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Race-Based Voting Districts Put to the Test in Chicago

In twist, Hispanics divide over splitting their first majority district

IN the latest controversy over the dismantling of racially-based voting districts, a federal panel of judges in Chicago is expected to decide this month a case challenging the legality of the city's horseshoe-shaped Fourth Congressional District.

The majority Hispanic district, which was established by a federal court in 1991, was the first of its kind in Illinois. It has a 65 percent Hispanic population.

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In an attack on what they describe as electoral affirmative action, conservatives represented by a Chicago-based political action committee brought the federal suit in February in an effort to overturn the 1991 order and divide the district in two.

"This racially gerrymandered congressional district represents affirmative action for politicians. The last place you want to have quotas is in the US Congress," says William Kelly, chairman of PAC of Middle America, the plaintiff in the suit.

"If we can do away with racial gerrymandering, affirmative action, quotas, and all these devices that divide people on the basis of race, we will be able to get to a society based on qualifications and fairness," Mr. Kelly says.

In contrast, supporters of keeping the voting district intact argue that dismantling it would undermine the gains of the civil rights movement and the 1965 Voting Rights Act by unfairly denying Latino voters an influential voice.

"Over the decades the voting strength of African-Americans and Hispanics has been deliberately diluted to protect incumbents," says Illinois state Sen. Miguel del Valle, who was instrumental in creating the Hispanic district.

"The Fourth Congressional District is the product of long struggles by minorities in this country for gaining fair opportunities. By jeopardizing that, we of course see the possibility of losing the Hispanic representation that we currently have," Mr. del Valle says.

Similar debates are under way with suits filed in Texas, Virginia, New York, Florida, and Louisiana. Important Supreme Court decisions are expected in May or June on cases in Texas and North Carolina.

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In Georgia, two of three black-majority districts were recently invalidated following a milestone high court decision in Miller v. Johnson in June, which ruled that districts cannot be drawn by race alone.

"The [Supreme] Court is clearly in the process of dismantling minority voting rights," says Laughlin McDonald, director of the Southern Regional Office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Atlanta. The ACLU represents black and white voters who have intervened to defend the minority districts.

"Every single one of the 17 blacks in Congress from the South was elected from a majority-black district," he adds. "The elimination of these districts will turn out the blacks."

Following the successful break-up of some minority congressional districts, municipal, county, and state legislative districts with predominantly black or Hispanic populations are also coming under attack, McDonald and del Valle say.

The Chicago case has an unusual twist. As conservatives and liberals battle in court on ideological grounds, the district's predominantly Hispanic population is engaged in a more pragmatic debate on the political outcome of the suit.

Some Hispanic leaders favor splitting up the district so that its two distinct ethnic groups, some 90,000 Puerto Ricans and some 250,000 Mexicans, would each have an opportunity to elect their own congressmen.

Residents of Mexican origin, whose population in Chicago doubled in the 1980s, have expressed discontent over the fact that the city's top Hispanic elected officials come mainly from the smaller but more established Puerto Rican ethnic community.

"The Puerto Rican community wants their own representative, and the Mexicans want their own, so it is a very sensitive situation," says Vilma Colom, a Chicago alderwoman of Puerto Rican heritage whose ward lies within the Fourth District.

But dividing the district carries a major risk. Depending on how the map is redrawn, Hispanic voters could lose their majority, and their one representative, if their numbers and influence are diluted in two new majority white districts, Mrs. Colom warns.

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