Remap Redux: It will be hard for Democrats to preserve Chicago's political clout

Apr 1, 2001

With an eye toward drawing new General Assembly boundaries for the next decade, legislative mapmakers are set this month to begin poring over detailed information about who lives where in Illinois.

Even as they begin, though, there are ongoing complaints about the accuracy of the U.S. Census Bureau's numbers, in particular that the nose count missed large numbers of the urban poor, minorities, or both. This concern is more than academic. In fact, at heart it's political. The legislative power that follows population under the rule of one person, one vote is at stake.

In Chicago, for example, only 55 percent of the residents mailed in their census forms, one of the poorest responses among major cities. The worst return rates were in the city's poorest neighborhoods and those with the highest concentration of blacks and Hispanics, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

Every city dweller missed by the census only exaggerates what the actual count documents - continuing strong growth in the suburbs surpassing modest gains made in the city.

That demographic fact of life provides strong ammunition for Republican mapmakers who want to increase the suburban share of the state's legislative districts. At the same time, the relentless numbers will make it more difficult for Democratic cartographers who want to preserve Chicago's political clout by keeping the districts now under city control.

Given such conflicting goals, the two parties aren't likely to agree on new Senate and House boundaries during this spring's session, pushing the issue into the lap of a redistricting commission and ultimately a winner-take-all tie-breaker scheme.

How to treat Chicagoland's shifting population is not a new question emerging only with the first redistricting of the 21st century, of course. Rather, what to do about the growing urban area dominated political map-making throughout the 20th century, ranking right up there with protecting incumbents and maximizing party strength as top concerns for map-makers. In fact, the Chicago problem even precluded new boundaries for some 54 years in a foreshadowing of the regional rivalries of today. To understand the present, it helps to review the past.

The state's 1870 Constitution required that legislative boundaries be redrawn after every federal census to reflect population changes, and before Chicago and Cook County became the state's most populous area, 19th century mapmakers routinely did their job.

In the first redistricting under that charter, for example. Cook County was allotted seven of 51 districts, 13.7 percent representation to match its 13.8 percent share of the state's population.

In 1882, Cook County received 10 districts, as its population grew to 19.7 percent of the state's residents. The county jumped to 15 districts in 1893, corresponding to its 31.2 percent of population, and in 1901, was allocated 19 districts for its 1.8 million residents, 38.1 percent of the state total.

By then, the population trend was apparent, though, and rural-oriented, downstate lawmakers were in no mood to allow the 1870 Constitution's redistricting mandate to transfer control of the state's legislative branch to the urban interests of Cook County.

So after the 1910 census showed some 43 percent of the state's citizens living in Cook County, the legislature left the map alone rather than give Cook County another three districts. By 1930, downstate fears had come true: 52 percent of Illinoisans lived in Cook County. Under the 1901 map, however, they were represented by only 37 percent of the 204 lawmakers.

The imbalance continued until 1953, when population growth in Republican-dominated suburban Cook County prompted newly inaugurated Gov. William Stratton to press for a more equitable apportionment of legislative districts between Cook and the other 101 counties. By then, one in every five Cook County residents, almost 900,000 people, lived outside Chicago. Almost 700,000 others lived in what would later become known as the collar counties - DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will - many in such cities as Aurora, Elgin, Waukegan and Joliet, towns separated by miles of countryside but united in the conviction that they were not Chicago suburbs.

Stratton faced considerable opposition from downstate legislative leaders in both parties, but the rookie governor ultimately was able to muscle a redistricting constitutional amendment through the legislature, which voters approved at the 1954 election.

In an effort to mollify downstate concerns, the amendment abandoned the 83-year-old notion that both Senate and House districts reflect population. Instead, it created seven additional Senate districts, for a total of 58, all based on area, with no provision for any further changes, regardless of population changes. Thirty-four were downstate, 18 in Chicago, and six in suburban Cook County.

For the House, the amendment established 59 districts which were to be allocated into three regions - Chicago, suburban Cook County and downstate - based on population following each federal census. Individual districts were to be drawn within each region based on population. Under the initial 1955 allocation, Chicago was allotted 23 districts, suburban Cook seven and downstate the remaining 29.

Moreover, in an effort to assure lawmakers would not ignore the redistricting mandate for the House, the amendment called for a commission to do the job should the legislature fail and for an at-large election of all 177 House members if the panel did not produce a map. The sanctions were not needed in 1955, however, as the legislature passed and Stratton signed the first redistricting in 54 years.

