Democratic Machine in Peril : Court Clears Way for New Redistricting of Chicago

Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Supreme Court Monday cleared the way for a remapping of some City Council wards here, delivering a blow to Chicago’s already crippled Democratic political machine and setting the stage for a decisive battle in the war between Chicago’s first black mayor and the predominantly white City Council.

In letting stand a lower court ruling ordering the redistricting, the high court guaranteed an increase in the number of black and Latino City Council members, shifting the balance of power in Chicago away from ethnic whites for the first time in the city’s history.

Victory for Mayor

The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear a suit challenging the order was both a legal and a political victory for Mayor Harold Washington, an independent Democrat, who is midway through his first term as the city’s first black chief executive.


Similarly, the court’s decision was a major setback for Councilman Edward R. Vrdolyak, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Organization and leader of a 29-member white council majority that has thwarted Washington’s efforts to reform city government.

Lawyers representing Washington said that they will now ask the federal courts to order a special election later this year, rather than wait for the next general election in 1987. They believe that the Vrdolyak majority could lose at least four seats to minority candidates, splitting the council, with 25 aldermen supporting Vrdolyak and 25 supporting Washington. In the event of tie votes in the council, the mayor casts the deciding ballot.

The redistricting “will virtually destroy the machine and assure Washington’s reelection,” Don Rose, an independent political consultant, said.

Washington hailed the court’s decision not to review the case and said it was proof that some of the Vrdolyak majority do not “represent . . . the wards from which they purported to come.”


Vrdolyak said that since he entered politics in 1968 he has been “considered an outcast, a rebel, a turk and a minority . . . so I can live with it (the redistricting).”

Washington and Vrdolyak have been locked in a fierce battle for control of city government since the mayor’s inauguration. Locally, that battle has become known as “Council Wars,” with Vrdolyak and his allies holding the edge by maintaining control of the City Council.

That has given them the power to award tens of millions of dollars in city contracts, to control city spending and disbursement of federal funds and to maintain control of boards and commissions by refusing to confirm Washington’s choices to run those agencies.

The Vrdolyak majority had asked the Supreme Court to overturn lower federal courts’ decisions ordering the redistricting. Both city lawyers and attorneys representing Washington opposed Supreme Court intervention.


Fewer Whites in City

The controversy has its roots in the 1980 census, which showed a decline in the city’s white population and which prompted the council to redraw boundaries for the wards from which council members are elected. A federal court found that those new districts disenfranchised blacks and Latinos in at least five wards where boundaries had been shifted to allow whites to maintain control, and it ordered them changed.

The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision but said that the lower court redistricting did not go far enough to remedy the problem, and it ordered a third redistricting.

It was that ruling that was before the U.S. Supreme Court Monday when it refused to consider the case, in effect letting the appeals court decision stand.


Both sides will return to court this summer to draft a final redistricting of city wards. Appeals of that plan could delay a formal redistricting for months and perhaps put off a vote until the city’s next general election in the spring of 1987.