CHICAGO - The once-a-decade political power struggle triggered by the need to redraw Chicago’s ward boundaries to accommodate the U.S. Census is over — at least for the time being.
The City Council did its part on Monday, voting 43 to 7 to approve a compromise ward map that includes 14 majority Hispanic wards and preserves 17 African American wards, including one with a Black plurality.
Asian Americans, Chicago’s fastest-growing population, would be rewarded with the city’s first-ever ward with an Asian American majority.
For months, the major roadblock to a deal between the Black and Latino caucuses was the demand for a 15th majority-Hispanic ward.
After leaving two Hispanic majority wards on the table 10 years ago, Latino Caucus Chairman Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) simply did not want to settle for anything less to reward Hispanics for a 5.2% increase in Chicago’s Hispanic population.
But in the end, Villegas found himself on the short end of the stick.
If he loses his race for Congress against State Rep. Delia Ramirez (D-Chicago) and chooses to seek re-election, Villegas will be left with a narrow contortion of a ward that makes the bizarrely-shaped 2nd Ward look compact.
How Villegas went from leader to sacrificial lamb to shore up the Hispanic majorities of surrounding North Side wards depends upon whom you talk to.
Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) says he sold out Villegas before Villegas could do the same to him.
Ramirez-Rosa said Villegas approached him on May 2 and said it was time to "accept reality and compromise" because trade unions were prepared to spend $2 million to defeat the map drawn by the Latino Caucus in a June 28 referendum.
"I went into the map room with him on Wednesday, May 4th … I said, ‘Gil, I feel like you got threatened with $2 million in negative mailers against you where they would go after you and attack you and make it harder for you to go to Congress and you lost all your will to fight,’" Ramirez-Rosa said.
"When you no longer have a captain on the ship and the captain is jumping ship, obviously I and others acted to make sure that we had a compromise that worked for our communities. Felix [Cardona] the next day announcing publicly that he had switched his support … was another event in the chain of events that led to the compromise we had today."
Not surprisingly, Villegas tells a dramatically different story.
He says United Working Families, which has joined the Chicago Teachers Union in supporting Delia Ramirez for Congress, pressured Ramirez-Rosa and his fellow Socialists to make a deal and "sell out" Villegas.
"As a result of that, Carlos went in without the attorney for the Latino Caucus and cut his deal. If there’s anyone who is trying to cut a deal behind someone’s back, unfortunately it was Ald. Ramirez Rosa," Villegas said.
Villegas said it’s ironically fitting that the new 36th Ward is so long and narrow, it literally looks like a snake.
"You had some of my colleagues that were, I guess, self-portraits of snakes that were drawing a snake to memorialize the back-stabbing that took place," he said.
"This is all politics. United Working Families is supporting my opponent. So are Rossana Rodriguez, Dan LaSpata and all of the Socialists. As a result of that because of my congressional race, what you see is them selling out the community in order to put politics over people."
However, the compromise came together, the ward map approved by the City Council is vulnerable to a legal challenge, according to Frank Calabrese, the veteran mapmaker who carved out the boundaries for the Latino Caucus.
The weakness lies first and foremost in the snake-like configuration of the 36th Ward and in the "10% deviation" between African-American wards on and Latino wards on the North Side, Calabrese said.
"You have to draw wards that are compact. The 36th Ward goes from almost downtown to almost O’Hare," Calabrese said.
"We think it’s funny. But imagine actually living in that ward. … It just doesn’t make any sense. There’s absolutely no community. Your ward is like a block wide. It’s impossible really to be an effective alderman. At least the 2nd Ward, which is currently an ugly ward, is kind of based in a general area. The 36th Ward … is like a block wide in a lot of areas. How can you be an alderman of someone when everything around them is in a different ward?"
Although the compromise map now includes 14 majority Latino wards, Calabrese warned that the future for Hispanic political empowerment is bleak.
"If you use raw Latino numbers, there are 14. But, if you count citizen voting-age population, which is the voting share of the ward, there’s only 10 wards that are above 50%. There’s 10 now. So, even though the Latino population has grown, they didn’t really increase any," Calabrese said.
"Not only are they treading water. They’re given wards that are gonna be much more rapidly gentrified. … Latinos are moving out of Logan Square and young white people are moving in. The same thing with West Town. … By the 2023 election, Latino voting power in those two wards will be possibly below 40%. Under this map, it could be very well likely that Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and Gil Villegas are the last Latino aldermen for those two wards."