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Democrats have upper hand in Illinois redistricting

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2010 - The Census Bureau's confirmation that Illinois will lose one congressional seat set off behind-the-scenes maneuvering and speculation Tuesday, with Democrats who control the state Legislature and the governor's office appearing to have the upper hand in the upcoming redistricting battle that would pare the state's current 19 House seats down to 18.

Depending on the county-by-county census numbers that will emerge in a couple of months, political observers expect the Illinois redistricting to focus on congressional districts in the central part of the state that are represented by Republicans.

One possible redistricting map would combine much of the 17th district -- which runs northward along the Mississippi River from north of Metro East up to the Quad Cities -- with the adjacent 18th district in central Illinois, represented by U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock,   R-Peoria.

If that happens, U.S. Rep.-elect Bobby Schilling -- a Republican pizza parlor owner from Moline who won election in November to represent the 17th district with backing from Tea Party activists -- is viewed as the potentially most vulnerable incumbent.

Another option might be to break Schock's district into several parts, possibly giving its southern section to the 19th district now represented by U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.

There are also redistricting options in suburban areas north of Chicago.

The Illinois remapping after the 2000 census had redrawn the congressional districts in a way that had Shimkus running against an incumbent Democrat, former U.S. Rep. David Phelps, in the same new district. Shimkus won that battle and has been re-elected every two years since then.

A spokesman for Shimkus said Tuesday that the congressman wants "to see a map that is fair and balanced and that gives the people of Illinois the representation that they want and deserve. It is his hope that the General Assembly and the governor will draw a map that is based on fairness and preserving communities of interest."

In an interview late last week, Shimkus told the Beacon that he agreed with U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, that there should at least be an effort by Illinois' congressional delegation to suggest a compromise plan to the state Legislature, where the powerful Democratic House Speaker, Mike Madigan of Chicago, is expected to have unusual clout in the redistricting process.

Costello, as the only remaining Democratic congressman in downstate Illinois, would appear to be in a relatively safe position in the redistricting process. He told the Beacon in an interview Thursday that he already has started talking with other members of the delegation "and hopefully we can reach an agreement on a map in a bipartisan way -- as opposed to ending up in federal court, where it will cost a lot of money and take a lot of time."

In response to today's announcement, he said, "I look forward to working in a bipartisan way with the Illinois Congressional Delegation, the General Assembly and Gov. Quinn on a redistricting plan that is fair and ensures that Southwestern and Southern Illinois maintain a strong voice in Congress."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, although not directly involved in the redistricting, said last week that Costello "is a great congressman and he'll survive" the remapping. Even so, Durbin said he foresees a statewide redistricting struggle. "In Illinois, we have a Democratic-controlled legislature and governor's office, which suggests that it should be a smooth process," he said in an interview Friday. "But it is one of the hardest, toughest, meanest political tasks that any legislature or congressional delegation faces."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.