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Thursday, July 5, 2012 06:56 pm

Kumbaya around the campfire

Jim Edgar tries to bridge the Chicago-Downstate divide

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Illinois comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and former governor Jim Edgar in 2006 when Topinka was running for governor.
PHOTO BY NUCCIO DINUZZO/MCT

Jim Edgar is the closest thing the Illinois Republican Party has to a sage. His long career in elective office made him wise – wise enough anyway to retire from elective office – and he generously dispenses that wisdom from the mountaintop of the University of Illinois’ Institute for Government and Public Affairs. In June, Edgar announced IGPA’s new Edgar Fellows initiative, which will expose 40 promising public servants to four days of study, conversation and bad coffee in the company of scholars and government and politics pros.

The twin aims of the program are to train future state executives and to foster understanding and cooperation “across regional, partisan and ethnic lines.” Most of those lines, of course, have been clearly drawn across Illinois at about 41 degrees and 18 minutes of north latitude. Mr. Edgar knows this better than most. In the 1990s, then-Governor Edgar clashed repeatedly and acrimoniously with not-yet-discredited Mayor Richie Daley over airports, public transit and gambling. Their mutual mistrust was widely dismissed as a clash of personalities, but in fact it was a culture clash. The gap between the mayor’s inveterate Chicago-ness, the governor’s inveterate Downstate-ness – Roman Catholic vs. Baptist, Machine scion vs. Young Republican, fixer vs. wonk – was wider than even the 185 miles that separate their hometowns of Bridgeport and Charleston.

As the governor conceded to the Associated Press, his Fellows program is unlikely by itself to lead Downstaters and Chicagoans to sing Kumabaya together around the campfire. “If they’re Downstaters, maybe they’ll have an appreciation for some of the issues in Chicago and that all those people don’t have horns on their heads,” he said of his apprentice Edgars, “and vice versa – that all the people downstate aren’t all hicks.”

Hey, it’s a start.

Years ago, I might have responded to the Edgar initiative by denying that the two regions don’t understand each other. As a long-ago colleague of mine named Paul Rusdorf liked to say about cops and hippies, they don’t hate each other because they don’t understand how the other thinks and feels, they hate each other because they do understand.

The problem these days with fostering understanding and cooperation across the regional, partisan and ethnic lines that separate Illinoisans is that those lines keep shifting. The Chicago of some Downstaters’ nightmares, for example, hardly exists. Its black population is shrinking, poor laborers from Latino countries have for the moment quit pouring into the city while educated immigrants are buying houses in the suburbs, bypassing Chicago altogether. A lot of Chicago pols in recently redrawn state districts now represent suburbanites, and aldermen in a lot of wards now represent Downstaters in the form of those thousands who have been migrating in the thousands to northeast Illinois since the 1990s in search of careers, mates and decent Ethiopian. And Chicago’s mayor is well-dressed and likes ballet. It’s a toddlin’ town, all right.

The conflict between what we must now call Chicagoland and Downstate is not ethnic. It’s a simple contest of interests (chiefly schools and public transit funding). Who wins and loses is a partisan matter, but then politics is how these contests should be fought. The real problem in Illinois is not that some citizens are Democrats and some Republican, but that one side is waging politics while the other wages war.

The lessons I would like to see the Edgar Fellows learn from their four-day wonkfest is that the competition between Chicago and Downstate matters less than 1) the competition between Chicago and its own suburbs, which are near-clones for Downstate cities culturally and politically and 2) that relations between Springfield and Chicago matter less than relations among the state governments of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. That’s because the fate of metropolitan Chicago and the multistate connurbation of which it is the center is absolutely central to Illinois’ hopes to remain a viable state.

The fact that Chicago added more jobs than Houston in the 1990s should have cheered the city’s country cousins; the fact that since 2000 the city has been crippled by a weak economy, looming fiscal problems should be a cause of concern, not celebration. So should the fact that, to a world that is ever more cosmopolitan, Chicago is what the Downstater is presumed to be to the Chicagoan, or Illinois is to the coasts – a bumptious rube. The ordinarily talented young Downstater who wants a good job goes to Chicago; the extraordinarily talented young person who wants to change the world goes to someplace like California.

Enough. The griping about the city by Downstaters can be heard in any province that chafes under the domination of its capital. And much of the detestation, the suspicion, the contempt aimed at Chicago owes not to its being Chicago but to it’s being a city. Heroes and villains is not the story here. Never was.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.


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