A VIEW FROM CHICAGO
Illinois has been a house
divided since Lincoln's days
by James Ylisela Jr.
If Illinois were a number, it would be a fraction. While other states are defined by their singularity (Nebraska comes to mind), Illinois is in a perpetual state of division, like some loose confederation of tribes, ever distrustful and always ready to rumble.
The regions of the state are
This mature approach to citizenry is called "regionalism." Foundations, university eggheads and editorial writers believe it to be the root of our failure to solve some of the state's most serious problems.
Illinois is clearly a house divided, but at least we're upholding tradition. Regionalism has been a hallmark of Illinois politics since Abe Lincoln and the boys conspired to move the capital from Vandalia to Springfield. Most of what gets done in this state begins and ends with someone trying to bring home the goodies, usually by cheating everyone else out of theirs.
Regionalism tells us who we are. As a Chicagoan, it allows me to feel smug about living in a sophisticated metropolis while whining about getting a rightful share of the state's piggy bank.
Regionalism gives suburbanites the right to enjoy the best of Chicago without getting their hands dirty. And it properly warns downstaters that their contact with the rest of us should be limited to the occasional high school sports tournament.
Even responsibility for this column is divided into thirds, written by authors who are meant to illuminate the state's differences.
But our legislators, in their zeal to promote regionalism, have been confused of late. In the last-gasp days of the Republican-controlled General Assembly, some tried to ram through an obscenity proposal that would have allowed each Illinois county to determine its own standard of decency.
That's 102 obscenity standards, if I'm counting my counties correctly. I can't even think of 102 examples of obscenity, and I'm from Chicago.
Conservative Republicans, who were pushing the legislation, insisted that having one state standard wasn't good enough. I guess they figured what is lewd and shameful in Alton is a McDonald's ad in Chicago.
But this is where the confusion comes in. These were some of the same lawmakers who wanted to block Mayor Richard M. Daley from turning Meigs Field into a public park, insisting that only the state has the right and the wisdom to decide the fate of a nice slice of lakefront property.
Let me get this straight. When it comes to smut, we're supposed to trust the locals. But when the subject involves a small patch of dirt, Springfield knows best. Fortunately, the dial-a-county pornography idea came a few votes shy of passing.
Undeterred, our politicians fell back on one of their favorite forms of regionalism: the endless manipulation of our political boundaries.
Their latest plan would elect Illinois Supreme Court justices from three Cook County subdistricts, instead of countywide. That way, the GOP could pluck one justice out of suburban Cook and shift the balance of power on the court, where Democrats long have held a 4-3 edge. The plan throws two sitting Republican justices into the same district, but that was just a bothersome detail.
And then, dang it, the veto session ended, and magnanimity started breaking out all over. Chicagoan Mike Madigan, triumphant in his return as speaker of the Illinois House, promised to appoint a Republican or two as committee chairs, and GOP Senate President James "Pate" Philip, a suburbanite, vowed to make education his number one priority.
Then Mayor Daley took a bold step forward in the fight against regionalism by appointing Rita Athas, the leader of a suburban consortium, as his ambassador to the Outer Reaches. He didn't explain what she would do, but it was a nice touch.
Even Gov. Jim Edgar, still flush from the Battle for Northerly Island, may join the fun. After all, in a year with no elections and everybody anxious to look like a statesman, our leaders should have no problem finding a better way to fund education. The current formula is the essence of regionalism, pitting each local school district against all the others.
While we're at it, lawmakers should take a crack at writing inspirational welfare laws and solving a host of other key issues. And if they don't? Now that would be obscene. In all 102 counties.
James Ylisela Jr. teaches urban reporting at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. He's the consulting editor of The Chicago Reporter.
Illinois Issues February 1997 / 41