In Cities Around the US, Redistricting Is a Major Threat to Progressive Politics

Cities have long been the sites of major advancement for progressive and socialist politics. But for over a century, city leaders have tried to halt those advancements with a potent tool: redistricting.

A map of Chicago's wards laid over an image of the city. (Google Maps via WTTW News)

Cities are crucial hubs for progressive politics. Places like Chicago, Illinois, and Buffalo, New York, are making historic advances by electing a record number of democratic socialists to the city council and winning mayoral primaries. Democratic socialists are on the front lines of efforts to reallocate police funds to mental health and social services, raise the minimum wage, implement rent control, and crack down on public utility monopolies.

The advancement of democratic socialists and independent politics in cities, however, faces a looming threat: municipal redistricting.

Redistricting is often seen as a competition between Democrats and Republicans, and gerrymandering in city councils (where Democrats dominate) receives less attention. The data, however, paint a different picture. To explore the consequences of municipal redistricting for independent politics, my research team digitized and analyzed ward maps from the cities of Chicago, St. Louis, and Milwaukee from their founding in the 1800s to the present. We tracked the movement of wards within each city over time, paying attention to instances when wards were redistricted from one end of a city to another, as well as instances when wards never moved.

Our study’s findings are troubling for progressive elected officials. Municipal redistricting has been used by the Democratic Party to discipline and suppress elected officials advocating for racial and economic equality.

For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley teleported the 21st and 34th wards on the city’s white north side to the far south side, where the African American population was growing tremendously. This mattered because Chicago’s mayor can appoint individuals to complete the term of a city council member who either retires or dies. By moving a white city council member’s ward to a nearly all African American ward in the 1950s and 1960s, the mayor coerced the white incumbent city council member into midterm retirement. Consequently, Daley appointed his own handpicked African American city council members to complete their terms.

On the surface, this appeared to be a victory for racial equality in political representation. But a closer look at the historical record reveals that Daley’s appointed black elected officials opposed Martin Luther King Jr’s march on Chicago, opposed civil rights legislation, and unanimously supported the mayor’s economic development agendas. Historians refer to this group of black city council members, who remained largely silent on issues of civil rights and racial justice in the 1960s, as the “Silent Six.” Mayor Daley used municipal redistricting to undermine the growth of independent socialist black politics in Chicago.

Similar processes unfolded in St. Louis, where the city council used redistricting in 2001 to discipline alderwoman Sharon Tyus, who had been a thorn in the side of the mayor’s office for years. Tyus called out racially discriminatory hiring practices among city agencies, as well as the hypocrisy of the city’s proposals to fund a new sports stadium while neglecting St. Louis’s low-income black communities.

In 2001, St. Louis teleported Tyus’s Ward 20 from the north to the far southeast side of the city, effectively ending Tyus’s term in office. Although Tyus was disciplined out of St. Louis politics for nearly a decade, she came back by winning election in the 1st ward in 2010. Tyus holds office today, but African Americans are still underrepresented in St. Louis’s city council.

In Milwaukee, a city with a long history of socialist party representation, municipal redistricting was used to help preserve the city’s white-dominated and pro-corporate governing coalition. From 1910 to 1970, the Milwaukee Common Council contracted from having twenty-seven seats to having just fifteen due to population loss. In this same time period, Milwaukee fought hard to annex white and more affluent suburbs to increase its tax base.

In 1955, Milwaukee annexed the towns of Granville and Lake by offering multiple incentives. One was a promise to provide these towns with their own ward upon incorporation into the city, such that these white and more affluent communities could have greater say in city policy. To accomplish this, in 1956, Milwaukee teleported its 19th and 20th wards to the newly annexed neighborhoods of Lake and Granville. To this day, elected officials representing Lake and Granville continue to be a voice for moderate or conservative causes in Milwaukee.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery from our study was the fact that, in Chicago, many of the wards that have never moved for more than one hundred years are home to some of the city’s most white and affluent communities, as well as communities that have historically been home to police officers. This included neighborhoods such as the predominantly Irish Catholic Bridgeport and Beverly, as well as elite neighborhoods like the Gold Coast, Lakeview, and Lincoln Park.

One might argue that these Chicago communities had the most stable populations and that, therefore, their wards should have moved the least. Census data, however, revealed that the populations of these communities changed significantly over the decades. Thus, the stable location of these wards over time reflected conscious efforts to protect these predominantly white and affluent communities from gerrymandering.

Today, in Chicago, some in the media and city council have framed the upcoming ward redistricting debate as a battle to increase the total number of black, Latino, or Asian American representatives. History, however, suggests that more is at stake than the racial composition of the city council. Ward remaps have squashed the most progressive elected officials under the guise of “equal racial representation.” As cities begin ward redistricting, we can’t simply accept claims about the racial equity of proposed ward maps at face value. Those redrawn maps may have disastrous consequences for elected officials who have fought hardest against the status quo and for racial and economic justice.