Whether it’s the state’s shaky finances, its recent tax hike or strict gun laws, downstate Illinois knows it can always vent its frustration by blaming Chicago.
The metropolis to the north may be Illinois’ cash cow, but it dominates the political scene and has for most of the state’s 193 years, producing the current leaders of both legislative houses and the governor, who doesn’t venture into the hinterlands much but does so more often than his prison-bound predecessor, Rod Blagojevich – also a Chicago guy.
While most downstaters – here a name bestowed on towns even north of the city – are resigned to shaking a collective fist at the Windy City, two central Illinois lawmakers are pitching a unique, if outlandish, solution to eliminating the state’s cultural divide: make the Chicago area the 51st state.
“Downstate families are tired of Chicago dictating its views to the rest of us,” said state Rep. Bill Mitchell as he and fellow Republican state Rep. Adam Brown announced their proposal with straight faces at a news conference. “The old adage is true: Just outside Chicago there’s a place called Illinois.”
Secessionist movements, some more serious than others, have a long history in the U.S. But from the South’s attempt to leave the Union to more recent proposals to carve new states out of California and Arizona and make Vermont its own country, these movements involve groups who want to break away.
Not in Illinois. Under the lawmakers’ proposal, the state would be telling Chicago and Cook County to get lost. Without the domineering, overly liberal and tax-hungry metropolis, Mitchell and Brown contend, Illinois could be more like GOP-run Indiana.
For some down south in the Land of Lincoln, their resentment toward Chicago is less about politics than values. They are generally more conservative, and more opposed to the state’s recent income tax hike, civil unions law and abolishment of the death penalty.
Political pundits pan the proposal as a stunt meant to score political points during challenging economic times, and it has virtually no chance of success, needing the backing of the Democratic governor, Democratic-controlled Legislature and Congress.
Charles Wheeler, a longtime Statehouse reporter who now teaches journalism at the University of Illinois at Springfield, alluded to another north-south Illinois split – the one between Chicago Cubs fans in the north and St. Louis Cardinals down south – when dismissing the idea.
“I think it’s goofy. It’s more likely I’ll be the starting first baseman for the Cardinals next April than for this to pass,” Wheeler said.
Even if a split were possible, it could be financially disastrous for downstate Illinois. Cook County – which with 5 million residents is the nation’s second most-populous county – is the state’s economic engine and key tax generator, providing substantial contributions to the state’s other 101 counties for everything from schools to roads, colleges and universities, and prisons.
The Chicago area last year generated 81.6 percent of the $652 billion in gross state product, according to Lawrence Msall, president of the Chicago-based Civic Federation, a nonpartisan think tank specializing in tax policy and government research. In 2009, $3.5 billion – some 40 percent – of the $8.7 billion the state collected in income tax was attributable to Cook County, which also was responsible for roughly 36 percent, or $2.2 billion, of the $6.2 billion the state generated in sales taxes, Msall said.
“There’s no getting around that Chicago and Cook County are the goose that lays many golden eggs distributed to downstate counties,” said Jim Nowlan, senior fellow of the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs. “Without Chicago and Cook County, the state would be a much poorer entity than it is now.”
Nevertheless, the idea is tempting for some folks in southern Illinois, much of which is closer geographically and culturally to St. Louis and Louisville than to Chicago.
Mike Nikonovich, who owns a winery and brewhaus in touristy Grafton, north of St. Louis, said he’d gladly toast a split. He sees the Chicago area as a nexus of wasteful spending and wrong-minded thinking, viewing downstaters as “just all farmers.”
“My God, how nice would that (divorce) be? I don’t think anybody’s taking it seriously, but it'd be nice to dream. Let them sink, and we’ll swim,” said Nikonovich.
Others, while sympathetic, worry about the possible fallout.
In southwestern Illinois’ St. Clair County, Republican-leaning corn and soybean grower Bob Biehl echoed the frustration of the measure’s two authors but said he doesn’t think excising Chicago and Cook County is the way to address it.
“I tend to agree we don’t have a prayer for many good policies in this area. If it’s not good for the public in that area (of Cook County), we just lose the vote,” said Biehl, 42. “But to say, ‘We’re not happy with this, so we’re just gonna branch off’ – I don’t agree with that. We all just need to get along.”
What the legislators don’t mention is that the state has grappled with the idea before – to no avail.
In 1925, Cook County considered dumping Illinois to become its own state named, well, Chicago. While one downstate senator proclaimed the Chicago area “has been a nuisance in the last few years” and should be expelled, the push fizzled.
And there was a bid in 1861 – during the infancy of the nation’s own Civil War – by Illinois' southern swath long known as “Little Egypt” to split from Illinois, citing cultural and political differences.
As for the latest effort, Gov. Pat Quinn could only shake his head.
“We’re all in this together,” said Quinn. “The idea of separating out and dividing us is a bum way to go. It’s definitely not the Illinois way to go.”
Associated Press writers Deanna Bellandi and Nomaan Merchant in Chicago contributed to this report.