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Partisan Arguments Over Redistricting Ends In Fight Over Identity As Dems Push Through Maps

Screenshot via BlueRoomStream

Illinois Democrats on Friday pushed through new legislative district maps in a whirlwind 12 hours full of partisan rancor — over the objections of Republicans and many community advocacy organizations who contend Democrats are not acting in good faith in their handling of the once-in-a-decade process.

The new maps will next go to Gov. JB Pritzker, who has been careful to not make any commitments on what the majority party does with legislative district boundaries, repeatedly saying he wants to see a “fair” map. The governor has not made any public appearances to answer questions from reporters since Democrats’ first versions of legislative maps were published last Friday night.

“It’s not a perfect map,” House Redistricting Committee Chair State Rep. Lisa Hernandez (D-Cicero) told her colleagues during debate on the maps Friday. “We’ve had to work and balance. You’re going to have some people who are very happy with it and some that are not going to be quite happy.”

Hernandez said drawing new legislative districts that accurately accounts for Illinois’ racial, ethnic and political makeup was Democrats’ goal, and she “truly believe[s]” the maps Democrats pushed through the House and Senate on Friday “reflect the diversity of this state.”

Republicans vehemently disagreed, calling Democrats’ mapmaking process a partisan power grab from start to finish. State Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) pointed to a wide-ranging federal corruption probe that for the last two years has grown in scope and nabbed state lawmakers, local politicians, powerful lobbyists, business executives and seems to center around former longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan, dubbed in prosecutors’ charging documents last summer as “Public Official A.”

Madigan has not been charged, but he couldn’t hold onto his speakership for a historic 19th term in January as those in his own caucus said they could no longer support him as the scandal crept closer to the Democrat. Madigan’s longtime chief of staff Tim Mapes was charged with perjury this week, adding more fuel to GOP arguments against Democrats’ mapmaking process — techniques perfected by Mapes and Madigan that paved the way for the party’s decades-long dominance in Illinois politics.

“When incumbents get to pick their voters, when politicians get to pick the communities they represent, it opens the door for this kind of culture of corruption, of extortion,” Demmer said. “This cannot be allowed to tolerated in the state Capitol.”

Earlier debates on maps — both in dozens of redistricting hearings and press conferences where lawmakers traded barbs — focused on Democrats’ insistence on running full-steam ahead with the mapmaking process despite the COVID pandemic delaying 2020 Census data.

But Friday’s floor debate on the legislation behind the new legislative district boundaries, particularly in the House, eventually centered on fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans, and the policies they stand for.

“Look at the diversity in this chamber,” House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) told his GOP colleagues Friday night while closing debate on the maps. “Take a look. We represent the state of Illinois. Diversity is the strength of this great state.”

Welch, elected in January to succeed longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan, is the first Black Speaker of the Illinois House. The House Democratic Caucus boasts 49% minority membership, and Democrats in the Senate have a ratio nearly as high. Neither Republican caucus currently includes people of color. 

House Democrats say 15 proposed House districts have populations at or above 50% Black, and 14 districts at or above 50% Latino. Another 12 proposed districts have a Black population between 20 and 49%, while an additional 18 districts have a Latino population in that same range.

Republicans have for months been echoing messages from community advocacy organizations begging lawmakers to wait until final 2020 Census data, which is usually given to states in April, will be published in August. But that’s long past a June 30 deadline enshrined in Illinois’ constitution, and blowing past it means the mapmaking process is taken out of lawmakers’ hands and would eventually give Republicans a 50/50 chance at controlling redistricting in a tie-breaking maneuver.

Instead, Democrats are using a five-year aggregation of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which they say is only 0.3% off from actual Census data, though community groups and some civil rights lawyers disagree. Democrats also said they used plenty of input from two months of redistricting hearings, and for the first time Thursday evening acknowledged what had already been widely assumed: the use of voter data — information used in redistricting nearly everywhere, though it’s banned in a handful of states’ remap processes. 

“Don’t be fooled,” Welch said. “The Republicans’ goal isn’t making sure every person is counted. It’s not. The Republicans’ goal is gridlock.”

