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Solving this problem would resolve so many others in Chicago city government

Crain's Chicago Business

Monday, January 23, 2023  |  Column  |  Madeleine Doubek

Chicagoans, what worries you most? 

Is it the escalating gun violence and crime? The rising cost of living and whether you can afford to keep calling Chicago home? Maybe it’s the quality of the education your children are getting?

Whether it’s any or all of those things, or something different, the chances of those worries being addressed and dealt with head-on likely would increase exponentially if the city’s voters actually got to choose all of their elected officials.

Sure, there’s an election for mayor and alderperson coming up Feb. 28, but a majority of the current incumbent council members chose who the voters would be for their wards or their successors’ wards when they cut a deal in a back room and then voted in public last May for a map that set new ward boundaries for the next decade.

Those boundaries, primarily, were drawn with regard to what made sense for the incumbents and their ability to keep their political power, not with any regard for what made sense for people in the neighborhoods and communities of Chicago. And, Chicago being Chicago, some of the boundaries were drawn in crazy-quilt fashion to punish those who wouldn’t go along to get along and who caused grief during the map process. Go ahead, Google a map of the 33rd Ward or the 15th Ward.

Chicago’s wards form the foundation of government, and, it stands to reason, elected officials’ responsiveness to residents’ worries would increase if that foundation were set in a way that was fair and encouraged accountability from those council members. In other words, if your council member is confident she or he will win re-election, do they really need to pay more than lip service to you when you register a concern about that shooting in broad daylight the other day? Probably not.

That is why you need to care about the way wards are drawn. And that is precisely why more than a dozen community-based organizations from all over Chicago worked together to develop a survey to find out where the mayoral and aldermanic candidates stand on how ward mapping and redistricting gets done.

Organizations as diverse as the Rainbow/Push Coalition, Muslim Civic Coalition, the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, the Resident Association of Greater Englewood and the Union League Club of Chicago, to name a few, believed it was important to get candidates on the record about ward mapping.

This first-of-its-kind survey produced some promising results for those of us who believe ward redistricting should not be done by incumbents.

Most of the candidates for Chicago mayor and scores of the majority of aldermanic candidates who responded said they believe it’s time to change the behind-closed-doors, incumbent-controlled approach to ward remapping.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot first campaigned on moving to independent ward mapping, but did not fulfill that pledge and encouraged a council compromise last year. Her campaign turned down the chance to answer the survey.

Five of the nine mayoral candidates did respond, and aldermanic candidates in 38 out of 50 wards also explained their views on shaping wards here.

Candidates have a lot of requests to answer surveys. It also can be telling when they choose not to participate. One resident commented on social media that she'd read the responses and added, “Those who didn’t answer aren’t options for me.”

In 2021 and 2022, my nonpartisan nonprofit, Change Illinois, created a diverse resident redistricting commission that took input from all over the city and drew its own map for Chicago, in public, to model and demonstrate a better way to map wards and communities. The residents who served on that commission centered their boundaries on what they thought worked for residents after they spent months listening to hundreds of residents who provided public input.

One of the council candidates now running followed that resident commission’s work and recently passed along her feedback: “The education and the information provided by the Redistricting Commission was invaluable, and it surpassed anything that regular citizens had been provided in the past. If all of our elected officials could bring this type of transparency and professionalism to our communities, we could finally have a system by and for the people.”

Indeed.

Worried about gun violence? Rising inflation or taxes? Safe, quality schools? Food deserts? Then you also should care about how wards are drawn. Before you vote, learn about where the candidates stand on this core topic at changeil.org.

Madeleine Doubek is executive director of Change Illinois, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for ethical and efficient government.