A most unlikely collection of political outcasts meets most afternoons in Lincoln Park, gathering around a computer and plotting changes.

A right-wing Republican might sit by an independent, who’s across from a black nationalist, alongside a disgruntled Democrat. None has ever been on the inside, at least not for long. They’ve been gadflies and upstarts almost all their political lives.

Yet they may control the future of Chicago politics. At the request of a federal judge they are drawing a new ward map that would place several white incumbents–including Alderman Ed Burke, whether he likes it or not, and he most likely won’t–in majority black districts.

“We are the ultimate unholy alliance,” says Victor Crown, publisher of the monthly Illinois Politics. “We probably don’t agree on anything other than what we’re doing in this room. The machine must hate us, but now they have to deal with us. You gotta love it.”

The case that has brought them together is a discrimination suit filed seven years ago by Richard Barnett and Eddie Read, two veteran black political activists. The legalese bandied about by lawyers in the matter sounds complicated, but in fact the case is about simple mathematics: though the proportion of blacks in Chicago increased in the 80s, the number of majority black wards decreased. “The ward map adopted [by the City Council] in 1991 denied black voting strength,” says former judge Eugene Pincham, the lawyer for Barnett and Read. “When you have 1.1 million blacks and one million whites but only 18 black wards and 24 white wards, that’s a disparity that cannot be constitutionally countenanced.”

This has been a persistent complaint in Chicago politics, and discrimination lawsuits were filed after the last three City Council ward reapportionments (1971, 1981, and 1991). In each case, maps were drawn in back rooms by mayoral cronies so as to pack blacks into “supermajority” black wards while dispersing white voters across many different wards. Over the years mapmakers have employed all sorts of words to describe the process (“packing” or “fracturing” being most common), but the net effect is white overrepresentation in the City Council, with white incumbents finding ways to stay in office long after their old neighborhoods have racially changed. (For example, Burke’s 14th Ward has been shifted west and south in stages over the last 25 years, with Burke moving to a new residence each time; thus he’s avoided having to run before a majority black electorate.)

“They don’t want to take the chance of seeing a black independent get elected–and they don’t want to have white voters represented by black aldermen,” says Pincham. “That would completely demolish the myth about the superiority of white people that they have perpetuated for centuries.”

Since filing the suit, Barnett and Read have gained support from various sources. Most of the City Council’s black aldermen joined the suit in 1991 (they are represented by Harold Washington’s former corporation counsel, Judson Miner, and are drawing their own map), and there are several Latino plaintiffs as well. More surprising, they’re being assisted by Chris Cleveland, a conservative Republican, and by journalists Crown and Karen Nagel, who’s editor of Illinois Politics. “I’m fighting a holy war here,” says Nagel. “Racism to me is so morally repugnant I feel we must fight it. I cannot in good conscience sit back and allow this to happen.”

Crown, a political maverick born and raised in Chicago, takes a devilish delight in making ward bosses like Burke squirm. Cleveland has a much different background. A former congressional aide to a right-wing Republican, he says he couldn’t care less about local politics–“It’s all a wasteland for conservatives anyway.” Unlike Crown, Cleveland, who owns a software company in Lincoln Park where the mapmakers meet, knows relatively little about who’s who in ward politics; he moved here only a few years ago from the east to get his MBA at the University of Chicago. He sees the case as a chance to take a stand against any race-motivated districting, though his allies Barnett and Pincham are arguing for more black-majority districts.

“I know we make for strange bedfellows, and we have different interests, and we might not agree on any other issue,” says Cleveland. “But I believe there’s a place for lofty ideals in Chicago politics, as down and dirty as it is. I find it morally offensive that people segregate based on race. I feel it’s political apartheid. When you draw maps based on race, you’re saying a person’s relation to government is based on race. It’s offensive to me to say, ‘Because you are white, only a white man can represent you.’ I want to see race-neutral mapmaking. I want boundaries drawn as continuous and compact as they can be, whatever the political consequences.”

In their own ways, all have paid a price for their political independence, some a stiffer price than others. Cleveland, for instance, doubts he’ll ever see the thousands of dollars he could bill for computer services. (In contrast, the City Council’s computer consultant has received hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the city’s outside law firm, Jenner & Block, about $10 million for the case–all public money.)

Crown and Nagel say they have been victims of harassment since publishing articles criticizing the City Council’s role in the ward map case. “I’ve received some very abusive letters,” says Nagel. “I got letters that say, ‘Karen Nagel, nigger lover of the world, I’m gonna kill you, bitch.'”

Worse, Nagel says her dog was “murdered” in 1996 as a consequence of her public position on the case. The incident occurred as she and the dog were walking along a busy road in an unincorporated portion of Cook County. “A car swerved from the road, hit my dog, and went back on the road,” says Nagel. “I don’t know who was driving the car, it was gone so fast. I was hysterical. I believe that whoever did it wanted to get the dog to intimidate me. They knew that would tear my heart out. I’ve had insomnia ever since. I relive it every night. I keep seeing it and hearing it over and over again.”

But the plaintiffs have persisted and the case has dragged on. It was dismissed by federal judge Brian Duff, only to be reinstated by a federal appeals court that held that Mayor Daley and his aldermanic “co-defendants have, on racial grounds, created fewer black wards than a racially unbiased redistricting authority. The consequences are to give one racial group more voting power than it would have under a plan carefully drafted to give all ethnic groups voting power proportional to their population.”

This time the case is being heard by federal judge Elaine Bucklo. Earlier this spring she asked the plaintiffs to prepare a new map, which she would consider along with one from the City Council.

So began the plotting and planning, a delightful opportunity for Crown and Barnett–the two chief mapmakers for the plaintiffs–to create havoc in Chicago politics.

A computer program created by Cleveland enables them to superimpose census tracts on precincts. With a tap on the keyboard, they can move black, white, and Hispanic precincts into different wards, thus undoing all the careful political arrangements of the current map.

In the case of Burke, they have one proposal that would move existing boundaries and land him in a compact, predominantly black ward. “Can you imagine Burke trying to explain to his new black constituents why he never supported Harold Washington?” says Crown.

Or they might put Burke in a redrawn 23rd Ward, where he would have to battle whatever aldermanic candidate William Lipinski, not just a congressman but also a committeeman, chooses to run.

City Hall is starting to take Barnett and Crown seriously. “We get phone calls every week from City Hall aides,” says Crown. “It’s like Let’s Make a Deal. I think the mayor wants to settle this thing so it won’t be an issue in the [1999] mayoral election. First they said we’ll give you the 18th Ward [now represented by Thomas Murphy]. Then they said, ‘How about the 10th?’ [It’s represented by John Buchanan.] They want to offer us this and then they want to offer us that. The next thing you know it will be, ‘Give us two extra draft choices.’ It comes down to this–which white alderman will they throw over the side?”

It’s not certain that the plaintiffs will prevail. The judge might approve a map not to their liking. The city might appeal the case into the next century, dragging out litigation until the next reapportionment. This suit could be settled just in time for a new one–challenging the 2001 ward map–to be filed.

The racial games of Chicago politics have been going on for too long to change anytime soon. “It really perturbs me that they would be so arrogant as to give so many millions of my tax dollars to Jenner & Block to try and preserve this map,” says Barnett. “I keep at it because you’ve got to. I’m doing it for my grandson, and he’s not even 14 yet. I’m not giving up.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Victor Crown, Chris Cleveland photo by Randy Tunnell.