Following the 1960 census, the Republican-controlled General Assembly approved a House redistricting plan, only to see Democratic Gov. Otto Kerner veto it because of population inequities (the largest district had more than twice as many residents as the smallest).

Again, a key issue was the number of districts for Chicago, which saw its population and its share of the county's total decline during the decade. Based on population shifts to the suburbs from the city recorded by the census, suburban Cook was entitled to two of Chicago's 23 districts. Instead, Democrats wanted to overlap districts on the city's outskirts just far enough into suburbia to pick up the extra population needed to keep all 23. Republicans objected, contending such hybrid districts would violate the regional separation required by the state Constitution.

The dispute stymied the redistricting commission, too, so all 177 House members were elected at large in the 1964 election, which proved a windfall for Democrats, who claimed 118 of the seats.

When the new General Assembly convened the following January, redistricting had been further complicated by a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that required both chambers of a state legislature to conform to the one-person, one-vote principle. The 1955 notion of a forever rural, downstate-dominated Senate was history.

The partisan split - a Republican Senate and a Democratic House - doomed legislative remap efforts that session, as the parties could not agree on what to do with Chicago. The job of drawing new Senate maps fell to the Illinois Supreme Court, with the federal courts looking on, while the House cartography was a chore for another redistricting commission.

By late summer, party leaders and federal and state judges reached agreement on the Senate, and the state high court adopted a map providing 21 districts in the city, nine in suburban Cook and 28 downstate. None crossed the Constitution's regional boundaries.

The redistricting commission also reached a compromise later in the year, thus averting another at-large election. The panel accepted the same lines for the 21 Chicago and nine suburban Cook County House districts as the courtrequired for the Senate, then drew completely different boundaries for the 29 downstate House districts.

The 1970 census, continuing a familiar pattern, showed a movement of people from Chicago into the suburbs, so that almost 40 percent of Cook County's residents lived outside the city. The combined population of suburban Cook and the collar counties, some 3.6 million, now outstripped the city's by some 245,000 people.

As a result, Chicago was entitled to only 17 and a fraction districts instead of the 21 it had, while the Cook County suburbs were entitled to 11 and a fraction, instead of nine.

But the constitutional requirements for redistricting had changed, thanks to the new Constitution. The 1970 charter added a 59th Senate district, and required that three House members be elected from each Senate district.

More significant, the notion of regional separation was eliminated, so districts could overlap between the city and the suburbs, or between Cook and its neighboring counties. The only stipulation was that districts be "compact, contiguous and substantially equal in population."

Gone, too, was the specter of at-large elections for House members. In its place, the framers of the new Constitution installed a sort of "Russian Roulette" provision, under which an impasse in drawing new Senate and House maps ultimately would lead to the luck of the draw giving one party a free hand to attempt to gerrymander the other into legislative irrelevance.

The constitutional green light for hybrid districts proved to be critical in drawing a new legislative map in 1971 by providing the key for partisan dealmakers to handle Chicago's population decline.

Rather than lose a couple of seats, as the census seemed to dictate, city lawmakers pushed for overlapping districts that would bring enough suburbanites into city-based districts to meet the required population, but not so many as to undermine Democratic control. 

Late in the session. House Speaker W. Robert Blair, a Park Forest Republican, agreed to the Democrats' wishes for Chicago. In return for allowing Democrats to draw the districts in Cook County, including some overlapping into suburban territory, Blair was given carte blanche to draw the districts everywhere else in the state to favor Republicans.

The House passed a map embodying the compromise, but Senate GOP leaders rejected the deal, contending it was a sellout of Republicans in suburban Cook County, and the map-making task went to the redistricting commission.

As the panel's membership included the same House leaders who put together the original deal, there was little surprise when it approved a map very similar to the earlier House plan.

The map placed 11 districts entirely within Chicago, and created nine others around the city's perimeter that extend into the suburbs just far enough to hit the population mark, without threatening Democratic control. It had eight districts wholly in suburban Cook County and two others that were based in Cook but included some collar county population. The remaining 29 were scattered downstate.

Thanks to the hybrid districts, the stumbling block posed by Chicago's ongoing loss of population had been overcome, and no one had to face the winner-take-all gamble.

Once again, the 1980 census recorded booming suburban growth and an exodus from Chicago, jeopardizing the city's legislative strength. The city count was down to slightly more than 3 million, a loss of about 365,000 people over the decade, and a 17 percent decline from its 1950 peak of 3.6 million. More than 2.2 million people lived in suburban Cook County, while collar county residents numbered slightly more than 1.8 million, a gain for suburbia of some 492,000 people. The downstate population, meanwhile, stood at 4.3 million, making it the most populous of the state's regions.

