Tim Mapes, House Speaker Mike Madigan’s chief of staff, embarked on an interesting challenge last week.
Mapes spoke in Chicago as part of a panel the National Council of State Legislatures, or NCSL, sponsored. He was slated to speak not about Illinois’ staggering debt or tepid jobs growth. Not stagnant incomes or its out-migration problem. Not property taxes.
Mapes talked political maps.
Defending his boss’ record on that subject is an impossible task, but kudos to the NCSL for making Mapes try.
Despite overwhelming demand for political-mapmaking reform in Illinois, Madigan has snuffed it out at every turn. And controversy surrounding Madigan’s maps stretch back more than 30 years.
This year, more than 500,000 Illinoisans signed a petition to put a mapmaking-reform referendum on the November ballot. If successful, it would shrink the speaker’s influence in legislative map drawing by putting that process in the hands of a broad coalition, rather than the winner-take-all system that has followed the census each decade since 1970.
But Madigan’s top lawyer, Michael Kasper, sued to strike the referendum from the ballot earlier this year. A district court ruled in his favor. The case now sits before the Illinois Supreme Court.
It was Mapes’ job to defend that action at the summit. He failed.
“Legislators like to be involved in this state on how they frame their districts. Whether they like all of it is another thing,” Mapes said. “But they like to be involved, and it’s still a big part of what we do.”
He’s right. Illinois politicians love to be involved in choosing their voters, especially Madigan. In fact, political mapmaking is how Madigan became speaker in the first place.
His first map lead to a Democratic rout in the 1982 elections, even though Illinois’ population trends shown in the 1980 census spelled disaster for the party. Madigan gifted Chicago six more House seats and three more Senate seats than its population dictated. And, after voters ratified a constitutional cutback amendment that pared the ranks of the Illinois House, Madigan’s map made sure 43 of the 59 eliminated seats belonged to Republicans.
That political wizardry made Madigan a shoo-in for the speakership.
State lawmakers bowed to the king.
“Many of them know they wouldn’t even be in the General Assembly if it weren’t for the heavily Democratic map of legislative districts that Madigan crafted in 1981…,” wrote the Chicago Tribune in a 1989 retrospective.
But not everyone was so delighted with Madigan’s map.
A three-member panel of federal judges found the map unconstitutionally diluted the voting strength of black Illinoisans on Chicago’s south and west sides. In order to save Democrat seats, Madigan had extended certain city districts into predominantly white areas.
It was the first time a northern state had found the Democratic Party guilty of intentional discrimination against minorities.
In 1982, the Tribune called it a “painful victory.”
“No defeat in court could have left the Democrats with such an inglorious black eye…”
A year later, those legislative boundaries in question were still up for grabs, and Madigan was worried. Reportedly at his request, the U.S. District Court removed a requirement for the map to be published, because Madigan didn’t want his name on the court battle.
He was considering a run for governor. And he was scared of being labeled a racist.
“It’s a travesty,” state Rep. Carol Mosley-Braun told the Tribune in 1983. “Mike did draw the map, and he’s got to live with that. It’s just that simple.”
Madigan has drawn the state’s legislative map twice more since then, after the 2000 and 2010 censuses.
Most recently, Madigan’s cartographical cunning came into play when he created a new district to splinter Decatur and Springfield by race, connecting areas of the two cities containing more black voters.
It worked. Madigan’s tinkering gave Democrats a Senate seat and a House seat they wouldn’t have had otherwise in the 2012 elections.
Due to a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting drawing borders “primarily” to create minority districts, House Democrats had to argue in federal court that they drew the district this way for partisan reasons.
As if there was any question.
Alongside Mapes on the mapmaking panel was Iowa Senate President Pam Jochum. In Iowa, an independent commission draws the maps every 10 years. They have not been challenged in court since 1970.
“The legislature has absolutely nothing to say about how these lines are drawn. Just ‘yay’ or ‘nay,’” Jochum said.
Mapes’ response encapsulates so much of what’s wrong with politics in the Land of Lincoln.
“Senator, great ideas for Iowa,” he said. “But they’re a little different in Illinois.”
They sure are.