'Let My People Go': Lawmakers Outside of Chicago Feel Frustration That Comes with being Marginalized

Sep 1, 2013

Murphysboro Republican Rep. Mike Bost’s rant went viral on YouTube and made Late Night with David Letterman.
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Willie Sutton reputedly said he robbed banks because that’s where the money was.

That kind of stark mathematical logic also could explain why Illinois’ political system has, more than ever it seems, turned its back on that oddly defined region we call “Downstate” to focus almost exclusively on “Chicagoland.”

As Sutton might say, with painful obviousness, it’s because that’s where the money is. And the votes.

Illinois’ total population has crept up incrementally in the past two decades, fueled mostly by explosive growth in Chicago’s outer suburbs. Chicago proper has seen its population continue to ebb, but modestly enough, for such a large city, to keep its famous shoulders up.

Downstate, meanwhile, the bottom has dropped out. The slow collapse of the state’s high-sulfur coal industry and other problems have spawned a decades-long exodus of voters from rural areas throughout the state, especially from its southern half. The state’s political establishment — its leaders, its priorities, its money — has followed them out like nomadic hunters.

“So many of the voters are in these suburban collar counties ... [and] it’s harder for downstaters to raise money. Most of the money is up north,’’ says former Charleston resident Jim Edgar, whose tenure as governor (1991-1999) marked the last time someone from the southern two-thirds of the state was in that office.

“It’s a fact of life: The governor is usually going to come from where most of the people are.”

Thus has downstate Illinois gone, in about a generation, from being one of three crucial pillars in the triumvirate of Illinois’ political power structure (with Chicago and its suburbs) to political irrelevance.

Most of the current statewide elected officials, and all four top legislative leaders, hail from or around Chicago. At this writing, not one of the six candidates in both parties running for governor in 2014 is from a rural area, nor from anywhere in the southern half of the state.

“The GOP will likely nominate from DuPage, and all of our possible [Democratic] candidates, including the governor, are from the city [of Chicago],” notes state Sen. Bill Haine, an Alton Democrat. “The lack of population [downstate] means that the constitutional officers tend to come from either the city of Chicago or the suburbs of Chicago. It’s tough. But it’s a function of where the votes are.”

It has fundamentally affected the wheels of government. The General Assembly meets in Springfield because, constitutionally, it has to. But state boards, commissions and off-session legislative committees usually meet in or around Chicago, notes Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon of Carbondale, the only deep-south Illinoisan currently in statewide office.

“Every once in a while, they’ll have what they call a ‘downstate meeting,’ says Simon, “and they’ll hold it in Joliet.”

When it comes time for campaign fundraising, the rural regions’ struggling economies mean that big-money donors with regional allegiance to those areas are rare in comparison to northern donors. “The money thing is, I think, the big factor, more so than geography. But geography is a big factor in raising money,” says Edgar. “In the Republican primary, if you were the candidate from DuPage, you would have a greater [financial] advantage than if you were from Macoupin County.” 

That, in turn, translates into election outcomes and policy agendas. “There are ramifications in that people in leadership aren’t from your area,” says Edgar. “They don’t have an understanding” of issues in other regions. 

As one example, he noted that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Chicagoan, attempted to eliminate 4H funding — a relative pittance in the state budget, but a major affront to rural communities. “Downstate, 4H is kind of like motherhood and apple pie.”

The regional fissure reached a breaking point in May 2012, with state Rep. Mike Bost’s now-famous tirade on the House floor. In a moment that went viral on YouTube and made Late Night with David Letterman, the Murphysboro Republican shouted and threw reams of paper while confronting the chamber’s Chicago leadership over rules of order in a debate about a proposal to make downstate schools cover their own teacher pension costs.

While the conflict was partly a partisan one, Bost made it clear that he was furious on behalf not just of his party, but his region.

“Enough! I feel like somebody trying to be released from Egypt!” Bost screamed, neatly invoking both the story of Moses and the colloquial nickname for deep southern Illinois. “Let my people go!”

