Decline in West Side’s population could mean drop in political power

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New Census numbers have confirmed what the vacant lots and boarded-up houses have told us all along: The population of much of the West Side has plummeted over the last 10 years, especially among blacks who have moved to the Far South suburbs and other parts of the city.

That’s cause for concern among African-American politicians and community leaders, who fear blacks could lose some of their power in government when new legislative boundaries are drawn this year.

Districts at every level of government – congressional seats, county districts and all 50 Chicago wards – will see their boundaries reconfigured this year based on the new 2010 Census numbers. By law, the redistricting process is completed every 10 years to ensure each district contains roughly the same amount of people – though it doesn’t always work out that way.

It’s a messy process, one complete with Chicago-style political maneuvering – the likes of which over the years have resulted in our current, somewhat confusing district boundaries – and one sure to incite a tug-of-war between various races and ethnicities, as groups push for boundaries that will keep them in the majority of their districts.

This year, mapmakers must take the minority groups into account when drawing new boundaries, under a new voting law signed by Gov. Pat Quinn earlier this year. The law also requires the legislature to hold public hearings to gain input.

One of those hearings held in downtown Chicago last month brought out many Asian-Americans – who have been vocal about their desire for more cohesive legislative boundaries around Chinatown, where the population has grown considerably – as well as representatives from Latino and African-American advocacy groups.

“We understand that the redistricting process is political,” Lawrence Hill of African-Americans for Legislative Redistricting told the Illinois Senate Redistricting Committee March 28. “We just do not wish to be its pawns.”

Among the concerns, Hill said, are that the African-American vote could be “cracked” – that is, splintered between districts so neither has a majority – or “packed” – over-concentrating blacks in a few districts, thereby limiting their influence in other areas.

In predominantly African-American districts on the West Side, the challenge may come in retaining the majority in the face of significant population drops.

Redistricting at the city ward level will be tackled next year, when politicians will again have to work with low population numbers. The 24th Ward saw its total population drop 15 percent since 2000; the population is down 16 percent in the 28th Ward, 12 percent in the 29th and 13 percent in the 37th.

And those figures are tempered by whites, Hispanics and/or Asians moving into the neighborhoods. The drop among African-Americans is even greater: 18 percent of blacks left the 28th Ward in the past decade, and 24 percent left the 37th. (View ward-by-ward maps here or spreadsheet here.)

Being in the majority is important, community activists say, because the group in power has the ability to elect a representative who looks like them and will fight for their causes. It can also be a matter of sink or swim for current incumbents, who like to draw their boundaries around large numbers of supporters.

“It really will (impact voters) whether we take part in the process or not,” said Valerie Leonard, co-founder of the Lawndale Alliance, which is advocating for boundaries that would keep the North Lawndale community intact. “The way these lines are drawn are going to impact the ability for people who are incumbents to win again, now and in the future.”

If the district becomes more diverse – that is, drawn to include more whites, Latinos and Asians – “it will be challenging for an African-American to elect a person of their choice,” Leonard said.

The Lawndale Alliance is hold “Redistricting Boot Camp” workshops to inform residents about the process and how it will affect them, Leonard said. The first will be at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 21 and will provide an overview of the process; a second, at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 28, will serve as a brainstorming session. Both will be held at the 10th District police station, 3315 W. Ogden Ave.

The state Senate Redistricting Committee, chaired by state Sen. Kwame Raoul, will hold its next meeting 4 p.m. today (April 19) at the New Cicero Community Center, 2250 S. 49th Ave., in Cicero. An additional meeting is schedule for the West Side on Monday, May 2, though the location has not been confirmed.


One thought on “Decline in West Side’s population could mean drop in political power

  1. The elected officials did a horrible job of ensuring that everyone was counted in their districts and wards. They too should have been knocking on doors.

    Also the redistricting map was already decided. It’s smoke and mirrors for the constituents.

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