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Emanuel confident City Council remap conflict will be resolved

Updated: January 8, 2012 8:16AM

Despite an ugly racial argument that nearly came to blows, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Tuesday he’s confident 41 aldermen will agree on a new ward map — and avoid a $20 million repeat of the 1990 referendum — without slipping back to the days of Council Wars.

Emanuel, who has steered clear of the process, said the cost of a political stalemate is a “disciplinary fact” that will push aldermen toward a resolution.

“All the aldermen know the importance of finding an agreement. None of ’em want this to spill out in a way that harms the city’s future and it won’t. I have all the confidence it won’t. We won’t incur costs that we don’t need to, and we won’t allow an image” of the city to be dragged down, the mayor said.

“Right now, the city is seen — around the county and to itself — as a city on the move beginning to tackle its challenges … I’m absolutely confident aldermen will achieve this goal because they know the consequences otherwise. It’s not a very good one.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier this week that the process of remapping the 50 wards to coincide with a 200,000-person drop in the city’s population in the 2010 U.S. Census took an ugly racial turn last week.

Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), chairman of the City Council’s Rules Committee, nearly came to blows with Budget Committee Chairman Carrie Austin (34th). In language laced with profanity, sources said Austin accused Mell of being a racist and treating African-American aldermen like plantation n-----s.

A police officer was summoned to the third-floor to restore order. At one point, Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, urged Mell to back off because he was exacerbating racial tensions. O’Connor has since played a more pivotal role in the negotiations.

Although O’Connor’s presence has had a “calming” effect, it’s still a “very fragile situation,” according to Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the Council’s Black Caucus.

“The danger is racial tensions between blacks, Hispanics and, potentially, whites because of who is involved — [Ald. Edward M.] Burke and Mell, who were seen as obstacles to Harold Washington,” Brookins said, recalling the 1980s power struggle known as Council Wars.

He added, “Mell and Burke represent Hispanic wards. We figured that out pretty quickly in the process — which is why it helped that Pat O’Connor came into the room.”

Mell hung up on a reporter seeking comment about the racial tensions.

At least 41 aldermen must approve a new ward map to avoid a referendum. If at least 10 aldermen unite behind an alternate map, Chicago voters would choose between the two versions when they go to the polls next March. That could set the stage for an even costlier federal lawsuit.

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