When the news first leaked out that the Obama administration was considering transferring detainees from the military prison in Guantanamo Bay to the never-opened, state-of-the-art Thomson Correctional Center in Northwest Illinois, it looked like the plan would become a hot-button issue on the Illinois campaign trail.
Now not so much.
With the transfer looking all but certain, the rhetoric has cooled; the terror card just might not play this time around.
Take North Shore congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Mark Kirk. In a letter signed by each of the seven Republican members of the state's congressional delegation, Kirk initially warned that the transfer could make the Chicago area "ground zero for Jihadist terrorist plots, recruitment and radicalization.”
It wasn't long before Kirk retreated in the face of backlash to his backlash. Kirk suddenly called for a "dispassionate" discussion of the issue instead of, say, conjuring up images of Al Qaeda friends and family taking in a Cubs game on their way to Visiting Day. (Officials say only legal counsel would be allowed to visit the prisoners in question.)
Thomson appears to be off the table in the Senate race.
In the race for governor, Thomson is still on the table, but it's falling off. True, Republican candidates for governor were nearly unanimous in their opposition to the Thomson plan in a debate last night, but the alarm bells are no longer ringing as loud -- or true.
"This is a terrible idea that threatens the safety of Illinois residents," Dan Proft said initially. "Instead of keeping suspected terrorists off domestic soil, the President and Governor Quinn are poised to bring to Illinois those with the ability to operate beyond the walls of any prison."
But terrorists are already here - 216 international terrorists and 139 domestic terrorists are currently housed in federal facilities, including 35 right here in Illinois. And none of them has ever escaped.
State Sen. Bill Brady and Adam Andrzejewski must have missed the memo, too, because they also voiced opposition to terrorists on domestic soil. But last night the arguments seemed to focus as much on economics as terrorism.
"I think that we’ve got an investment in Guantanamo Bay, and that’s where international terrorists ought to be held, tried and kept,” Brady said. “Thomson (Correctional Center) is a facility we cannot give up right now, particularly in light of the fact the governor is releasing violent inmates.”
And even Proft used a precious portion of 90 seconds allotted to say argue that "The state’s 28 current prisons are 32 percent over capacity. Why not alleviate the overcrowding and bring the Thomson prison online?"
Frontrunner Jim Ryan called the Thomson plan "a very bad idea," which is as ominous a warning as telling someone to buckle up. He did add that "No one can tell me there isn’t some risk to bringing such a high-profile terrorist to Illinois that we can’t attract some sleeper cells," but "some risk" in attracting sleeper cells is not exactly spine-shivering stuff.
State Sen. Kirk Dillard also seemed to stress the economic end of things, saying the Thomson plan "shows how pathetic the state of Illinois’ finances are where we have to stand with our hat in hand and have the federal government give us money to open a penitentiary that the Democrats have let sit vacant for years.”
Thomson has sat vacant because it's too expensive to operate.
Andy McKenna, who wasn't at last night's debate, likewise started out saying the move could put "terrorists in our neighborhood" but more recently framed the issue as part of a cost-benefit analysis.
Presuming the candidates are reacting to internal polling, bad press or simply feedback on the campaign trail, we can deduce one thing from this episode: Voters appear more interested in the economy than in fearing suspected terrorists in a maximum security Northwest Illinois prison.
Steve Rhodes is the proprietor ofThe Beachwood Reporter, a Chicago-centric news and culture review.