The episode stemmed from House Speaker Michael Madigan’s attempted teacher-pension shift of 2012, and was just one example of how Chicago’s agenda has bigfooted downstate concerns. 

Madigan was proposing that local downstate districts cover their own pension costs, which are currently paid mostly by the state. “The Chicagoland-heavy Democratic House majority moves to push pension funding onto localities … (so) it’s completely unsurprising that the big freakout would come from a downstate representative,” was how Chicago magazine summed it up in a May 2012 article titled: “The Politics of Mike Bost’s Pension Rant: Upstate, Downstate.” 

Some have argued that Chicago-centric thinking was also was at the heart of Illinois’ long battle over gun control, during which it became the last state in the nation that still banned the carrying of concealed weapons. With downstate lawmakers of both parties vehemently demanding that Illinois drop its gun ban, the legislature’s Chicago-based leadership nonetheless managed to keep it on the books until a federal court intervened late last year and declared it unconstitutional. 

Chicago-based Gov. Pat Quinn has his share of upstate-downstate moments, including a proposed 2013 budget last year that downstaters alleged was an attack on a region. It called for widespread prison closures, hitting deep-south rural communities in one of the last industries some of them have. 

Among the announced closures, ironically, was the deep-south Tamms “supermax” prison in Alexander County, one of only two downstate counties (with St. Clair in the Metro East) where Quinn won a majority of votes in his 2010 election. 

When reporters in 2012 asked Quinn’s then-budget director, David Vaught, about the wisdom of closing the relatively new facility, his answer was both shrugging and telling: “It’s a long way from Chicago.”

The first issue in dealing with downstate Illinois is to define the term. 

Illinois stretches about 400 miles from the southern edge of Cairo to the Wisconsin border. Geographically, the state’s midsection lies somewhere around Springfield, situated about 200 miles from either end. But in the Chicago-centric political language of the state, “downstate” is usually used to describe anything outside the Chicago area — including Rockford, which, mapwise, is farther north than Chicago.

Economist Norman Walzer, director emeritus at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA), further complicates the issue by suggesting that in terms of the economic-political challenges confronting “downstate,” the word should properly apply only to rural areas away from the Chicago metropolitan area (including those in the northern reaches of the state), but not to metro areas farther south like Springfield or Champaign-Urbana.

“You have the Chicago metro area, you have downstate metros ... like Bloomington and East St. Louis ... and you have everyone else. And everyone else is in the rural areas,” said Walzer, co-author of a 2011 IIRA report on state population trends. “Those are the ones that won’t be heard, from the Macombs and the Bushnells, the small towns.”

That’s because what actually plagues downstate Illinois isn’t its geography but its economics and its resulting demographics.

In the first decade of the 2000s, the fastest-growing counties in Illinois were in the suburban areas surrounding Chicago, according to another report, titled Population Change during Trying Times: Illinois’ New Demographic Reality, based on census data analyzed by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois in 2011. 

In some cases, those suburban counties grew by a quarter or a third. Kendall County, an hour southwest of Chicago, more than doubled in population during that time.

As has been the trend for most big cities, Chicago and Cook County have continued to drop in population. But Cook’s 6.9 percent loss was stable compared with many rural counties from which people were draining like water from a colander.

The state’s heavily rural southern region in particular, the U of I report notes, is “historically reliant on natural resource extraction” — read, coal. As the coal industry has struggled with its environmental and economic problems, five downstate counties have lost more than 10 percent of their populations since 2000. Pulaski County, hanging off the bottom of the state, topped the list, losing more than 16 percent of its people between 2000 and 2010.

And, unlike Chicago, these are generally small-population counties to begin with, places in which any population loss at all further strains a taxation and political environment that has been gradually weakening for decades.

“In some of the rural areas, it’s difficult to get people to hold office anymore,” says the IIRA’s Walzer. “The people who are prime candidates for leadership positions often work out of town. The leadership base is not what it was in the 1960s or 1970s.’’

Nor is the voter base.

