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Cook County in last throes
of setting new single-member districts

The County Board itself must establish the 17 districts
for 1994 county commissioner elections.
Political machinations abound as the incumbents
parse them out among city and suburbs, Democrats and
Republicans, African Americans and Hispanics, etc.

Jerry Butler. Allan Carr. John Daley. Frank Damato. Danny Davis. Marco Domico. Robert Gooley. Carl Hansen. Irene Hemandez. Thaddeus "Ted" Lechowicz. Mary McDonald. Maria Pappas. Richard Phelan. Richard Siebel. Herbert Shumann. Bobbie Steele. John Stroger.

These are the commissioners that make up the Cook County Board, representing 2.8 million Chicagoans and 2.3 million suburbanites. They are a semi-anonymous crew, managing a $2.1 billion annual budget and overseeing a public hospital, a forest preserve district, a massive jail, law enforcement in unincorporated areas and assessment of property values in the most populous county in Illinois.

Cook County

Things are about to change for Cook County residents, who until now have had no reason to be acquainted with a particular board member as their specific representative. The County Board commissioners have been elected at large 10 from the city and seven from the suburbs. The ultimate effect was to polarize power on the board and minimize accountability to voters.

Starting next year, commissioners will be elected from 17 single-member districts. The County Board itself is to determine which districts go where, and adoption of a district map was expected in September. The change carries political implications, particularly from Republicans who form the board's minority and all come from outside Chicago. But whether the new system will produce more efficient and responsive representative government is an open question.

For years the County Board remained stable with a 15-member lineup. Ten members (all Democrats) served at large from Chicago and five members (almost always Republican) served from the suburbs. This arrangement suited the city's Democratic organization just fine because it assured them of power. To a lesser extent it also suited the Republicans, who were resigned to their minority status, because it assured them at least some representation on the board.

Two events in the 1960s upset this traditional balance. The postwar exodus to the suburbs rearranged the geographic balance of population between city and suburbs. And the U.S. Supreme Court's one-person, one-vote ruling mandated that the demographic changes be represented in legislative bodies, including such local governments as the Cook County Board. So when the Democrats refused to give up one of their city seats after the 1970 census, the Republicans went to court. A compromise allowed the Democrats to keep their 10 Chicago seats but gave the suburbanites (and presumably the Republicans) another board member. This same scenario played itself out 10 years later, and the suburbs gained a seventh seat in the 1980s.

Ever since Illinois' 1970 Constitution gave Cook County home-rule powers, groups such as the League of Women Voters, the Urban League and Common Cause had urged adoption of a single-member district system. "The Constitution allowed adoption of single-member districts either by the commissioners' vote or by an initiative from the electorate," according to Ivana Wilks of the League of Women Voters.

The district idea faced a very formidable foe back then, however: County Board president George Dunne. Under Dunne, the board became virtually a one-man operation. Dunne, also a powerful ward committeeman, carried a lot of weight in the county Democratic party especially when he was also county party chairman. Dunne's influence on party slating committees seemed to assure that only his allies would be selected. "But Dunne changed his mind somewhat in 1978," according to Wilks. "The commissioners that year

34/August & September 1993/Illinois Issues

Current commissioners of
the Cook County Board

Elected from Chicago

Jerry Butler, Democrat, near southside (4th Ward)
John Daley, Democrat, Bridgeport neighborhood (11th Ward)
Frank Damato, Democrat, near northwest side (29th Ward)
Danny Davis, Democrat, west side (29th Ward)
Marco Domico, Democrat, near northwest side (36th Ward)
Irene Hernandez, Democrat, north side (4th Ward)
Thaddeus "Ted" Lechowicz, Democrat, near northwest side (30th Ward)
Maria Pappas, Democratic, near north side (42nd Ward)
Bobbie Steele, Democrat, west side (24th Ward)
John Stroger, Democrat, south side (8th Ward)

Elected from the suburbs

Allan Carr, Republican, Cicero (Cicero Township)
Robert Gooley, Republican, Homewood (Bloom Township)
Carl Hansen, Republican, Mount Prospect (Elk Grove Township)
Mary McDonald, Republican, Lincolnwood (Niles Township)
Richard Phelan, Democrat, Winnetka (New Trier Township)
Richard Siebel, Republican, Northfield (Northfield Township)
Herbert Shumann, Republican, Palos Hills (Palos Township)

voted themselves a pay raise over Dunne's objections. He then realized the commissioners had no accountability to the voters."

