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TODAY’S FOCUS: Redistricted Wards Hold Key to City’s Political Future

March 7, 1986

CHICAGO (AP) _ In four of the seven newly redistricted wards that hold the key to the city’s political future, people talk of ″La Guerra del Consejo.″ Most of the rest of Chicago calls them ″Council Wars.″

But whatever voters call the skirmishes, nearly everyone agrees the March 18 special aldermanic elections could change the course of the conflict that began in 1983, when Harold Washington became Chicago’s first black mayor.

The council’s 29-member majority bloc, led in revolt by power broker Edward Vrdolyak, has worked ever since to thwart the mayor’s wishes on everything from appointments to control of multimillion-dollar contracts.

Washington has the support of 16 blacks and five whites, dubbed ″lakefront liberals,″ in the 50-member council, but has managed a political stalemate despite the lopsided division by brandishing his veto powers.

All seven of the redistricted wards now are represented by council members aligned with Vrdolyak.

But U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle, moving to remedy racial gerrymandering of the past, in January ordered their boundaries redrawn to bolster Hispanic majorities in four wards and black voting power in three.

Those wards now could determine the city’s political future.

Washington recently predicted the special elections would tip the City Council balance in his favor. Victory in four races would give him 25 council allies to 25 for Vrdolyak, with the mayor holding the deciding vote.

Such a shift would clear the way for approval of his dozens of nominees to city boards and agencies, Washington said.

″That alone will change the whole makeup and direction of this city,″ he said.

″I think you’ll find a better balance, more harmony in the City Council″ after the election, the mayor said.

Vrdolyak will not concede even the black wards to Washington, however, and the only Hispanic in the pre-election council - Miguel Santiago, in redistricted Ward 31 - is firmly in his camp.

″I think the Hispanic wards will come in with some solid judgment and not go buying the old baloney of black versus white that Washington is always pushing,″ said Vrdolyak.

He’s also the head of the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization, slating candidates and managing what remains of the party’s once-legendary political machine.

For Washington, even adding four aldermen to his council faction will not be an easy task in this town of peculiar politics.

In aldermanic races, if a candidate fails to win a majority, 50 percent of the vote plus one, there is a runoff election.

That could be a plus for Vrdolyak’s forces, who have slated just one candidate in each ward.

Because Washington prides himself on backing independent candidates, some of his choices could get lost in races with as many as a dozen contenders, all calling themselves independents.

And although the redistricting means each of the seven wards now has a larger minority population, the effect on the voting-age population will not be as immediate.

In the redistricted 18th Ward, for example, blacks make up slightly more than 50 percent of the population but are estimated to comprise slightly less than 50 percent of the voting-age population, which could work to the advantage of white incumbent Robert Kellam.

In the 15th Ward, where a significant black majority was expected to cut short the political career of white incumbent Frank Brady, a fractured black vote could enable him to squeeze out another win.

In the remaining black ward and the four Hispanic wards, Vrdolyak’s machine has replaced white candidates with minority contenders who will have the benefit of well-entrenched precinct organizations.

Although those organizations no longer deliver votes as they once did, electing white aldermen long after the wards were predominantly black or Hispanic, they still can influence the outcome by helping determine voter turnout.

And even if Washington wins his majority, the triumph could last only until the 1987 mayoral and regularly scheduled aldermanic elections.

″In the long run, this ( special elections) won’t have much of an effect,″ says Vrdolyak. ″In 1987, we’ll pick up more than 29 wards, we’ll probably get 33.″

Ray Romero, a Washington supporter and one of several attorneys who represented minority plaintiffs in the 1982 lawsuit that prompted the special elections, sees it differently.

″Hispanic voters are becoming increasinly sophisticated. People know now who are the puppets, clearly, and who have their best interest at heart,″ he said.

″They may not beat the puppets this time around, but they will have participated in the process and they will continue to do so,″ Romero said. ″And more than anything else, that’s going to change the direction of this city for a long time to come.″

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