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Obama’s Gerrymander

President Obama may have propelled his political career forward by gerrymandering a Chicago district to include rich supporters.

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(Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)

We’ve been following the ways that politicians and special interests try to influence the redistricting process for their own gain, often at the expense of voters.

An article this week in The New Yorker suggests that President Barack Obama’s own political rise in Chicago was partially the result of gerrymandering.

As The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reported, Obama worked with a Democratic redistricting consultant to draw a state senate district tailored for him.

Lizza wrote about the incident four years ago, detailing how Obama had learned the hard way that a University of Chicago academic was not necessarily someone whom all of Chicago’s African-American voters would trust.

In 1999, Obama suffered a serious defeat when he tried to take on longtime South Side Congressman Bobby Rush, who represents a district that is more than 62 percent African-American.

Two years later, with the Democrats in control of Illinois redistricting, Obama was apparently able to reshape his state senate district to his own specifications, which included drawing in wealthy supporters from Chicago’s Gold Coast.

Lizza interviewed John Corrigan, a Chicago Democrat who worked on the 2001 redistricting process:

Corrigan remembers two things about the district that he and Obama drew. First, it retained Obama’s Hyde Park base — he had managed to beat Rush in Hyde Park — then swooped upward along the lakefront and toward downtown. By the end of the final redistricting process, his new district bore little resemblance to his old one. Rather than jutting far to the west, like a long thin dagger, into a swath of poor black neighborhoods of bungalow homes, Obama’s map now shot north, encompassing about half of the Loop, whose southern portion was beginning to be transformed by developers like Tony Rezko and stretched far up Michigan Avenue and into the Gold Coast, covering much of the city’s economic heart, its main retail thoroughfares, and its finest museums, parks, skyscrapers, and lakefront apartment buildings. African-Americans still were a majority, and the map contained some of the poorest sections of Chicago, but Obama’s new district was wealthier, whiter, more Jewish, less blue-collar, and better educated. It also included one of the highest concentrations of Republicans in Chicago.
“It was a radical change,” Corrigan said.

Lizza wrote that the gerrymandering effort “may have been the most important event in Obama’s early political life” because it gave him the resources, both financial and political, to run for the U.S. Senate in 2004.

We asked both Corrigan and Obama’s campaign for comment but haven’t received responses.

Obama has occasionally spoken about how redistricting can cater to politicians and not voters.   

“The system of redistricting in the U.S. tends to allow representatives to choose people instead of people choosing representatives,” Obama told The Hyde Park Herald in 2001. “It’s just politics.”

Obama was responding to apparent evidence that he was himself the target of a gerrymander. The Hyde Park Herald reported in 2001 that Obama’s home and the home of another Rush opponent were carefully drawn out of Rush’s congressional district, which would have made it harder for them to challenge him in the future.

Rush’s spokesman at the time denied that the congressman had anything to do with the map lines that excluded Obama and another candidate. 

“Members of Congress don’t draw congressional maps,” Rush’s current chief of staff, Stanley Watkins, said in a statement emailed to ProPublica.

Very well, but you shouldn’t look at the line drawing in isolation, focusing only on Obama. If he picked up white high income voters and lost poor blacks, what happened to the poor blacks? Perhaps they helped elect another, an additional senator of color? If so, it could have been a win-win, Obama wins because he gets a better fit, minorities win because they get more representation.

I think that all districts are Gerrymandered unless they are drawn in a completely non-partisan manner. My own state’s court has just thrown out the new congressional maps drawn by our state’s Republican Senators but the Democrat endorsed plan looks just as bad to me.

My district seems to have bunny ears as well as a large very pointed bite in one side intended to exclude on city and include two specific neighborhoods in another. I think I could draw up a better plan but it would not please either side or the courts since it would be completely blind to incumbents, income, parties or race.

I thought that was the way the constitution intended but I’m afraid this has never been the case. I don’t have any influence anyway so I guess we just have to live with what the politicians and polically influence judges decide.

I believe this article is about a 4-year old Ryan Lizza piece in the New Yorker.  One segment described how Illinois Democrats redistricted - which they had a legal right to do - after the 2000 census.  Obama’s State Senate District was redrawn on a computer in what the local pols called the “inner sanctum,” a highly secure area in a Chicago office building with a computer showing all the districts.  His revised district is described by Lizza below:

“Rather than jutting far to the west, like a long thin dagger, into a swath of poor black neighborhoods of bungalow homes, Obama’s map now shot north, encompassing about half of the Loop, whose southern portion was beginning to be transformed by developers like Tony Rezko, and stretched far up Michigan Avenue and into the Gold Coast, covering much of the city’s economic heart, its main retail thoroughfares, and its finest museums, parks, skyscrapers, and lakefront apartment buildings. African-Americans still were a majority, and the map contained some of the poorest sections of Chicago, but Obama’s new district was wealthier, whiter, more Jewish, less blue-collar, and better educated. It also included one of the highest concentrations of Republicans in Chicago.”

This is really old news and perhaps I’m missing the point of rehashing it now in propublica.  I remember reading Lizza’s original piece and I was struct by two things at the time:  how Chicago politics really works and how Obama adapted to it while realizing he had an appeal to white voters as well as black voters; and how Lizza seems to have located and interviewed every political enemy Obama ever had.

