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Aaron Stern/MEDILL

In the 49 years Joe Kopera has lived on the 2100 block of North Bingham Street, he has been a constituent of four different Chicago wards.

Political power draw: Straddling federal law and re-election ambition

by Aaron Stern and Ryan Craggs
May 02, 2010


Ryan Craggs/MEDILL

Ald. Ed Burke has represented the 14th Ward since 1969. The shifting boundaries of his ward demonstrate how incumbents protect themselves – and how wards crawl and transform over time. A series of graphically enhanced maps show the Westward movement of the 14th Ward and Burke's address in each year.  At the last redraw, there was no overlap of the 14th Ward from when Burke began his career.  


Ryan Craggs/MEDILL

Ald. Burke was elected in 1969 and by the redraw in 1972 had a new address.


Ryan Craggs/MEDILL

Ald. Burke made his most dramatic address change between the 1972 and 1981 redraws.


Ryan Craggs/MEDILL

Ald. Burke moved slightly northeast between 1981 and 1992.


Ryan Craggs/MEDILL

Ald. Burke's address did not change between 1992 and 2001--though his ward continued to move northwest.

Without ever moving from the block he grew up on, Joe Kopera has lived in four different Chicago wards in the last 49 years. 

When his parents moved to the 2100 block of North Bingham Street in 1961, the Logan Square neighborhood was an amalgam of Polish, German and Italian descendants--all part of the 35
th Ward. By the time Kopera bought the bungalow next door to his parents in 1972, his block had become part of the 33rd Ward. In the 1980s the neighborhood had become largely Hispanic; it also became part of the 26th Ward. Since 2002 it’s been part of the 1st Ward.

With the city set to revise its boundaries after the upcoming U.S. census, Kopera could be on the move again. The process by which Chicago redraws its ward maps every 10 years is driven by federal law, but it's also driven by backroom dealing among the city's aldermen.

“They’re trying primarily to protect incumbents, particularly incumbents that support the mayor,” said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and current head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

That process can leave residents such as Kopera in the lurch.

“The only thing that’s frustrating about the ward remap is that you have a new [aldermanic] administration, a new office to deal with, a new group of people that may or may not know what you’ve done in the community over the years,” said Kopera, who has been active in his neighborhood CAPS group and other community organizations.

Federal law and judicial precedent dictate that election boundaries create an equal number of constituents in each voting jurisdiction, at all levels of government. In Chicago, that means each of the city’s 50 wards must contain as close to the same number of residents as possible. Because of the population-based requirement, redrawing the ward boundaries occurs after the census is completed.

While creating wards of equal populations is the primary consideration in ward redistricting, the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 mandated that the process not discriminate against minority groups. Previously, geographic areas with high minority concentrations were purposefully fractured so those groups could not establish a voting majority in any ward, said Judson Miner, a Chicago-based civil rights attorney.

However, map drawers at all levels of government must balance the Voting Rights Act against the constitutionality of districts as established by recent Supreme Court cases that have curbed the extent to which race is considered when re-drawing districts.

“Map drawers are between a rock and a hard place,” said David Canon, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  “You can’t have race as a predominant factor, but you still have to take race into account.”

The challenge for racially diverse cities such as Chicago is striking a balance between distributing residents equally and ensuring minority groups have representation. The result, Miner said, is that Chicago must create wards that mirror the city’s demographics. For example, if the census determines that the city is 30 percent Latino, then 30 percent of the city’s wards must be majority Latino. More often than not this means that Latino wards elect Latino aldermen and black wards elect blacks.

Some look at this as progress, but occasionally politicians feel race and ethnicity carry more heft than they should.

"I just don’t believe you have to have a homogeneous ethnic area,” said former alderman Burt Natarus.  “I just never agreed with that. People call me a racist for that.”

Natarus served as 42nd Ward alderman for 36 years before losing his seat in 2007.  His ward encompassed primarily the Loop and at one time stretched down to Cermak Road. But while incumbents may manipulate boundaries to stay in office, for Natarus, it often proved a hindrance.  After redistricting, the 42nd Ward extended south to Taylor Street for several years—a distance so great from where Natarus lived on the North Side that he was forced to open a special office closer to Taylor.

But when the old 1st Ward was chopped up to combat organized crime after the 1990 census, neighboring wards were affected. That included Natarus’, and it eventually played a role in his failure to win reelection in 2007.

“I don’t care if the person is black, Hispanic or white. The most qualified person should be elected,” he said. “But this is how it works, and that’s the way the majority of aldermen like it.”

Yet for the very same reasons that Natarus dislikes the approach, Miner sees is at necessary.

“There are people that say, ‘no, we should promote wards, districts that are themselves integrated and representative,’” Miner said. “If you [abandon the current approach] it turns out that the more vulnerable segments of society get screwed.”

In Miner’s perfect world, census data would be fed into a computer, maps would be redrawn and everybody would go home.

In reality, such demographically driven maps merely serve as jump-off points for negotiations among aldermen.

“This is a wildly political process,” Miner said.

Chicago’s redistricting is typically led by either the City Council’s Committee on Committees, Rules and Ethics – headed by 33
rd Ward Ald. Dick Mell – or by a special committee usually led by 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke and influenced heavily by Mayor Daley, he said.

“Eddie Burke gets to keep whatever ward he wants," Simpson said.

A 1994 report issued by the Chicago Urban League, the Metro Chicago Information Center and Northern Illinois University put it simply:

“The incumbent-driven process does not encourage social diversity within wards as aldermen scramble and negotiate to draw wards for themselves that will have dominant majorities expected to support their past political positions and social affiliations,”  the report stated.

The struggle for aldermen to draw wards that keep them in office has not always met the letter of the law.

Ward boundaries drawn by the council following both the 1980 and 1990 censuses spent years tied up in federal court.  The 1980 boundaries were eventually redrawn by the court and a special election was held to elect new aldermen. The council's redrawing following the 2000 census went uncontested in court, but not because it was depoliticized: The Rules Committee appeased the black aldermen while increasing representation for Latino aldermen, Simpson said.

Miner said the City Council, long dominated by white aldermen, has learned that minority blocs have gotten too large to be pushed around anymore, and that if it goes to the courts things won’t always end well for them.

But that doesn’t mean that next year’s redrawing process will go off without a hitch. With the black population of the city falling and the Latino population increasing, there is sure to be a struggle between the city’s black aldermen and Latino aldermen looking to increase their number of wards, Simpson said.

And when the dust settles, Kopera won’t be surprised if he is once again living in a different ward.

“It is [frustrating], yeah, but that’s out of my control. I have no control over that unless I move with the population,” Kopera said. “I’ve been here for 49 years and there’s no reason for me to move.”