Latino community organizers re-group after Milwaukee erases redistricting progress

‘We expected more from this committee’

By: - January 12, 2022 6:00 am
Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition by Tony Webster CC BY 2.0 A yard sign in Mellen, Wisconsin reads: "This Time Wisconsin Deserves Fair Maps," paid for by the Fair Elections Project, The political sign supports redistricting legislation to reform gerrymandering.

Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition by Tony Webster CC BY 2.0 A yard sign in Mellen, Wisconsin reads: “This Time Wisconsin Deserves Fair Maps,” paid for by the Fair Elections Project, The political sign supports redistricting legislation to reform gerrymandering.

In Milwaukee, the months-long task of redrawing the city’s aldermanic maps was essentially erased Monday evening. After what Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa decried as a “last-minute move,” the Milwaukee Common Council’s Judiciary and Legislation Committee moved to closed session to discuss whether maps favored by Latino and immigrant rights groups ran afoul of  the Voting Rights Act. When the committee returned, maps which had been vetoed by former Mayor Tom Barrett were accepted, nullifying the efforts that went into redrawing the maps.

“It feels like the twilight zone,” said committee chair Ald. Ashanti Hamilton, his voice expressing the sense of exhaustion and frustration that overwhelmed the meeting. Hamilton formally apologized to the many people who had provided input into the redistricting process, only for it to be rejected at the last second and largely behind a veil in closed session. Hamilton confessed that, “with that marathon of a meeting we have accomplished nothing. But with no other business, I guess I’ve got to formally apologize to everybody for the amount of time that we spent on this today, only to end up back where we were months ago.”

For months, alders from predominantly Latino communities on Milwaukee’s South Side worked with Voces de la Frontera and other groups to establish new maps. With increases to the city’s Latino population, many felt that it was possible to create a third solid majority Latino aldermanic district on the far South Side, without disturbing the super-majorities of Latino residents in other districts.

Milwaukee alder's join Christine Nuemann-Ortiz and others on a Zoom call on Monday where the outcome of the maps was decided. (Screenshot)
Milwaukee alders join Christine Neumann-Ortiz and other activists on a Zoom call on Monday. (Screenshot)

During an earlier phase of the Monday committee meeting  Zamarripa expressed hope that a set of maps could be created that “represents all of Milwaukee’s growing and diverse and in particular immigrant and refugee communities.” Zamarripa, along with Alds. Marina Dimitrijevic and José Perez, supported an option labeled Map D, “which would increase the Latino population in District 13 on Milwaukee’s South Side to 41%,”  Zamarripa explained. She noted that Map D also took into consideration input from Milwaukee’s Muslim community, as well as Ald. Scott Spiker who focused on the city’s so-called Garden Wards and represents District 13. Map D also earned the support of Voces de la Frontera and its allies, though only on the condition that ward 309, with a 72.5% Latino population, be moved to District 13 and wards 293 and 298 be moved to District 14.

“Numerous conference calls and Zoom meetings have been held in an effort to come to a consensus around a map that is equitable, fair and lifts up all of Milwaukee’s diverse communities,” said Zamarripa. “I have known from the beginning of all of this that it would be a great challenge for us. That this would take communication and collaboration and compromise. To everyone on this Zoom, your work was not in vain. Now comes the difficult task of your elected officials to weigh in and balance all of your concerns and to try to find a resolution.”

Shortly after that,  Ald. Spiker raised concerns about “the legality of what we’re doing.” He added that, “there were concerns raised to me about the equal protection clause, and whether the process we’re engaged in would comport with it.” Spiker said he wanted the city attorney to offer clarification. “Before I know I cast my vote and my deliberation on it, I would need to hear from them on whether what we’re proposing is even legal,” Spiker said. Assistant City Attorney Kathy Block recommended that the committee move to closed session, something Hamilton said “would shut this whole platform down.”

Assistant City Attorney Kathy Block on the Zoom call. (Screenshot)
Assistant City Attorney Kathy Block on the Zoom call. (Screenshot)

Block summarized that there could potentially be an equal rights challenge in redistricting, stating that, “You’re not allowed to unconstitutionally racially gerrymander, pack or crack a district with a disproportionate number of a racial minorities.” Ald. Robert Bauman agreed that, “We’re changing these maps based on nationality, pure and simple. People say it boldly.”