“We have a population decline in the rural areas. People are leaving. Part of what’s happening is, people are dying off, and the younger adults are finding better opportunities elsewhere.’’

That regional population decline means the legislative and congressional boundaries in those areas have to be expanded to take in enough people to constitute full districts. “[P]opulation losses in rural counties mean that their political representation will decline as the geographic size of legislative districts increases,” notes the IIRA report.

The real-world effects can be seen in the state’s remapped congressional districts after the 2010 census, which left downstate Illinois with two fewer members of Congress than it had the previous decade.

Illinois as a whole lost one seat in the remap, going from 19 to 18 congressional districts. Not only did the lost seat come out of the downstate region, but that region lost another, to suburban Chicago. The old map had eight seats that covered areas primarily outside Chicagoland; the new map has just six — drawn in a process that, like virtually everything else in Springfield, was controlled from Chicago.

“You’ve got some [downstate] legislative districts now that are just huge,’’ Walzer notes. Larger districts are logistically more difficult to serve, and their residents tend to be less cohesive. “Those regions have fewer representatives in Springfield and Washington. So you have less access to the public policy process.’’

Friction between Chicago and the rest of the state isn’t new — and downstaters haven’t always been on the short end of it.

As late as the 1920s, it was Chicago that was complaining about being underrepresented. “For years, the state legislature had refused to reapportion legislative districts to take into account Chicago’s growing population,’’ according to the book Declarations of Independence: Encyclopedia of American Autonomous and Secessionist Movements, by James L. Erwin. In the summer of 1925, the City Council of Chicago decided to make its exasperation plain ... (with) a resolution calling for Chicago to secede and form an independent state.”

Almost a century later, some downstate residents and even some lawmakers perennially suggest the same idea, often citing the cultural-political divide that has grown between “Chicagoland” and the rest of Illinois.

“I’m saying as a downstater: ‘OK, go and do what you want to do [in Chicago]. Increase your debt. Spend more money. Add more people on public assistance,’” state Rep. Bill Mitchell, a Decatur Republican, told WBBM Radio in 2011, explaining his secession resolution. It called for Congress to divide Cook County and the rest of Illinois into two separate states, on the premise that “both groups should enjoy the chance to govern themselves with their firmly seated values.”

Chicago columnist Cecil Adams of StraightDopeChicago.com concurred, in a sneering column that noted the State of Chicago would keep most of Illinois’ culture, assessed valuation and tall buildings, while the State of Downstate would keep “the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle.” Given population trends, downstate Illinois is only likely to get less economically and politically relevant going forward. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine any up-and-coming southern Illinoisan getting a foothold beyond regional office today — let alone grabbing the top post.

“It’s possible ... if people know you statewide. The only reason I got it is because [then-Gov. James] Thompson named me secretary of state” in 1981, says Edgar. 

“Is it impossible? No. Is it difficult? Yes.”

As for what downstate communities can do to address the underlying causes of that difficulty, the IIRA report makes a series of recommendations, none of which are simple. 

It notes that the governmental systems in today’s rural counties were created when their populations were much larger, and suggests consolidation of resources among the smaller ones. “Statewide policy actions may be necessary to encourage more collaboration and/or consolidation of services,” says the report.

Also, it suggests fostering economic connections between rural communities and the midsized metro centers in their regions — the Springfields and Bellevilles and Bloomingtons — where the economies are more stable. The report suggests “organizing and marketing by region within the state” as “a way for rural counties to mount an effective economic development initiative.”

“One of the real keys is that local governments need to somehow pull together,” said Walzer. 

Until that happens, it appears that the words of former state Rep. Bill Black, a Republican from Danville, spoken a dozen years ago, will continue to be prescient.

“A decade from now, we’ll just be rendered moot,” Black told the Chicago Tribune in 2001, as the trend toward downstate political irrelevance was becoming clear. “You’ll be able to come down to about Kankakee County, draw a line right across the state, and the rest of us, we’ll just be voices in the wilderness.”

Kevin McDermott, a former Statehouse bureau chief, is a political reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Illinois Issues, September 2013