Single-member districts were still far off in the future, however, because of the value at-large elections served for the Democratic party as it maintained tight control on slating the city candidates. Precise geographic representation has seldom if ever been a major factor in party slating for the board. There were ethnic factors ("we need an Italian . . . Jew . . . Bohemian on the ticket somewhere").

Commissioner positions often served as an ultimate reward for party faithful. Few were as blatant about this qualification as the late Samuel Vaughan, a member of the 34th Ward Democratic organization. When slating time came for the 1990 elections, Vaughan did not bother to recite his expertise in hospital or jail management. Instead, he told the slating committee, "I'll tell you why you should select me because I'm the best precinct captain in the history of the 34th Ward, that's why!"

More recently the County Board has also served for politically expedient lateral arabesques for white Chicago politicians affected by racially changing neighborhoods. Seats on both the Chicago City Council and the Cook County County Board have been determined, at least in part, by ward committeemen. When special elections loomed for several Chicago wards in 1985, Democratic slatemakers gathered and decided that three aldermen Frank Damato, Michael Nardulli and Frank Stemberk appeared likely to lose their redistricted seats to blacks or Hispanics. The three suddenly found themselves "qualified" to serve on the County Board although lacking experience in county government. The same thing happened with Marco Domico, committeeman and de facto alderman of the 25th Ward, who was persuaded to take a County Board seat rather than run a winnable aldermanic election against a Hispanic in the strongly Mexican 25th Ward. Five years later came another example. A sudden resignation allowed city commissioners to appoint John Daley, brother to Mayor Richard M. Daley and a state senator whose district was becoming increasingly Hispanic.

Democrats in Chicago finally saw the legal and political handwriting that made single-member districts inevitable for election of Cook County commissioners. African-American Chicago Democrats especially pushed for and finally won adoption of an election system by district for all the Cook County Circuit Court judges. The system of electing those Cook County judges had been rooted in the same type of at-large method with some from the city and some from the rest of the county (some were also elected countywide). It was a system that also assured Republican judges were elected from the suburbs, but in the city the Democrats were discovering that blacks and Hispanics wanted their fair share of judges, too.

Once that judicial subdistrict plan was put into motion for Cook County Circuit Court judges, an initiative for single-member Cook County commissioner districts was finally placed on the ballot in 1990 by the Democrats. Despite arguments from Republicans that the district system would jeopardize suburban representation, the measure passed handily in both city and suburbs.

As the deadline was getting closer for the board to establish the districts for the 1994 commissioner elections, professional and amateur mapmakers alike have been invited to submit their proposals to the board. Six public hearings on the new districts were scheduled for July and August. Computers were set up in the County Building to provide public access to census data, in the same manner that they were available for the 1991 Chicago City Council redistricting of its wards. Ultimately the board's Rules Committee will recommend a map, which will be voted on by the entire County Board.

Pete Credicos, who is in charge of producing the map for the Rules Committee, said that the committee would not be drawing a map until the hearings are completed, although Hernandez claimed in June that she had already seen a "preliminary" map. Credicos predicted a map would be submitted to the board in September, to give time for a possible court challenge before the December filing deadline for county office candidates in the March primary.

The only mandatory obligations in drawing the district map are federal ones, requiring adherence to the one-person, one-vote rule and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The latter requires that districts may not be drawn to exclude minorities from representation, although a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a North Carolina case may preclude the board from drawing oddly shaped districts solely to maximize the possibility of minority representation. Nevertheless, some districts are expected to be intended for blacks and Hispanics. The

August & September 1993/Illinois Issues/35

number of such districts remains open to debate.

Republicans had tried unsuccessfully to include a stipulation that would allow only one district to be split across city and suburban territory. Without that provision, virtually anything goes in the mapmaking for the Cook County legislative body. The League of Women Voters asked for six criteria: one person, one vote; equitable districts for blacks and Hispanics; compact and contiguous districts; no more than two districts overlapping city and suburbs; to the greatest extent possible, respect for existing boundaries (municipalities in the suburbs, wards and precincts in Chicago); and boundaries not drawn to protect incumbents. It is not guaranteed that the latter three criteria will be followed.

