U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. said Thursday that he and two other Democratic congressmen from Illinois won't help defend the state's new congressional voting districts, which he suggested fellow Democrats drew to help politicians instead of minority voters.
"For some, partisan advantage may be more important than fighting against discrimination. But not for us," Jackson said in a statement that he said was also on behalf of fellow Chicago Democrats Danny Davis and Bobby Rush.
The new congressional districts were drawn by Democratic leaders and approved by the state Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats. Because of slowing population growth, Illinois now will have 18 U.S. House seats instead of 19. The new map largely protects Democratic incumbents while creating districts that will put Republican candidates on the defensive.
But Jackson said he, Davis and Rush worry that the new districts do not provide enough representation for Chicago's growing Latino population. The new congressional map, produced after the 2010 census to reflect changes in population, includes just one district where Latinos represent the majority, although Illinois' Hispanic population is 32.5 percent.
Other Democratic members of Congress declined to comment on Jackson's statement or did not return calls seeking their views.
Juan Rangel, head of Chicago's United Neighborhood Organization, said he was surprised that Jackson is speaking out now, months after the congressional map was discussed and approved by lawmakers.
"I think that there has been a fairly wide consensus among Latinos and Latino organizations and advocacy groups in support of one congressional district," Rangel said, explaining that a second district might dilute the Latino vote.
Republicans are fighting the map in court, arguing the federal Voting Rights Act requires a second Latino-friendly district. Democrats who support the new districts have argued a second Latino district would have meant eating into African-American districts, creating a different problem under that federal law. The Voting Rights Act requires map drawers to give special protection to districts that contain mostly minorities.
"From the beginning we have said that the Democrats' map violates the Voting Rights Act," said John McGovern, a spokesman for the Committee for a Fair and Balanced Map, a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit.
Rangel said he is not worried that opposition from Davis, Jackson and Rush will help the Republican lawsuit.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund declined to comment Thursday. During hearings on the new district boundaries, fund officials testified that they were looking at the possibility of creating a second Latino district, but ultimately they never presented such a proposal.
In his statement Thursday, Jackson repeatedly questioned whether supporters of the new congressional districts are concerned about minority voters. He also said politicians of both parties may be "abandoning the fight against racism and discrimination."
"To gain a Democratic majority and partisan advantage, some Democrats may be prepared to tamper with and possibly violate the VRA, rather than support strict enforcement of its provisions. Congressman Rush, Davis and I are not prepared to do that," Jackson said.
Davis did not return a call for comment. Rush spokeswoman Renee Ferguson agreed that Rush was "not prepared to violate the law" and that he trust that a judge would fairly decide the litigation over the map.
Jackson spokesman Frank Watkins said Illinois' Democratic members of Congress were asked to donate $10,000 each to help fight the Republican legal challenge. Jackson, Davis and Rush won't be contributing to the legal defense, he said, but they hope that a judge finds that Democrats complied with voting rights laws when they drew the new districts.
Watkins said three congressmen's districts were not greatly changed under the new map, so they aren't speaking out of concern about their own political future.
Wills contributed to this report from Springfield, Ill.