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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 01:26 pm

Illinois: the nearly ungovernable state

Gov. Pat Quinn used the phrase “our Illinois” almost 30 times last week in one form or another during his annual State of the State address.

“In our Illinois, everyone should have access to decent healthcare,” Quinn said.

“In our Illinois, working people find good jobs not just for today but for tomorrow.”

“In our Illinois, we find a way to get hard things done.”

In our Illinois, Quinn said, we are a “community of shared values.”

While the phrase was mainly just a rhetorical device for a constitutionally mandated annual address, it is important to point out that Illinois isn’t really “one” and doesn’t have all that many “shared values.”

“Our Illinois,” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

Imagine trying to govern a state so diverse that it included both Boston, Mass. and Richmond, Va.

Well, Waukegan is about 41 miles north of Chicago and it’s at the same latitude as Boston. Cairo, at the southern tip of Illinois, sits at the same latitude as Richmond.

While the Chicago area’s similarities to Bostonian liberalism might be pretty obvious, our state’s history has more in common with Richmond than you might think.

For the first few decades of the 19th century, a state-owned southern Illinois salt works in Saline County used slave labor and produced almost a third of our government’s revenues. Fights over whether Illinois should become a slave state dominated the General Assembly for years. These days, southern Illinois politicians closely resemble Kentuckians, or southern Virginians, for that matter.

But our diversity and differences go much further than that.

We have unimaginable wealth literally right next door to some of the worst poverty in the western hemisphere.

We have the third largest city in the nation, vast suburban sprawl, numerous river and energy-dependent regions and huge swaths of rural farm counties with few people in them.

We have Chicago wards that voted almost unanimously for Barack Obama last year and dozens of downstate counties that have voted almost completely straight Republican since Abraham Lincoln joined the party.

We have more African-American citizens than any “free” state except New York. And we have some counties which are so “white” that I know some black legislators and lobbyists who are actually afraid to stop for gas on their way to and from Springfield.

Our industrial capacity is almost unparalleled, yet we grow more corn than any state except Iowa.

Our Republican Party is almost hopelessly divided. We have Chicago area Republicans who openly supported former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and back current Mayor Rahm Emanuel and some downstaters who say Chicago is by far the biggest problem in Illinois and should be kicked out of the state altogether.

Many of our southern Illinois Democrats make many suburban Republicans look downright liberal.

Barack Obama won most of those typically Republican suburban counties last year, but he lost Madison County, which is near St. Louis, even though every other countywide Democratic candidate won last year.

Our liberal Democrats are among the most “progressive” in the nation. Yet, there are so many Democratic factions in some Chicago wards that you almost need a passport to cross the street.

The last election produced gigantic state legislative super-majorities for the Democrats, but those are majorities in party name only. In a year when southern Democrats are pushing hard for concealed carry legislation in the Illinois General Assembly, a Chicago area Democratic congressional primary is revolving almost solely around the issue of gun control.

So, while I often get frustrated with the way Pat Quinn governs – and for very good reasons – it’s always important to keep in mind that this state is very nearly ungovernable, particularly in these times when people are so sharply divided by just about everything. Consensus among such diversity of culture and politics is almost impossible to come by.

None of this means that governing is completely impossible, however, and this column isn’t meant to excuse any of Quinn’s many, many shortcomings.

But the next time you think that solving problems here ought to be easy, remember that nothing has been easy in Illinois for many, long years.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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