In 2011, as Illinois politicians redrew congressional district maps, they exercised a power grab that was intended to protect those already in office or even gain more seats for Democrats.
Officials split some of the state's growing Latino population between districts already represented by Democrats and those where they hoped to see Republicans lose. An incumbent Democrat like former Chicago-area Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. was supposed to have little problem holding a seat that for three decades has been held by an African-American. But in 2011, no one knew then that Jackson would spend a portion his term in seclusion trying to manage a mental illness. And no one knew that, after winning reelection earlier this month, Jackson would resign amid allegations of misappropriated campaign funds.
Now, with Jackson out and Illinois set to stage a special election in February, Jackson’s former district could end up being represented by a white Democrat from Chicago’s suburbs. And for the crowded field of mostly black candidates that have expressed interest in Jackson’s old job, winning support of Latino voters and at least a smattering of white voters may be the key to victory.
“Ironically, because of redistricting, what has long been a seat held by a black politician is going to require a black candidate that can bring together a kind of Barack Obama pan-ethnic coalition just to maintain the status quo,” said Laura Washington, a political consultant and former political science professor at De Paul University.
The situation in Chicago isn’t unique, political analysts say. In states such as California, Texas and Florida, black politicians who have long represented majority black districts have had to adapt their political messages and policy priorities to appeal to growing shares of Latino voters and push to have college towns and their legions of young, often liberal white voters drawn into their districts.
In the 1970s and 80s, political power struggles flared in cities around the country as whites decamped to the suburbs, said David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Minority voters were frequently divided among crowded fields of black candidates, leaving room for well-financed white candidates often backed by conservative business interests to win by narrow majorities, Bositis said.
That’s a pattern that dominated elections in cities like St. Louis for decades, according to Bositis. In the 1980s and 1990s, the number of black elected officials peaked in cities like Los Angeles. Then, in the 1990s and 2000s, cities like Baltimore and Gary, Ind. -- a city which was then about 90 percent black -- began to elect more liberal white politicians with substantial support from black voters. Black officeholders had to work harder to appeal to white liberals and, in the Dallas and Los Angeles areas, even fought to have them drawn into their once overwhelmingly black districts. Now, the growing presence of Latinos will likely spur a new political resort that begins with more politicians courting Latino voters and may later lead to an increase in Latino officeholders, Bositis said.
"But in a lot of places that’s still a ways off," Bositis said. "It’s not just about population numbers. Its also about age."
Half of the nation’s Latino population is under 25. By comparison, the median age for black Americans is 33, and for white Americans, that figure is 44. Since voters must be 18 to vote and young voters tend to be less reliable, those figures matter, Bositis said.
Jackson’s former congressional district is home to a population where about 71 percent of residents are black, 24 percent are white and 12 percent are Latino. About 54 percent of the district’s registered voters are black, giving them a slight majority.
In the week since Jackson announced that he would resign, as many as 15 different Chicago-area aldermen, state legislators, lawyers and others have indicated that they may be interested in the job.
“An open congressional seat is a rare thing,” said Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois Chicago who said he has been contacted by people interested in vying for the seat. “It’s a lot harder to defeat an incumbent. So when you have a situation like this, you get candidates coming out of the woodwork. Everybody who ever wanted to serve in Congress thinks this is their moment.”
With the exception of Debbie Halvorson, a white former congresswoman from the suburbs south of Chicago, all of the potential candidates are black.
While there is ample evidence that black voters have long been willing to vote for white candidates and that white voters will support black candidates, voting patterns often track along race lines, according to Simpson.
Halvorson, an experienced candidate, will likely garner most of the white vote, some black and Latino votes and, therefore, has a better shot at earning a simple majority and winning the seat. But she will have to work for that coalition or lose it to another candidate, said Kevin Lampe, a political consultant who worked with Jackson to win his most recent campaign.
“Make no mistake, this election is not about city versus suburbs,” Lampe said. “This election is about demography, not geography.”