The speaker sought to connect GOP lawmakers to the Republican Party at large, which controls 54% of state legislative seats around the nation, along with 27 of 50 governors’ mansions. Nearly half — 23 — of states also have a GOP “trifecta,” meaning Republicans control both chambers of a state legislature and the governor’s mansion. (Illinois has a Democratic trifecta with veto-proof majorities, and the Illinois Supreme Court also has a majority of justices elected as Democrats.)

Welch pointed to voting laws passed in recent months in states like Georgia, which civil rights advocates say will work to suppress voting in communities of color. The Georgia law also makes it a misdemeanor crime to give food or drinks to voters waiting in long lines.

“Look across this country at what the Republican Party is doing state by state,” Welch said. “That is where the real disenfranchisement begins…Voter suppression efforts by your party. They want five hours, six-hour, seven-hour waits to vote.”

State Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) pointed to GOP opposition to the Legislative Black Caucus’ major laws passed earlier this year centered on criminal justice reform, economic opportunity, equity in education and equity in healthcare. The Democrat said those accomplishments are “what Republicans want to erase,” and said it was hypocritical for GOP members to lecture members of his party on former President Barack Obama’s warnings against partisan gerrymandering in a 2016 speech to the General Assembly.

“Today suddenly it seems they’re very concerned with inclusion and fairness and they’re summoning and conjuring the name of one Barack Obama,” he said, laughing to himself. “As we say where I’m from, ‘Welcome to the party, fam.’ Better late than never.”

State Rep. Anna Moeller (D-Elgin) cited red states around the country advancing ever-stricter bans on abortion and a case the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to take up that could end up with the conservative majority on the high court overturning Roe v. Wade.

Illinois Democrats have pushed two laws in recent years meant to shield the state from a possible abortion rights reverse, but as pro-choice Republican lawmakers have disappeared from the General Assembly — and in the GOP writ large — over the last two decades, they played no role in those negotiations.

“Not one Republican in this chamber voted to ensure that women in Illinois would have access to abortion care in the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned,” Moeller said. “The progress we have made for women — and all people of Illinois — would be in jeopardy if Republicans are successful in their political strategy to draw a map…reflective of their agenda.”

Redistricting Committee member State Rep. Avery Bourne (R-Morrisonville) told Democrats that after dozens of hearings and hundreds of hours of testimony from community advocacy organizations pleading with lawmakers to not use ACS data to draw new boundary lines, it was “pretty rich to hear” how members of the majority party were “justifying this map.”

“Because you can’t justify it on the process, you can only justify it on the policies that you have passed in a gerrymandered supermajority that are out of step with the majority of Illinoisans and you want to maintain that control,” Bourne said. “This is unbelievable.”

Conservative State Rep. Andrew Chesney (R-Freeport) picked up on that theme, claiming he sensed discomfort from some moderate Democrats across the chamber in recent votes on legislation with a distinctly progressive bent, trying to make the case that Illinois’ existing legislative districts have resulted in lawmakers to the left of their constituency and laws reflecting that purported imbalance.

Chesney cited debate last week on a bill to require public schools to provide free menstrual hygiene products in both and boys’ bathrooms to accommodate trans boys, and a measure that narrowly passed earlier Friday evening approving controversial new sex education standards.

“They're wondering how the hell do we get tampons in male bathrooms? How's that happen?” Chesney asked “That's because you don't have an independent map. Sex education today just passed with 60 votes. It's like a mini HBO porno. How does that happen? It's because you don't have independent maps. You need a little balance.”

State Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Swansea) accused Republicans of wanting to get control over the mapmaking process in order to go back to the “Rauner tyranny days,” referring to one-term GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner who presided over a two year budget impasse from 2015 to 2017 to force reforms on organized labor, a major funder for Illinois Democrats. 

“He decimated workplace safety, he tried to remove family leave, he tried to take away health care benefits from workers,” Hoffman said. “We don't want to go back there. We're not going to go back there.”

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) was open about her previous calls for an independent redistricting commission, but said lawmakers had to deal with the remap process available now without a constitutional amendment. She also said it’s disingenuous for Republicans to call on Democrats to “disarm” themselves of the political advantage that comes with mapmaking power. 

“Let’s not pretend that the folks on the other side of the aisle — if the roles were reversed — would be doing anything differently,” Cassidy said.

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving to CNI in 2023.
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