Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

How to Alienate Voters and Lose a Statewide Election

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    NEWSLETTERS

    On Wednesday, I was a call-in show on WILL, Champaign’s public radio station, discussing the election. We got a call from a bitter Bill Brady voter in Ford County.

    “I wish Cook County would just secede from Illinois,” he said. “I’m tired of all the politicians spending all our money up there.”

    “If Cook County seceded, where would all your prisoners come from?” I retorted. “Chicago is the economic engine of the state. If it weren’t for us, there wouldn’t be any money to spend.”

    In Illinois politics, the divide between Chicago and Downstate has never been more unbridgeable than it is now. In his successful campaign for governor, Pat Quinn won four of the state’s 102 counties -- Cook, St. Clair, Alexander and Jackson (home of his running mate, Sheila Simon). That has to be record low for a winning candidate in Illinois.

    It has become easier for Cook County to dominate Illinois politics because the city and suburbs both vote Democratic now. When the suburbs were Republican, they were more likely to vote for a candidate from Peoria than one from Chicago. Downstaters were rightly frustrated that they held no statewide offices, and Bill Brady framed his campaign as a battle of the hardworking, God-fearing people of the countryside vs. the corrupt politicians of the big city.

    It backfired.

    Brady was seen as hostile to urban values, and lost Chicago by a margin of three-to-one. All the corn and soybean farmers in the state couldn’t overcome that margin. Lesson: if Downstaters want to share power with Chicagoans, they should offer to cooperate with Chicagoans, not attack them.

    No Chicago politician would run an anti-Downstate campaign, because Chicagoans never think about Downstate. We’re Great Lakes people. Central Illinoisans are prairie people, living in a treeless landscape of rivers, tall grasses and farms. We’d rather vacation among more familiar scenery in Michigan or Wisconsin. We root for the Cubs, they root for the Cardinals. They root for the Bears, but the Fighting Illini don’t unite Illinoisans the way state universities do in other parts of the country. If someone asks us where we’re from, we say “Chicago,” but they say “Illinois.”

    Because it runs along a north-south axis, Illinois is really three states. Chicago resembles other Great Lakes cities, such as Buffalo and Cleveland. Central Illinois is like Indiana or Iowa. And Southern Illinoisans talk, think and act like Kentuckians.

    Still, any governor, no matter where he’s from, has to be a governor for the city and the prairie. Rod Blagojevich angered Downstaters by refusing to live in the governor’s mansion. Quinn needs to spend as much time as possible in Springfield, even though he lost Sangamon County 58%-34%. His election showed the state is divided, and his administration has to fix that.