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Redrawn Mpls. ward map splits fragile minority coalition

East African, Latino groups worked to ensure redistricting would favor their political fortunes, but some Hispanics feel shortchanged.

Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune

Updated: March 13, 2012 - 10:38 PM

As the redrawing of Minneapolis City Council districts reached a critical point, Hispanics and Somali-Americans worked together to ensure the new ward boundaries gave both groups a better chance of winning election. One recent Saturday, Mariano Espinoza invited several East African immigrants over to brainstorm over fajitas, rice and beans.

"We left on a good note ... everybody was happy," recalled Abdulkadir Warsame.

But now, some are not so happy that the new map, approved last week by the 24-member Redistricting Group, appears to split this fragile coalition. The panel is scheduled to meet again this week to consider further minor changes, and will adopt an official map by month's end that will influence city politics for the next decade.

So far, the Redistricting Group's efforts to increase minority political participation have focused on increasing the black and Hispanic population in the Sixth Ward by extending boundaries to pick up much of Seward, part of Cedar-Riverside and all of Midtown Phillips.

"You can't keep both sides happy," said Redistricting Chairman Barry Clegg. "You'll either have a minority coalition ward where blacks have the majority over the Hispanics or you'll have one where Hispanics have the majority over blacks -- and there are no easy answers."

The changes have the support of Warsame and the group of East African immigrants he is leading, Citizens Committee for Fair Redistricting.

Yet they have prompted frustration among some Hispanics who see the shift from the Ninth to the Sixth Ward of Midtown Phillips, with its high concentration of Hispanics, as a move that weakens their influence. Espinoza fears the new map will pit both groups against one another in an election.

"It dilutes our power," he said.

That minority groups are involved in redistricting at all this year is a testament to Minneapolis' growing diversity. The population of the city's East African-born residents jumped 53 percent to 14,497 in the past decade, while the number of Hispanic citizens has increased 37 percent to nearly 40,000 during that period.

But neither group has one of its own on the 13-member City Council, so they have been asserting themselves in the once-a-decade process in which ward lines are changed to account for population changes following the census.

Warsame's group was active in redistricting from the outset, seeing an opportunity after helping campaign for Somali-American Muhamud Noor, who lost the DFL primary in last year's special election in Senate District 59. Early on, they proposed their own maps, telling the Redistricting Group that ward boundaries as they are currently drawn break up the influence of the East African community.

To address the problem, the Redistricting Group initially extended the Sixth Ward north to include the Riverside Plaza apartments, home to thousands of East African immigrants.

That proposal still troubled members of the Citizens Committee for Fair Redistricting. They packed a Feb. 29 hearing at the Webber Community Center to voice concerns that the revised map continued to divide their community. Noor also showed up to speak.

"I'm supporting them because they came out and supported me," Noor said afterward. "From that process they figured out we can get ourselves engaged in the political process, and this is the right opportunity."

Hispanics were later to the game. Still, Espinoza had been holding meetings with other Hispanics in recent weeks to talk about how they could become more politically empowered. A trainer for political leadership at Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network, he felt similarly that ward boundaries didn't offer minorities much opportunity to be elected.

Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause, introduced Espinoza to Warsame at the Feb. 29 hearing and suggested they work together. So they all met and talked about a compromise map to present to the Redistricting Group, one that would give half of Midtown Phillips to Ward 6, and the other half to Ward 9.

Yet by last Wednesday, the redistricting panel had settled on a version that moved all of Midtown Phillips into the Sixth Ward, while a group of American Indians and Hispanics, including Espinoza, had brought in their own map, contesting revisions that they said broke them into different districts.

Among the group was Rep. Susan Allen, D-Minneapolis, elected last year as the first American Indian woman in the Minnesota House.

The changes in the Redistricting Group's latest map would increase the Sixth Ward's black population from 29 to 46 percent, and lower the Hispanic population from 19 to 17 percent. It would increase the Hispanic population in Ward 9 from 28 to 35 percent, and the black population from 17 to 18 percent.

The adjoining Second Ward would see dramatic changes by losing most of the Seward neighborhood. A district now diverse in income and race will become whiter and wealthier by pushing boundaries closer to the riverfront, noted Cam Gordon, the council member who represents that ward.

The Redistricting Group is "trying to find how best not to dilute minority voting, and there's probably a case that could be made for having a little more diversity in more wards," said Gordon.

Council Member Robert Lilligren, who represents Ward 6, would likely face a more competitive election with a mobilized base of Somali-Americans looking to put one of their own on the council.

He said he isn't thinking about himself just yet, but feels that there are better ways to create wards to give minorities more opportunity than the current map allows. Grouping several minority groups into a ward "does not mean that they will really get along," said Lilligren.

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210

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