First Black speaker of Illinois House hints at need for more diversity in legislative district map

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Illinois House Speaker Chris Welch, talking here with state Rep. Debbie Meyers-Martin, says minority rights must be protected when drawing the boundaries of legislative districts. | AP Photos

“I think a fair map is a map that reflects the diversity of our state,” Welch said. “Diversity is the strength of Illinois.”

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 yesterday’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.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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February 26, 2021 at 04:49PM

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