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Racial diversity finally coming to the fore in redistricting reform debate

Monday, Mar 1, 2021

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch gave his standard reply to a question about redistricting reform last week when queried at the Chicago Economic Club, saying different people have different opinions about what a “fair map” actually is.

But then the new House speaker leaned a bit harder into the concept of protecting minority rights when redrawing the new legislative district maps than I’ve heard him do in the past.

“I think a fair map is a map that reflects the diversity of our state,” Welch said. “Diversity is the strength of Illinois. Look at the Democratic Caucus, for instance. Diversity is the strength of our caucus. If you look at a map and it doesn’t reflect the diversity of the state, I don’t know how anyone can call that a fair map.”

While former House Speaker Michael Madigan’s folks often talked about that very issue, the media tended to ignore their argument because it was emanating from the widely proclaimed Gerrymanderer in Chief. Illinois now has its first ever Black House speaker with Welch, and that likely will mean much more focus on this particular topic.

The House Black Caucus did quite well with the 2011 remap, considering Black population loss in the previous decade, and undoubtedly it will do whatever it can to hold onto its position during the coming map-drawing process, whatever that process entails. The chamber’s Latinx Caucus made some gains a decade ago, but it and the Asian American/Pacific Islander/Native American demographic still have a long ways to go before they reach any sort of parity with their U.S. Census numbers.

As a whole, the Illinois House is somewhat more diverse than the state. The House is 69.5% white, while the state is 76.8% white. The House is 18.6% Black, which is more than the state’s 14.6% Black population. But the House is just 8.5% Latino, including last week’s addition of new Rep. Angie Guerrero Cuellar, which is less than half of Illinois’ 18.5%. And though 6.6% of Illinois is AAPI/Native American, just 3.4% of House members are in that demographic.

And since Welch mentioned the diversity of his party’s caucus, it’s now 50.7% white, while the 2016 demographic Census estimates of House districts his Democrats represent shows 48% of those residents are white. That’s pretty close.

However, 30.1% of the House Democratic Caucus is Black, even though Black residents make up just 20% of the population in districts represented by House Democrats, according to Census estimates.

Compare that to the 13.7% of the House Democratic Caucus that is Latino — much less than the actual Latino population of 23% in House districts represented by Democrats. And while 5.5% of the House Democratic Caucus is AAPI/Native American, that demographic comprises 9% of the population in House Democrat districts.

To be fair, making nearly a quarter of House Democratic seats into Latino-led districts and almost one in ten AAPI/Native American-led districts probably will not be possible because of population concentration or the lack thereof. But whatever the final number, Speaker Welch has quite a delicate balancing act ahead of him.

While we’re on the topic of reform, Welch also said last week that the required economic interest disclosure statement for legislators and others in government is “a worthless piece of document.”

Responding to a question about ethics reforms he supports, the new House speaker said the legislature’s Commission on Ethics Reform was a “good start,” though the group has barely got started. He also said Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposals were a “good start,” adding, “We need to take a look at many of those things and go from there.”

That’s when he mentioned the Statement of Economic Interest. “You know, it confuses us,” he said of those who have to file the statement every year, disclosing some forms of outside income. “So imagine what it does to the layperson.”

Some legislators have claimed to have been confused about what they should disclose after stories were written about income they didn’t disclose. While some of that was just excuse-making, there are some legitimate gripes about the vagueness of the law. On the other hand, the public might wonder why the recently retired Senate Republican leader didn’t legally have to disclose an interest in a video gaming company.

Welch also said the General Assembly should take a look at other things like legislators working as lobbyists and revolving-door prohibitions. We’ll see if he pulls any of this off.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - Perrid - Monday, Mar 1, 21 @ 9:20 am:

    Not sure talking about percentages really makes sense with such small numbers in the House. 118 house members, so instead of 4 Asian American/Pacific Islander/Native American it “should be” 7 or 8. It’s really, really hard to say anything about a sample that small, where 3 noisy data points could comprise half the sample. Especially with all the confounding facotrs, some of which Rich mentioned or at least alluded too.