Based on the new demographics, Chicago was entitled to only 15 1/2 Senate seats and 31 House seats, compared to the 20 representative districts the city controlled under the 1971 plan. Most of those excess city seats were owed suburban Cook and the collars, which controlled just 17 districts under the old map, instead of the 21 Senate and 42 House districts dictated by the new census numbers.

Moreover, a new twist had been added to further complicate redistricting in 1981: a constitutional amendment voters ratified in 1980 that eliminated 59 House seats and called for the remaining 118 to be elected from single-member districts paired within 59 Senate districts.

So instead of drawing 59 districts, mapmakers faced the task of fashioning 177, in the bargain leaving 59 House members without winnable districts.

Added to the partisan division in the General Assembly - a Democratic Senate and a Republican House - the amendment guaranteed redistricting not only would pass again to the commission, but that a panel evenly split between Democrats and Republicans would be unable to reach agreement.

Instead, the constitutional tie-breaker provision came into use for the First time, and when Secretary of State Jim Edgar drew the name of former Democratic Gov. Sam Shapiro from a black stovepipe once worn by Abraham Lincoln, Democrats had a free hand to draw a map that would minimize both the loss of Chicago's clout and legislative cutback casualties among the party's House incumbents.

The final plan accomplished both goals: 19 Senate and 37 House districts were under city control, including 10 Senate and 16 House districts that overlapped into suburban territory, but were expected to elect city-oriented Democrats. Another two suburban districts were drawn with Democratic leanings, and indeed elected Democratic senators throughout the 1980s. In addition, of the 59 House seats eliminated by the cutback, 43 had been in GOP hands.

How good was the Democratic map? Good enough that the party controlled both the Senate and the House for a decade, weathering Ronald Reagan's re-election landslide in 1984.

After the 1990 census revealed ongoing population loss for the city and gains for the suburbs, the Democrats' success in Grafting the 1981 map made it more unlikely that a partisan agreement could be reached. There were simply too many Democrats with not enough people living in their districts. In fact, almost four out of every five sitting Democrats were short population, while almost three out of every five GOP incumbents were in districts with too many people.

Thus, the demographics clearly favored Republicans, and so, too, did the political landscape. While Democrats controlled both chambers and were able to push a redistricting bill through the legislature, Republican Gov. Jim Edgar was ready with his veto pen and struck down the legislation, saying the plan was not "politically fair."

After the redistricting commission deadlocked, as expected, the Republicans finally won favor with Lady Luck, too: Secretary of State George Ryan drew the name of GOP state chairman Albert M. Jourdan as the ninth and tie-breaking panel member.

The resulting Republican map acknowledged at last the postwar flow of population from Chicago to the surrounding towns and villages, creating 24 Senate and 46 House seats rooted in suburban Cook and the collar counties. Chicago lost five Senate and eight House seats, while downstate lost one in each chamber. The demographics got a further boost when Republicans adopted the old Democratic ploy of hybrid districts: six of the 24 suburban districts slice into Chicago, including the DuPage-based 23rd, home to Senate President James "Pate" Philip of Wood Dale.

With the gain of six Senate and nine House seats, suburbanites were set to elect more lawmakers than either Chicago or the other 96 counties for the first time in state history.

Despite the suburbs' plurality of districts, however, the 1991 map has not provided Republicans the same security Democrats enjoyed a decade earlier. While the Senate remained in GOP control with Philip as president throughout the map's run, Democrats led by House Speaker Michael Madigan won House majorities in four out of the five elections under the 1991 plan.

One key to the Democratic success has been the party's ability to win on suburban turf, while defending city districts. Only a single Republican was elected last November from one of the 29 city-based House districts, while Democrats won in 15 of 46 suburban-rooted districts. Democrats also claimed 19 of 43 downstate seats. In fact, not a single district changed its partisan stripes in 2000.

Thus Madigan, the 13th Ward committeeman, now heads a House Democratic caucus in which his fellow Chicagoans are outnumbered, 34 to 28, by suburban and downstate legislators.

As the 2001 redistricting with its familiar Chicago subplot plays out, the lesson for both parties seems clear: The best way to overcome declining population in familiar territory is to make new friends on the other guy's turf. 

Charles N. Wheeler III, director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, spent three decades covering the Statehouse for the Chicago Sun-Times.