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Racial politics on display in County Board remap

Wednesday, May 09, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

Veteran Cook County Commissioner Earlean Collins told me Wednesday the same thing she has been telling her colleagues: She will not be running for re-election in 2014.

The funny part about that is how few of them seem to believe her.

“She’s been threatening to quit since she got there,” said one.

She got there in 1998. The reason it’s come up again now is that it’s redistricting time for the Cook County Board, and there’s a difference of opinion between Collins and fellow West Side Commissioner Robert Steele about the best way to redraw their district boundaries.

Both say it’s not self-interest motivating their disagreement, but rather concern for maintaining African-American political power in the county.

There are currently five African-American majority districts on the 17-seat County Board, and all expectations are that number will be preserved by the remap.

But Collins said she worries that if the map isn’t drawn properly, population shifts over the next decade will cause African Americans to lose one of those seats before the next redistricting. Prompting her concern is that the two West Side-based districts lost 50,000 black residents between 2000 and 2010.

The Austin-based Collins would move both districts to the south in the same path as African-American population shifts. Steele, already based south of Collins in North Lawndale with a district that stretches through downtown to the South Side, thinks it makes more sense to move her district west.

“I’m not running again, so it’s not a personal thing with me,” said Collins, 74, who has held public office since she became the first African-American woman elected to the state Senate in 1976.

Another school of thought holds Collins really does want to run for re-election but is concerned she could be vulnerable in 2014 if more white-populated areas are added to her district.

Collins currently represents three-fourths of Oak Park while Commissioner Peter Silvestri, an Elmwood Park Republican, has the rest. A proposed map thought to be favored by most commissioners would add the rest of Oak Park to Collins’ 1st District along with the Chicago neighborhood of Galewood and Forest Park.

Collins insists she’s not worried how the map would affect her.

“I could still win,” she said.

But another African-American candidate might not fare as well, especially if faced with a united Oak Park, she said.

“Yeah, I could win that district. Is it a winnable, sustainable district? That’s the issue,” she said. “ . . . You don’t think in that time we’re going to merge into the Latinos coming our way or the yuppies coming from downtown?”

From having written enough of these stories, I fully realize it seems very raw to most people to see redistricting discussed from such an overtly racial standpoint, but a primary requirement of the federal Voting Rights Act is that political districts be drawn to allow minority groups to have a fair opportunity to elect one of their own.

Because of that, the racial makeup of any district is the biggest consideration in a remap — that is, right behind partisan advantage and incumbent protection.

Speaking of partisan advantage, commissioners tell me any new map will likely retain the current Democrat-Republican split of 13-to-4.

And speaking of incumbent protection, commissioners also seem in agreement the new map will create three Latino-majority districts, up one from the current two. Slated to become a Latino district is the 16th, currently represented by Jeff Tobolski, a Democrat from McCook.

With a Latino voting age population of only about 53 percent, however, the expectation is it would still be several election cycles before a Latino candidate would have a real chance of winning the 16th.

Cook County’s population dipped 182,000 between 2000 and 2010 to about 5.2 million people. That includes 280,351 fewer whites and 107,193 fewer blacks, along with 173,722 more Latinos and 85,621 more Asians.

A proposed county remap is expected to be publicly released by May 31 with two public hearings, then a vote June 19.

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