  2. - Perrid - Monday, Mar 1, 21 @ 9:37 am:

    On second thought maybe saying it doesn’t “make sense” is too strong, I’m just worried people will just look at the percentages and say the map is great or terrible without understanding the difference could literally be 3 seats. The numbers are gonna be volatile.

  3. - Candy Dogood - Monday, Mar 1, 21 @ 9:43 am:

    Great piece, Rich.

    ===Some legislators have claimed to have been confused about what they should disclose after stories were written about income they didn’t disclose. ===

    When this happens at least it’s always good for a chuckle.

    ===“I think a fair map is a map that reflects the diversity of our state,”===

    We’re aiming for a representative government. I’m comfortable being represented by a person of any race, gender, or religion as long as the support enough of the policies and generic vision for government as I do — at the very least, more than their opponent.

    The truth is if we were seeking something that was fair, we would need to see decades of very little or even no representation of whites in the legislature or statewide office.

    Obviously there would be a lot of people that might object to the idea of few or no whites holding elected office in the state for several decades but that’s my opinion about what would actually constitute fairness — having a government that didn’t have any representation of anyone from your broad generic racial category in any meaningful capacity for decades.

    We might call it “fair maps” but the truth is that we’re aiming for a representative government, not fairness. A lot of folks would really object to what’s fair.

    The GOP is going to be unhappy with anything that doesn’t apportion house districts by acres, so it doesn’t really matter what they think anyway.

  4. - Levois J - Monday, Mar 1, 21 @ 10:17 am:

    To actually create district that insure representation matches the state’s diversity is always a challenge. I get the feeling no matter what anyone tries to do in trying to get there no one will be happy. And it’s right to ask the question, “what is a fair map?”.

    It is different things to different people.

  5. - Pot calling kettle - Monday, Mar 1, 21 @ 11:06 am:

    ==That’s when he mentioned the Statement of Economic Interest. “You know, it confuses us,” he said of those who have to file the statement every year, disclosing some forms of outside income. “So imagine what it does to the layperson.”==

    I was confronted with that thing for years (I served on a school board). The wording of the questions is very confusing.

  6. - Blake - Monday, Mar 1, 21 @ 11:24 am:

    The way to get diversity in the General Assembly to reflect the state would involve a house being proportional representation. I remember Daniel Biss pondering whether it’s redundant to have both houses winner-take-all districts & it strikes me having one house with proportional representation would resolve that redundancy & better fit diversity of the state than only having local majorities represented.

  7. - West Side the Best Side - Monday, Mar 1, 21 @ 11:38 am:

    Maybe if we don’t have the census results in on time we can have another Bedsheet Ballot. Is there an Adlai IV or V out there looking to run?

  8. - Watcher of the Skies - Monday, Mar 1, 21 @ 11:42 am:

    Probably a good time to point out that the General Assembly just (finally) fixed prison gerrymandering - but effective in 2025.

    Still time for the GA to fix it for this remap!

  9. - JB13 - Monday, Mar 1, 21 @ 12:12 pm:

    So we’re beginning this discussion from the presupposition that Illinois state government isn’t diverse enough?

    That’s a very… interesting proposition.

  10. - Rich Miller - Monday, Mar 1, 21 @ 12:33 pm:

    ===That’s a very… interesting proposition===

    Are you saying it’s too diverse? lol

    You really are a piece of work.

  11. - Anonanonsir - Monday, Mar 1, 21 @ 3:05 pm:

    Welch is freelancing with his own definition of fair maps. Usually it means taking it out of the hands of politicians.

    Welch supposedly supported fair maps when he was an ordinary member, so I wonder what he was saying about it then. Has his definition changed?

    Anyway, it looks like more of the same, just with Madigan and Cullerton out and new Dems drawing the maps.

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