Hi Bill,

You raise an interesting question about the bigger picture of Chicago redistricting—and it’s actually something that Ryan Lizza addresses in part in his 2008 piece. He notes that the final configuration of Obama’s district was not simply a result of Obama’s personal preferences, but also of the Democrats’ broader redistricting strategy.

As often happens, in an earlier round of redistricting, Republicans in Illinois had packed certain districts with African-Americans—a tactic that makes the surrounding districts whiter, and, often, more conservative.

In Illinois’ 2001 redistricting, Lizza wrote, “Democrats tried to spread the African-American vote among more districts. The idea was to create enough Democratic-leaning districts so that the Party could take control of the state legislature.”  (This is sometimes called “unpacking.”)

So you might be right—although you’d have to do a careful analysis of where the voters carved out of Obama’s district ended up, whether they elected an African-American state senator in their new district, and whether there’s any indication that votes from those particular precincts turned out to be decisive.

And Gary—

You’re certainly not alone in your feelings about redistricting. It’s important to note, of course, that the shape of a district alone isn’t the best indication that it’s been gerrymandered. People don’t necessarily live in neat squares or circles. So a weirdly-shaped district with “bunny ears” might actually be a pretty good representation of a particular neighborhood or group of voters.

Another interesting topic. Thanks to ProPublica.

Our neighborhood in Charleston, SC is completely without representation because we actively disagreed with a bogus highway program championed by the mayor. Now, that’s democracy at work. In the new redistricting, we were left out.

Lois, is there any metric for showing the extent that a district is “counter-representative”?  It seems that discussion of gerrymandering would be a lot more practical, and has more potential to affect policy, if it could be shown that a vocal minority opinion is packed into one district or dissipated through several overwhelming districts, rather than showing that one funny shape turned into another funny shape and one politician got a benefit.

In my eyes, the question isn’t whether corrupt Democrats or corrupt Republicans fought for their selfish interests (which is “dog bites man” news, and the fighting parties may well cancel each other out in the long run), so much as how well districts reflect the demographics of the state while still protecting the voice of minority concerns.

Aahhh…I wondered where the peculiar focus on Democratic gerrymandering would lead.

Thanks, “John” your comments seemed to hit it right on the head. This article left a lot of questions (as they should). I think it’s important that you identified both paties as corruptly seeking their own interest. It’s important to note that this is yet another log thrown on the fire of corruption. It is not conservative nor progressive. Just another step towards taking power from the people. Not that all involved meant to do so. Part of the system like taking a tax deduction in a capitilaist society. How do we make it better, and bring the power back to the people?

Garrymander sometimes may help for a time being!
I informed Muchreads of something it should nkow about but it has been returned to me. Can ProPublica verify this?

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Hi John,

You ask a very interesting question: Is there a simple metric to show that a district is “counter-representative”?

The answer: There are ways to show that a district is counter-representative—but they definitely don’t take the form of a simple metric.

Once you’ve identified a certain demographic group that tends to vote together, it’s not so hard to determine if that group is being “cracked” into different districts, which can effectively end voters’ ability to elect the candidate they prefer.

There are many historical examples of this happening to minorities voters, as well as to other groups, including city residents. There’s more information about this in our Devil’s Dictionary guide to redistricting: http://www.propublica.org/article/redistricting-a-devils-dictionary/single There’s also an excellent New York Times story on how redistricting may hurt urban voters: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/us/politics/mayors-concerned-as-redistricting-carves-up-urban-areas.html?pagewanted=all

If you’ve been following the Texas redistricting case, you’ve probably heard something about the sophisticated demographic information that the Department of Justice uses to evaluate whether new map plans hurt minorities.
But part of the difficulty with establishing a more general metric would be figuring out what counts as a “community of interest,” or a group of voters who might have good reason to be kept together.  Who counts as a community of interest? And if these communities of interest overlap, which should be given priority?

These questions are not easy to address in the abstract, although many states try to work them out on a case-by-case basis. They do this by incorporating public comment into their redistricting processes. The idea is to give voters a chance to identify the communities of interest that they would like to see protected, and for those who redraw the map lines to respond to public requests. 

But creating a broader legal standard to define gerrymandering is tricky—so tricky that the Supreme Court, over several decades, has not been able to figure out how to do it with regard to “partisan gerrymandering.” If you’re interested in why that is,  here’s one of our pieces on how the Supreme Court has wrestled with this question: http://www.propublica.org/article/is-partisan-gerrymandering-unconstitutional/single

@ ibsteve2u I agree this is a “peculiar focus”.  Lizza would be surprised his article published last week has become the focus of a propublica article about Obama’s gerrymandered district in Chicago years ago, a gerrymandering effort that Lizza described as mild compared to most.  Lizza’s article last week was actually about Obama’s first three years in office and his governing style.  Gerrymandering was only mentioned in passing, yet references to it appear in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th paragraphs of this propublica article, as if that was Lizza’s main focus last week.  What do you think this propublica’s author’s real agenda is for writing this article?

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Redistricting

Redistricting: How Powerful Interests Are Drawing You Out of a Vote

How secret money and power interests are drawing you out of a vote.

The Story So Far

Redistricting should be a way of ensuring your vote counts. If all districts have roughly the same number of people in them and are drawn to respect natural communities—neighborhoods where people share a heritage, work in the same industry, or just generally feel tied to their neighbors—voters have a chance to be represented by politicians who represent their areas’ collective interests.

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