Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Listen to this article

Black and Hispanic Democratic legislators in Springfield have voted twice this year for new state House and Senate maps to be in place for the 2022 elections.

But while insider minorities were satisfied with the map plan, Hispanics outside the redistricting process immediately were not. Now a Black group also has joined the fray.

Complaining they are being denied representation commensurate with their Illinois population numbers, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a federal lawsuit.

It was followed last week by a group representing Black Illinoisans. While not formally filing a lawsuit, it is asking a panel of three federal judges to use its “leverage” to force map changes that create additional majority-Black districts.

Illinois African-Americans for Equitable Redistricting said it is seeking a map plan that “provides optimal opportunity for Black voters to exercise their right to elect candidates of their own choosing.”

What that really means, of course, is Black voters electing more Black legislators.

That’s also what Hispanic groups want — more Hispanic legislators. Ironically, Republicans were singing from the same hymn book when they asked the court to strike down the Democrats’ map because the GOP is drawn into permanent super-minority status.

It’s the Republicans’ misfortune that the U.S. Supreme Court has — largely — washed its hands of trying to referee partisan gerrymanders. But it’s a different story for minority groups, who have special protection under federal and state voting laws.

But what happens when two prominent minority groups — Black and Hispanics — both claim they are underrepresented and, at the same time, share much of the same legislative turf? As Illinois’ Hispanic population has grown steadily, its political power has increased. It’s not hard to guess at whose expense.

“Every redistricting plan the legislature has come up with after 2011 has done progressively more harm to Black voters,” contends Valerie Leonard, who runs Illinois African Americans for Equitable Redistricting.

Black Illinoisans make up 13.9 percent of the state’s population, down from 14.3 percent in 2011. Over that same period, Illinois’ Hispanic population jumped from 15.8 percent to 18.2 percent.

Both groups have large populations in Chicago and Cook County, although Black people are exiting Chicago in increasing numbers.

Those population shifts and increases are fueling the anger of one group that fears it is losing influence and the other that fears it is being denied the influence its numbers justify.

That makes for a nasty struggle for power in communities like Chicago that have always embraced tribal politics within the dominant Democratic Party.

This battle doesn’t have much impact on partisan control of the General Assembly because the combatants are all Democrats. But it sets the stage for an ever-growing dispute over which groups within the Democratic Party will have the most influence.

One irony is that while Leonard complains that Black Illinoisans are shortchanged by the maps, the redistricting process was overseen by, among others, new Black Democratic House Speaker Chris Welch.

Earlier this year, Democratic legislators used population estimates to draw the first round of maps because of coronavirus-caused delays in U.S. Census numbers. When recently released census figures showed House and Senate districts with improper variations in populations, Democrats redrew the maps to ensure districts fit within population parameters.

Leonard complains the second map is even worse than the first. The first, she said, had 12 majority Black House districts and six Black Senate districts. The second had eight majority Black House districts and four Senate.

The Latino group complains that under the map approved last week their number of majority House districts would fall from 5 to 4 and majority Senate districts from 3 to 2.

Legislative leaders drew the districts primarily to elect Democrats at the expense of Republicans. Their concern is that redrawing legislative districts to create more majority Black or majority Hispanic districts would require moving populations around in some districts that might allow Republicans a fighting chance in other districts, somewhat akin to pulling a thread in ways that unravel a whole sweater.

The three-judge panel has scheduled a Sept. 27-29 trial.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

Trending Videos