Why you should care

It’s been a long slide downhill for Illinois Democrats since 2008. Take note, because Illinois’ structural problems are the country’s problems. 

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For Illinois politics, the stars at last aligned on Nov. 4, 2008. For once, the eyes of the country were cast on an Illinois politician with adulation, not scorn. When President-elect and new home state hero Barack Obama said history was bending “once more toward the hope of a better day,” the more than 100,000 assembled in Chicago’s Grant Park believed.

It’s been downhill ever since.

First there was Rod Blagojevich, the Democratic governor convicted in 2010 of trying to sell Obama’s open Senate seat to the highest bidder. Then there was Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., convicted of spending $750,000 of campaign money on things like personal vacations and fur coats.

Politics is and has been a full-contact sport in this state for a long time.

-Chicago political commentator Greg Hinz

For most Illinoisans, the economy had stalled: Last year, the state’s unemployment rate was third-highest in the country, and worst in the Midwest — worse, even than Michigan’s , the Great Lakes’ perennial sick man. While unemployment ticked down notably this year , the state still has the country’s worst pension debt . Between July 2012 and July 2013, more residents fled Illinois than any other state.

It’s more than enough to make voters surly. An April Gallup poll found just 28 percent of Illinois residents trust their state government — that’s the lowest rate in the country, and 30 points lower than the national average. As November approaches, a “throw the bums out” mentality has spread across the electorate. With most of the “bums” being Democrats — they’ve controlled the entire state government since 2002 — the question is whether November will see Illinois veer rightward.

A caucasian politician wearing a suit walks towards a press conference

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Ill.

It’s not clear whether Republicans can take advantage. The GOP still faces an upward climb, thanks to a long Democratic history and some clever district-drawing by Democrats’ veteran House Speaker Michael Madigan. Plus, the Chicago area is still awash in Democratic voters, enough to outnumber Republican majorities in the rest of the state. So even though their leaders are failing the people of the Prairie State, it could very well be more of the same in 2015.

To be sure, Illinois Republicans have some things going for them. Start with the Democratic governor, Pat Quinn, who faces a serious challenge this November from billionaire businessman Bruce Rauner. Quinn, a longtime politician and Blagojevich’s lieutenant governor, took office in 2009 when his predecessor was impeached. He won the post outright the next year. Since then? He’s underwhelmed.

“Nobody was going to charge up a hill for Pat Quinn; he’s just not an inspiring leader,” says Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield’s Center for State Policy and Leadership.

If I’m honest and I’m running for governor, my campaign slogan is ‘Vote for me and I promise you’re going to get budget cuts and higher taxes.’

-Kent Redfield, professor emeritus at University of Illinois Springfield’s Center for State Policy and Leadership

Redfield says Illinois is in somewhat better shape than during the depths of the recession, but the state’s problems are still trickling down to local governments and service providers. School and Medicare budgets are suffering, which “just puts tremendous fiscal stress on local governments,” he says. “Votersare grumpy because the state has massive structural imbalances,” he adds. “We don’t generate enough revenue to do what we’re doing.”

National anti-Democrat, anti-incumbent currents are at work, too, says Chicago-based Democratic strategist Eric Adelstein. “There’s nobody in executive office today who isn’t vulnerable,” Adelstein says. Quinn has it particularly hard: Rauner, his foe, has “spent close to $20 million on advertising for the last year saying how horrible Illinois is.” (By October 20th, he’d spent close to $30 million .)

The tone of the race has been anything but uplifting.

“Politics is and has been a full-contact sport in this state for a long time,” Chicago political commentator Greg Hinz wrote recently . “What Jim Edgar did to Democratic [gubernatorial] nominee Dawn Clark Netsch in the 1994 campaign is illegal in 14 states. Ditto Rod Blagojevich’s TV mugging of Judy Baar Topinka into a wacko bag lady. This year, however, is worse.”

But if Quinn can’t be blamed for the structural problems that have dragged down Illinois’ economy , like pension debt and the housing market bust, he hasn’t been seen as doing much to fix them, longtime Illinois politicos say.

And now, his good-government, reformer reputation is under fire, thanks to investigations this year into two shady state programs. The first revealed serious deficiencies in the oversight of a $54 million anti-violence program the governor launched in 2010, and cited potential conflicts of interest in how the funds were doled out. The second revealed patronage-style hiring practices at Illinois’ Department of Transportation.

An caucasian bald man in center holds a piece a paper above his head before a crowd

Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn

While redistricting and the staggered number of seats up for election make it “mathematically impossible” for Democrats to lose control of the Illinois state legislature, according to Redfield, problems at the top of the ticket are trickling down the ballot. They could dampen Democratic turnout. Two freshman Democrats, Congressmen Brad Schneider and Bill Enyart, are in dead heats to win re-elections in their suburban Chicago and southern Illinois districts, respectively. In a third race, Republican Congressman Rodney Davis is looking more and more secure , despite the fact that Obama won the district by 17 percentage points over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Whoever holds the reins of power next year — Democrat or Republican — is going to have to start having some tough conversations with Illinois residents about how get the state back on track.

“If I’m honest and I’m running for governor, my campaign slogan is ‘Vote for me and I promise you’re going to get budget cuts and higher taxes,’ ” says Redfield. “I t is that bad.”

But he insists that all is not lost. “With everything Illinois has going for it, there certainly is the potential there to start to work on some long-term solutions,” says Redfield. But “ you’re going to have get citizens who don’t trust the state and are really unhappy … to believe that if you get budget cuts and higher taxes that in the long term, there’s a payoff there.”

Given all the cynicism in Illinois over politics these days, that’s going to be tough sledding.

This piece was originally published on September 29, 2014.

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