Monday, April 25, 2011

Hearing could be House's last on redistricting

By Jamey Dunn

Interest groups presented the House Redistricting Committee with their versions of new legislative maps today and called on lawmakers to make their own maps available for public feedback before voting on them.

In light of the growing Hispanic population in the state, The Latino Agenda, a coalition of several groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), the Latino Policy Forum and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, presented a map that calls for 16 Illinois House districts and four state Senate districts where the Hispanic population would be large enough to be influential. (Click the links on their page to view the group's maps for the regions listed.) Most of those districts would have an Hispanic population of 50 percent or more. However, three would be so-called influence districts with Hispanic residents making up less than 50 percent of the population. The organization says there are 12 “Latino-elected” lawmakers currently serving in the General Assembly.

Elisa Alfonso, MALDEF’s Mdwestern district coordinator, said her organization is focusing on the south side of Chicago. She called for five Hispanic districts in the area and one coalition district, in which the Asian and Hispanic populations could join forces to wield political influence. “This area contains not only a large Latino population but also a growing Chinese-American population,” she said.

Representatives of Illinois’ Asian American community called on lawmakers to avoid breaking up Chicago’s Chinatown. The dissection of the neighborhood 10 years ago has been held up as an example of legislators breaking up a community with shared interests and values and diluting a population's political influence. They also asked that Asian-American populations in the northern Chicago, Des Plaines and Skokie areas not be diluted among several legislative districts. “Not only is there a high concentration of Asian-Americans in the areas … but there’s also a plethora of institutions that are vital to our community members including nonprofit organizations, social service providers, religious institutions, schools, ethnic media, retail and commercial outlets,” said Ami Gandhi, legal director of the Asian American Institute.

Representatives of other populations, including Arab-Americans and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender and questioning (LGBT) community, took issue with the fact that they are not counted as members of their respective groups by they U.S. Census Bureau for the purposes of redistricting. They said not having official statistics to illustrate the locations and growth rates of their populations hinders their chances of receiving equal representation. Organizations in populations not counted in the census have begun to compile their own data and asked lawmakers to consider their communities when drawing legislative districts. “Unlike most minorities, the LGBT community must rely on our own resources [for data,]” said Lowell Jaffe, political and policy director for the Civil Rights Agenda.

While the Census Bureau does collect data on people with disabilities, Cheryl Jansen, a lobbyist for Equipped for Equality, said the numbers are not released in time to be considered in the redistricting process. “The problem really is that although this data is gathered … the Census Bureau does not generally release data pertaining to people with disabilities until the very end. It is a demographic group about which data is released as a last measure,” Jansen said.

All who testified during today’s hearing, the last one scheduled for the House committee, said lawmakers should make available to the public any maps they are considering and allow time for citizens to give input specific to the proposed maps. Most agreed that the process would take at least two weeks. “The proof is in the pudding. For this redistricting process to be truly meaningful, MALDEF respectfully asks that this committee hold additional hearings after a map is drawn and at least two weeks before it is approved,” Alfonso told the committee.

Chicago Democratic Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, who heads the committee, said she would not commit to more hearings or a specific timeline because she wants to be realistic about the process. “I would be delighted if we can do that. I would be delighted. But I am not making any guarantees. I’m not making any commitments. We don’t have a timeline. We do know that people being people, often things take just about until the deadline before they actually happen. How many people file their tax returns on the last available date at the last available moment? It’s not because they didn’t want to get it done in a timely fashion, it’s just that human nature being human nature, we don’t always act expeditiously,” she said. Lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn have until June 30 to approve a map. If they do not, the task is then handed to a bipartisan commission.


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