June 19, 1997

Op Ed Article

Moment Of Truth in Remap Dispute

By Alton Miller

Alton Miller was press secretary to the late Mayor Harold Washington. He is a board member of Protestants for the Common Good.

t a crossroads in the legal controversy over our city's 1992 redistricting map, Chicago's civil institutions are facing a moment of truth. Is our commitment to racial justice real, or are we resigned to a dispirited cynicism?

We've been here before. A decade ago, Mayor Harold Washington was advised to give up his seemingly unwinnable fight for fair representation in the 1980s ward remap dispute. The defendants, Ald. Edward Burke and his cohort of white City Council incumbents, enjoyed the political advantage of their discriminatory apportionment. With their 29-21 majority they were able to protect their patronage perks, obstruct the mayor's administration and strategically position themselves for the 1987 mayoral elections. Burke's "Council Wars" were giving Chicago a national reputation as "Beirut on the Lake," which furthered his strategy: voters, tired of the fray, would be inclined to vote for a "compromise" candidate for mayor

With a cynical, defeatist public attitude, that strategy might have worked. Even after Washington had won in court, some opined that special elections would be costly and contentious. The moderate course would be to "wait until next time."

Of course, the mayor disagreed. Through court battles, appeals and judicial squabbles over special elections, his perseverance ultimately produced a City Council more nearly representative of Chicago's population and gave him a working majority for his reform agenda.

Today, 12 years later, we're reliving history, with a difference. Ald. Burke is again defending a ward map, which has again produced an unrepresentative City Council to protect his own personal interests. As his 14th ward has been undergoing steady demographic change, viewing overlays of its altered boundaries in remap after remap is like watching a panicky amoeba, slithering westward, away from growing minority neighborhoods. Over the years Burke and his former assistant, Lisa Ruble, have perfected the art of drawing ward boundaries to save his seat.

The difference this time around is that U.S. District Court Judge Brian Duff has ruled in Burke's favor. And instead of a civic community led by a mayor willing to fight for fairness, some of Chicago's leading institutions, including both major metro daily newspapers, are counseling surrender.

They do so with a wary resignation: Though the map is racially unfair, it's good enough for government work; though Judge Duff's 250-page decision is confused and confusing, it would be too costly to appeal.

Instead our institutions should be raising the roof, insisting on an appeal. This is not some lone ghost payroller we're talking about here – at issue is the integrity of our voting rights. And it's not as if there were no grounds for appeal:

- Contrary to Duff's finding that this was "the most open process of reapportionment that I have ever heard of in any case and in any city," everyone knows the map was muscled in by white incumbents working behind closed doors.

- The referendum approving the map was another cynical ploy, no more relevant than a 1945 Mississippi referendum on segregation would have been.

- The defense was tainted by Ald. Burke's personal and professional ties to defense attorneys, who are also campaign donors, to whom he appropriated millions of taxpayer dollars.

Judge Duff preposterously cited Burke and Ruble as the two most credible witnesses. .

Duff's nonsensical evaluation counts only 19 white wards in the City of Chicago, claiming that the 10th, 18th, 46th, 48th and 49th are not among them.

It's a judicial disgrace that this matter should be decided by a judge whose bizarre private and professional behavior have brought dishonor to the bench, and whose own racial biases are reflected in such remarks as his question during trial as to whether an expert's statistical methods were "controlled for miscegenation."

Yet minorities are once again told to wait until "next time." The irony is obvious: Never have they been so well-prepared for remap; a determined majority will always roll them over unless the courts and civic institutions come to their defense. What better way to prepare for "next time" than by rectifying today's unfair map so that a more representative City Council can participate in the making of the next one?

The same day that Chicago's newspapers counseled patience, the Gallup organization reported that a majority of Americans were cynical and pessimistic about race relations. The only way to change those attitudes is by our actions, not good wishes.

The cost of an expedited appeal would be a small fraction of the estimated $12 million that has already been spent to defend Ald. Burke's interests. We should be cheering the plaintiffs on. They deserve the idealistic support of all Chicago's civic institutions, including the media.

Copyright 1997, Chicago Tribune Record Number: CTR9706190026