Many in the call were blind-sided by the move, which seemed to be contrary to the advice Barrett had been given by the city attorney when he vetoed the last set of proposed maps.  Zamarripa admitted that she found the conversation and sudden shift confusing and offensive. “We are passionate about representation for people of color, immigrants, refugees. And we didn’t just take that into account. Frankly, I have heard day and night about the importance of the Garden Wards to Ald. Spiker, the airport to Ald. Spiker, the businesses as well. So it’s not just race and ethnicity if you’re just trying to diminish it in air quotes so to speak, and say that’s all we were speaking to. But I’m offended by this last-ditch effort from the Alderman of the 13 [Spiker] who just does not want to look at any type of change.”

Zamarripa added,  “I knew nothing about this move to go into closed session tonight.” Spiker countered that he’d only recently received the city attorney’s opinion, and that his concerns were fueled by input from the Muslim community. “The worst thing that could happen is that we pass something that is illegal, we just don’t want to do that,” said Spiker.

Hamilton questioned whether any advice had actually been given to Barrett to inform the veto. Block said, “I can assure you we haven’t given anyone contrary advice. But again, probably the exact scope of that advice is something we should discuss in closed session.” Five hours later, the committee returned and chose to regress to the vetoed maps. “This is not necessarily how it is supposed to end up,” Hamilton said regretfully.

Ald. Robert Bauman. (Screenshot)
Ald. Robert Bauman. (Screenshot)

Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, shamed the committee for the outcome. “It is a disgrace that the Judiciary and Legislation Committee has failed to uphold democratic principles and not move forward with a map that accounts for the dramatic growth of Latinx residents in the City of Milwaukee and their ability to have greater representation as a community of interest,” she said in a press conference following the meeting. People of Latin American descent  now account for 20% of the city’s population. Since that amounts to roughly one in five of all Milwaukeeans, three out of the 15 alders on the Common Council should represent the voting choice of those voters, Neumann-Ortiz said.

Neumann-Ortiz added that Spiker “simply wants to maintain a conservative, majority-white district, essentially claiming reverse discrimination.” Voces and its allies are reviewing the city attorney’s opinion, and are going to consider legal options. Rich Saks, a member of the Voces de la Frontera redistricting commission, rejected the notion that race was the only motivating factor in the redistricting conversation.

“We think that there were many factors and this was just one among many that were being raised about this map after the mayor vetoed the map, precisely because it didn’t account for the growing Latinx population in the City of Milwaukee.” Saks told Wisconsin Examiner that while the commission didn’t want to disturb other aldermanic districts around the city, if a third Latino-majority district can be created, then not doing so could constitute a Voting Rights Act violation.

Hundreds march in Milwaukee for the Day Without Immigrants protest. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Hundreds march for immigration reform in Milwaukee organized by Voces de la Frontera. (Voces director Christine Neumann Ortiz, center) Photo by Isiah Holmes

Mel Barnes, staff counsel at Law Forward, tells Wisconsin Examiner that if a district is drawn based on race, there needs to be a compelling government interest, such as Voting Rights Act compliance. “However, in cases where courts have found that legislatures or other bodies have considered race as the predominant factor, not for Section 2 compliance, they have found that that can be racial gerrymandering,” explains Barnes. “So if a legislature is basically drawing a district that is packed full of voters that are Black or a language minority, and it’s not for Section 2 compliance, or it’s going beyond that, that could be an equal protection violation.”

It’s a tricky situation, particularly with Milwaukee’s historic issues with racial discrimination. “That is why it is important to give representation and voice to those unique interests, and to make sure that they are not shut out by others,” said Neumann-Ortiz.

Barnes notes that when Voting Rights Act violations are raised, very specific and localized analysis will follow. “What is necessary to comply with the Voting Rights Act will depend on the history of racially polarized voting specific to the locality,” says Barnes, “as well as basically the totality of the circumstances that have impacted the ability of that racial or language minority to participate equally in the political process historically. So things like Milwaukee’s history of strong segregation and really enduring consequences of racial discrimination are relevant to the analysis a court would perform when it’s looking at Section 2 compliance.”

Bringing it back to the issue that triggered the veto in the first place — the under-representation of the city’s growing Lation population, she adds, “I think the thing to remember is that redistricting in many ways is a political process, at least the way we currently do it in Wisconsin.” Sometimes those decisions can be split between what is politically needed, and what’s legally allowed.”

As they re-group, advocates for Milwaukee’s immigrant communities feel that the city government failed them. “In a city, one of the most segregated cities in this country with incredible racial disparities, we expected more from this committee,” says Neumann-Ortiz.


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.