"There are only four hard and fast rules," said Credicos. "The districts must be contiguous, there must be 17 of them, they must follow the one-person, one-vote rule, and they must obey the Voting Rights Act." Cook County Democratic chairman Tom Lyons emphasized, "You have to start with the Voting Rights Act. "If not, the courts will throw the map back in your face."

Hispanics are generally conceded two districts, one covering the near northwest side of Chicago and one taking in the near southwest side and some adjacent western suburbs. But a district drawn to maximize Hispanic representation might not translate into such. Commissioner Daley lives in the 11th Ward, an area likely to be included in a southwest side Hispanic district. Given the historic strength of the Daley family's 11th Ward political organization and the historic low vote totals in neighboring Hispanic wards, Daley would be considered a heavy favorite were he to seek the County Board seat. But since a Daley occupation of a "Hispanic" seat might undo the good will his mayoral brother has worked to build in the Hispanic community, John Daley possibly will seek another office.

African Americans could get five or six districts, depending on who draws the county map and how committed they are to assured black representation in a given district. "Five black districts is doable, but the problem with six is one of doability. The test is whether a minority district can reasonably elect a candidate," said Credicos. "When flirting with the expansion of minority districts, it is questionable whether these minorities can get those extra seats."

"You can draw six districts, but you take your risks," adds Jim Lewis, vice president of research and planning with the Chicago Urban League. The lower numbers of African-American residents scattered through six districts could provide a dangerous dilution of the vote, particularly in low-income areas where turnout is comparatively light. African Americans compose about 25 percent of Cook County, which would entitle them to 4.3 County Board seats."

That possible extra African-American seat is likely to be a bone of contention in the upcoming map. John Stroger, the senior black County Board commissioner, said, "Five black and two Hispanic districts is probably fair. I'd be tickled pink to see a sixth black district. But it has to be done in a way to ensure African-American representation. It has to be a winnable district."

"I don't think Stroger and others are giving us what I think we should be getting," said Richard Barnett, a west side activist who argued for 24 (out of 50) black wards in a 1991 Chicago City Council map. "We should have a minimum of six seats. The Voting Rights Act says we should have an 'opportunity,' not a 'guarantee' to elect black representatives."

Cook County Republican chairman Manny Hoffman predicts fewer seats for blacks and Hispanics: "There will be four African-American and one Hispanic district." Most observers, however, consider Hoffman's minority numbers to be an undercount.

The question of black representation could come back to haunt a person who seemingly has little desire to become involved in it. Richard Phelan, the County Board president, is expected to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and not seek another term as county board commissioner and president. Yet his vote on a county district map is likely to be the vital one, since the board would need a four-fifths vote (15 members) to override a Phelan executive veto on a proposed map. Phelan associate David Carvalho said that Phelan has not committed to how many African-American districts there should be.

"If Phelan approves five as opposed to six African-American districts, it could backfire on him," comments Victor Crown, a consultant who worked with the Republicans on the 1990 congressional map. "The perception of approval of lessened representation could hurt him among African-American voters, particularly [since Illinois Atty. Gen.] Roland Bums decided to enter the governor race."

One real consideration in the map drawing, although ignored by courts and criticized by "good government" groups, is protection of incumbents. "The problem is, the map is voted on by the County Board," says Credicos. "Incumbency is important in that you have to make nine of the current Board members happy." The board partisan split is 11 Democrats and six Republicans. Phelan is the only Democrat from the suburbs.

Ensuring incumbent happiness is not likely to be an easy task, particularly among Democrats. Although Republican commissioners are scattered throughout the suburbs, the southwest side of Chicago is devoid of a resident commissioner, whereas four Chicago commissioners (Frank Damato, Danny Davis, Marco Domico and Ted Lechowicz) live so close together they conceivably could be drawn into a single near northwest side district.

There is also the question of suburban representation, an issue frequently cited by the Republicans as a reason for their opposition to single-member districts. Republicans have opposed districts, fearing the creation of several city/suburban districts which would be drawn to elect city meaning Democrat not suburban meaning Republican commissioners. It is uncertain whether a court would uphold a challenge based on inadequate political representation, in this case Republican. "Courts have not dealt with

36/August & September 1993/Illinois Issues

political fairness but have announced that it's an issue that can be litigated," says Credicos.

