronger advocate for African American community than me. I have created over 1,700 jobs in my community, and brought over $1 billion of public-private investment to my community. So when people start throwing daggers, let's say what have we done in our community other than create a skating park and say this is the greatest thing that has happened to the West Side," he said, referring to an outdoor roller rink that opened in Ervin's ward last year.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot largely stayed out of the debate over the new ward map until recent weeks as efforts to reach a compromise to avoid a referendum ramped up.

Ahead of Monday's council meeting, Lightfoot was asked how the new map is fair to the city's Latino community, when Black majority wards continue to outnumber Latino majority wards, yet Latinos outnumber Blacks in population. The mayor said that's a question for the Latino aldermen who supported the compromise map.

"This map, as I understood it, was drawn by members of the City Council, and it has an overwhelming majority of the members signing off on this map. So it's not for me to veto the map and throw the process back into chaos. This is uniquely and supremely a City Council exercise, and they have come to a consensus," she said. "It's them saying we've come to an agreement as to what we think the ward boundaries are."

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