New playing field in Chicago politics

City redistricting hastens a decline of Polish clout, prompting a reverse-discrimination suit.

Typewriter correction fluid in hand and map on table, Les Kuczynski illustrates the challenge facing Polish-Americans in Chicago.

"St. Hyacinth is here," he says, fixing the Polish Catholic church with a white droplet. "St. Wenceslaus is here." Another droplet. Four droplets later – spread across different political wards – he's made his point. Chicago's new districting has decimated Polish-American political clout on the city's northwest side.

That's why Mr. Kuczynski's organization – the Polish American Congress – is suing the city. Although accommodating blacks and Hispanics, the City Council hurt Polish-Americans, the congress contends.

The reverse-discrimination lawsuit – which one expert says is probably the first of its kind in the nation this decade – may help define one of the most amorphous terms in politics today: community of interest. The first status hearing for the case is to be held today.

If successful, the case could return to Chicago's Polish-Americans a measure of their political clout. But if it fails, it could be harder for them not only to elect one of their own, but also to get the city services they need.

Already, the lawsuit signals the declining importance of white-ethnic politics in the city. "Ethnic politics doesn't have the same pull it once did," says John Jackson, a political-science professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. "As ethnic groups mature in their participation in the political process, they tend to lose cohesion."

While Chicago was once said to contain more Poles than any city outside Warsaw, it's Latinos who today represent the fast-growing group. Affluent Polish-Americans are moving to the suburbs. Hispanics are moving in.

Still, here around St. Hyacinth's, the area's largest and most prominent Polish Catholic parish, residents are just as likely to break into Polish as English. And every month, St. Hyacinth's congregation of 10,000 welcomes new immigrants.

But change is coming. The local postman now delivers roughly a quarter of the mail to homes with Hispanic surnames. At the Tarnow Food Market, just down the street from the high red-brick church, cans of La Preferida refried beans compete for shelf space with Maka Luksusowa (wheat flour imported from Poland).

Yet even at the height of Chicago's Polish community, the group's political power wasn't all it could be. "They never have had the political muscle to reflect their numbers," says Paul Green, director of the policy studies school at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He adds that unlike, say, Chicago's Irish- and Italian-Americans, few Polish-American leaders have built coalitions with other groups.

These deficiencies at the local level were covered up for decades by successes at the federal level. For a brief time in the 1960s, the Chicago area boasted four Polish- American congressmen. Today, only US Rep. William Lipinski (D) holds that distinction – and he's part Irish. To add insult to injury, last month's Illinois primary saw three of the Polish community's leading politicians lose races they could have won.

The ward remap represents the final straw. "We are always left for last," says Joseph Jurek, a precinct captain for Michael Wojcik, alderman for the 30th Ward. Under the old ward map, the 30th contained the Copernicus community center as well as four of the area's five Polish churches. (The fifth one stood just across the border in the 38th Ward.) Now, all but one church lie just outside the 30th.

The new lines carve up far more than mere political power. The wards control many of the city services that residents get. That's particularly important since many of the neighborhood residents are new immigrants from Poland who speak little or no English. "We'll probably have to send them to four different wards," Jurek says. "We'll have to get to know the new politicians, the new aldermen."

In its suit, the Polish American Congress argues that the new ward map divides up a natural "community of interest." But exactly what that means remains extremely subjective, legal experts say. Courts are still struggling to define it.

"That's an utterly amorphous concept," says Laughlin McDonald, director of the Atlanta-based voting-rights project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Everybody has a community of interest, whether they're a Polish community or not." He doubts the suit will go very far.

But this cycle of cases may better define communities of interest, says Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a Washington consulting firm specializing in redistricting and other related issues.

Chicago's situation stands out because it contains three groups – whites, blacks and Hispanics – with enough voters to justify a legal discrimination case, Mr. Brace says. Ironically, the City Council had opted for what it thought would be political peace, because the last round of redistricting cases proved so expensive for the city. The remap preserves 20 black-majority wards (even though blacks lost population during the 1990s) and accommodates Hispanics with more wards (although they, too, are weighing a redistricting suit).

Even Polish-American leaders aren't sure that wards redrawn to their liking would elect a Polish-American alderman. But that's not the point, they say.

"We don't want a white ward," says Kuczynski of the Polish American Congress. "We just want this little community of interest that reflects the social and cultural reality of the neighborhood."

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