Suburban has not automatically meant Republican in recent years. Democrats Abner Mikva and Marty Russo won congressional elections in districts that were all or part suburban. Democrat Jeanne Quinn's dogged campaigning won her an at-large suburban seat on the County Board in 1982. Democrat Phelan, due in part to his simultaneous countywide election as County Board president, won a suburban seat in 1990.

Likewise, Republicans have made some General Assembly district inroads on the northwest and southwest sides of Chicago, and under ideal circumstances they might make a run for it in city/suburban districts. But the Democrats have neither the need nor desire to provide those optimum circumstances, and with their County Board majority, they are the ones drawing the map.

Crown has drawn up a map with six black districts two covering the city's west side, three on the south side and one encompassing black southern suburbs. His proposed map also includes: two Hispanic districts; a Chicago lakefront district; a north shore city/suburban district (a "David Orr district," as Crown calls it, referring to the Cook County clerk); four suburban safe Republican districts; two white ethnic city/suburban swing districts, one on the northwest side and one on the southwest side; and a "Jewish" district stretching east-west across the northern tier of Chicago wards and including Niles Township outside the city.

Crown's map is only one of many maps likely to surface before a final decision is made, and his is not likely to be adopted in its present form. Barnett comments, "Party regulars aren't likely to be doing any favors for David Orr," who is considered an independent and hinting at a run for County Board president. "A north-south district along the lakefront might help him. But it wouldn't be hard to draw him into an east-west district in more conservative territory that could be to his disadvantage."

Many other maps are inevitable. "With a 17-member board," said Credicos, "you have 17 possible 'ideal' maps and that doesn't include all the interest groups."

The board's delay in coming up with a map has met with criticism from those who say such a delay works to independents' disadvantage. Carvalho admits, "It creates uncertainty among candidates. They don't know where the districts are going to occur and from where they must get their petition signatures." That situation occurred with the 1992 state legislative elections when the new map was hung up in court until past the usual filing deadline for the March primary.

Party clout may still be a major influence in the elections, but both major party chairmen say they will not hold the traditional county slating sessions for board candidates. Lyons claims ward and township committeemen will gather in the new districts and pick slated County Board candidates by weighted votes, following the procedure used for slating state legislative candidates. Hoffman said that Republican township and ward officials will screen candidates and make slating decisions but predicted wide-open races with many mayors and township officials going after possible Republican seats.

It is hard to predict the success of Cook County's new single-member district system, since no other county matches Cook's size in Illinois. Each of the new board commissioners will represent a district of slightly more than 300,000 people. DuPage County, second most-populous county with 781,666 people, has five multimember districts, each electing five county board members. Its county board chairman is elected countywide.

County Republican chairman Hoffman, suburban commissioner Allan Carr and other Republicans have suggested increasing the membership of the Cook County Board, an idea which has met with little response from Democrats. Any change in members would require a referendum or approval by the legislature.

Stroger, who calls himself the "Father of Districting" because of his early support for the plan, argues that districts will bring new vigor to Cook County government. "It will enhance the visibility of government; people identify with individual commissioners," he says. "It will require those elected to become more accountable and accessible to a constituency, which is now hard to single out. They tell me that more people come to me with their concerns than go to most other commissioners. But if John Doe is their local commissioner, they go to him." Besides, says Stroger, the first declared candidate for Cook County Board president, "Lively local races may increase voter turnout."

Suburban commissioner Richard Siebel's concerns about the district system stem mainly from the potential costs. "It will increase the cost of government. Each commissioner will have a downtown office and a district office," he says. "The costs of campaigning could jump 10 to 20 times. When we ran as a team from the suburbs, we could pool our resources and put out common literature. In my last campaign, I only spent about $5,000.

"Voting may be much more parochial," Siebel adds. "With the board as it is now, you represent an entire city or suburban constituency. But in single districts, people want things for their own district. You might have 'He has a clinic; I want a clinic' or 'He has a golf course; I want a golf course.' " As for current constituent services, Siebel says, "We get calls from all over the county. Our staff doesn't classify by geography. If you have single-member districts and a bad representative, you're frozen out."

Whether or not the single-member districts ultimately save the taxpayers money, they probably at least will help the commissioners become more well known. They still won't get the name recognition of Oprah or the local television weatherman. But the mention of the commissioner's name might elicit the response "Oh, him" (or her), as opposed to "Who's he?" (or she). 

David Fremon is a free lance writer in Chicago and author of the book, Chicago Politics Ward by Ward.

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