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Survivor, St. Louis-Style 

Who'll get voted out when aldermen redraw ward lines?

If there is a political activity more demeaning than sucking up to big money for fundraising, it has to be scrapping for survival during redistricting time. Elected officials morph into hyenas, snarling and snapping at each other, tearing up census tracts in a Darwinian showdown that descends even deeper than party loyalty.

On the congressional level, freshman Rep. Lacy Clay (D-1st) was rattled when always-a-bridesmaid-never-House-Majority-Leader Dick Gephardt (D-3rd) had the audacity to invade Clay's district in search of Democrats. Gephardt and Clay had worked out a deal early on, before the omnipotent and omniscient Joyce Aboussie, Gephardt's national political director, intervened with a different map pushing Gephardt's district farther north, all the way to Highway 40. That triggered a powwow between Clay and Gephardt, during which a compromise map was accepted, one that stalled Gephardt's search for Democrats at I-44.

The premise of representative government is simple: An elected official represents a certain number of people. When the census is taken, every 10 years, the number of people being represented in a district generally changes. Because people tend to migrate, the boundaries of districts must be redrawn. It's a combination of drawing a new map and doing simple division of population by the number of offices. But politicians, not mathematicians, determine how lines are drawn, and those decisions determine which politicians keep their jobs and which must ponder life after politics.

As with most things political -- or social, or economic -- in this part of the world, things become the most contentious in the city. The 2000 census determined that the city's population had dropped to 348,189 from 396,685. Divide that by 28 aldermen, with some wards losing more than 30 percent of their residents, and you've got a real mess.

"We ought to go to Denmark and get some demographers and have them come and draw 28 equal wards, regardless of where aldermen live -- get somebody competent and totally disinterested to come in and do that and say, 'Here are your 28 wards,'" says Ald. Jim Shrewsbury (D-16th). "That may very well be what happens if this thing ends up in court."

No, the judge won't solicit Danes to do what the aldermen can't or won't do. Shrewsbury means that the minefield run the Board of Aldermen is about to embark on will probably end up with someone filing suit and a judge deciding whether the new ward boundaries are constitutional.

Shrewsbury is more than an alderman this time around. The man who would have been comptroller has backed into another Estimate and Apportionment seat -- he's the acting president of the Board of Aldermen, now that Francis Slay has jumped off the bridge to become mayor. Shrewsbury has named Ald. Phyllis Young (D-7th) chairwoman of the Legislation Committee, which will weld together the bill creating a new 28-ward map. He still has to name the other seven members of the committee. He's heard from many interested parties.

"You might not believe it," says Shrewsbury, "but I have 27 requests from aldermen to be on the Legislation Committee." That's weird. Why wouldn't they all want to be on that Engrossments, Rules, Resolutions and Credentials Committee? That sounds like a lot of fun.

Shrewsbury calls his appointive powers a "blessing and a curse" but downplays his influence. "I think my influence will be diminished only because it's sort of every alderman for himself," he says. The St. Louis Hills resident plans to pick three North Side aldermen, two from the central corridor and three from the South Side for the committee.

Already, subplots have surfaced. Ald. Lyda Krewson (D-28th) testified at redistricting hearings to support the Gephardt-Aboussie map. Krewson contends she did it so that both Clay and Gephardt, not just Clay, would have a stake in the city. Others surmise that Krewson has designs on the aldermanic presidency when it comes up for election in August 2002 and therefore wanted to cozy up to Gephardt. Krewson does have a certain Cassius quality about her, a lean and hungry look that suggests ambition, be it for aldermanic president, mayor or Congress. Adding to the suspicion is the prerequisite name-dropping recently by Jerry Berger, no doubt aided and abetted by a Krewson compadre, the Zelig-like Richard Callow, who attended Krewson's wedding three years ago in Colorado, when she married KSDK (Channel 5) newshound Mike Owens.

Krewson's redistricting testimony triggered an in-your-face reaction from Clay. "He was unhappy about that," says Krewson. "Lacy approached me and had a lot of 'expletive deleteds' for me. I really didn't say anything back to him much. There wasn't anything appropriate to say back."

A more out-in-the-open scrap will no doubt break out in the 22nd Ward, home of Ald. Kenny Jones, the only North Side alderman to endorse and work for Slay in the mayoral race. Jones, known for his derby hats and rambling references to dialectical materialism during aldermanic speeches, is in trouble. His ward has lost 4,213 people, 31 percent of its residents, since 1990. In the 1990 census, Jones' ward also lost more than 4,000 people. One longtime Jones foe, Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th), is well aware of this.

"The 22nd Ward was the second-highest-losing ward. We've got to address that. What do you do? Do we move that ward, or are we going to play politics and pretend like it doesn't exist? We got problems," Tyus says. Political expediency seems to dictate that Slay either go to the mat to save Jones or offer him alternative employment come 2002.

The aldermanic-redistricting bill could pass before the session ends in July. Shrewsbury predicts that Slay will sign the bill "unless it's so criminal and so outrageous he can't." Tyus says the lawsuit 10 years ago challenging the plan failed because the suing aldermen didn't hire the right lawyer. This time, she thinks, it will be different, noting that if a "fair map" isn't drawn, an experienced lawyer who won a similar suit in Chicago is "standing by."

So it is that redistricting -- like divorce, crime and personal injury -- ends up in some lawyer's briefcase.

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More by D.J. Wilson

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June 16, 2021

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