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The new South

Whatever happened to the downstate Democrats?

by Kevin McDermott

On the morning of Wednesday, November 3, it was still unclear whether Democrat Pat Quinn had held on to the governor’s office in the previous day’s election. What was already apparent, though, was that his party had utterly lost its once-encompassing grip on downstate Illinois.

Democrats that day lost one U.S. Senate seat, two state-level constitutional offices and saw their commanding state House and Senate majorities pared back. Most of the bloodletting came in the southern half of the state.

The names of the victims were in some cases more telling than the numbers: State Sen. Deanna Demuzio of Carlinville lost the seat she’d inherited from her late husband, the iconic Sen. Vince Demuzio, effectively ending a 35-year Democratic dynasty south of Springfield. Veteran state Rep. Jay Hoffman of Collinsville — one of the state’s best-funded and high-profile legislators, from an area once on par with Chicago in terms of its ingrained Democratic politics — fell to Republican businessman Dwight Kay. State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, once viewed as the future of the Illinois Democratic Party, couldn’t win President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat, losing it to Republican Mark Kirk despite taking almost 70 percent of the Cook County vote.

The good news for Democrats came days later, when the disputed numbers in the governor’s race finally shook out and Quinn was declared the winner over Republican state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington. But even that victory contained a glaring warning from the south: Quinn had lost all but three counties outside of Cook, taking only St. Clair County in the shadow of St. Louis and Jackson and Alexander counties farther south — and barely winning those.

Quinn’s campaign strategy was focused heavily on Cook County, but the sheer scope of his downstate loss still was a surprise. Even Quinn’s predecessor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, had managed to take much of the south and southwest regions of the state four years earlier, despite being a quintessential Chicagoan under a growing shadow of scandal.

Democrats have comforted themselves with the conventional wisdom that in Illinois, as around the nation, the last election was a just plain bad one for their party. State Rep. Tom Holbrook, a Belleville Democrat and chairman of the Illinois Downstate Caucus, attributes the current dearth of downstate Democrats largely to “the worst election we’re going to face in a long time’’ and to the usual “ebb and flow of political sentiment.’’

“You will see the phoenix of the Democrats come back’’ in the downstate region, Holbrook predicts.

But in fact, there have been indications for years that the southern half of Illinois is fundamentally shifting away from its Democratic roots. To one scholar, it’s a state-level echo of the shift that the southern half of America has already undergone, as the economic appeal of Democrats’ pro-labor policies has been displaced by what the Republicans are selling: God, guns, anti-abortion activism and other cultural issues.

“I think it’s part of a larger trend. It has to do with southern politics nationally. We are catching up with the South,’’ says John Jackson, a political scientist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

In a recent paper, Jackson used electoral data to show that “Illinois clearly suffers from an intense regionalism ... especially polarized along the geographical fault lines dividing the rural and small town areas from the cities and the suburban areas.’’ The ongoing Republicanization of southern Illinois, he wrote, is one of the starker indications of that fissure.

“They kicked out Deanna Demuzio. You can’t get more establishment-Democrat than that. Where I live, it used to be all Democrats; now it’s represented by [state Rep. Mike] Bost and [state Sen. David] Luechtefeld,’’ both Republicans, Jackson notes. “I’m an old southerner, and I recognize what I see. It’s changing.’’

Evidence of that change can be found by cracking open the Illinois Blue Book (the biennial volume that lists all Illinois legislators) from 40 years ago. The 1971 edition lists among the 10 southern-most state Senate districts seven Democrats and three Republicans. Today, that ratio is exactly reversed: seven Republicans and three Democrats.

Two of those southern Democrats, Sen. Bill Haine of Alton and Sen. James Clayborne Jr. of Belleville, are based in the Metro East population center near St. Louis, which still has something of a political bubble around it that makes it less “downstate,’’ culturally speaking, than the more rural surrounding area.

By that standard, Sen. Gary Forby, a Benton Democrat, stands pretty much alone in southern Illinois.

“I’m pretty conservative. A lot of people think I have part Republican in me,’’ quips Forby. “The district has gotten a lot more conservative; I don’t know why. But their issues are my issues — I’m pro-life, pro-gun.’’

So why be a Democrat at all?

“I’m for the working man,’’ says Forby.

Jackson says that declaration sums up the line Democrats nationally and in Illinois have walked for a long time with southern, rural constituents — a balance between liberal economic policies and conservative social views. What’s happening now, he says, is that the balance has been thrown off by the diminished power of labor unions downstate, leaving social issues as the dominant ones.

He said the phenomenon has the same general causes in southern Illinois as in the Old Confederacy: The long-time Democratic hold in Dixieland was based largely on the party’s pro-labor positioning, a huge factor when coal mines and industry were ubiquitous in the South. As the Democratic Party became the more socially progressive of the two parties, southern politicians had to walk that line between promoting Democratic positions on labor and fiscal issues, while rejecting their own party’s positions on cultural issues.

That balancing act worked well enough until the near-collapse of coal and manufacturing in the South in recent decades. Suddenly, the half of Democratic politics that southerners liked — the pro-labor half — wasn’t as relevant. At about the same time, the clash over cultural issues was being ginned up more than ever through national media and neo-conservative activism.

“The economic interests that would point people to the Democratic Party are no longer being mobilized by the unions,’’ says Jackson. “Meanwhile, the [Republican] social issues are being mobilized by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh ... and local churches.’’

Taylor Pensoneau covered the legislature for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch between 1965 and 1978, a time when southern Illinois was “almost solidly Democratic.’’ He watched that solidity start breaking up later, while he was president of the Illinois Coal Association and more Republicans were getting elected downstate.

Pensoneau says there was a sense among Democrats even then that the region was changing under their feet, getting more culturally conservative. “A number of Democratic legislators would tell me [that] when they were gone, they didn’t expect Demo- crats to keep their seats,’’ Pensoneau recalls. “They were accurate, as it turns out.’’

He said the cooperation between the parties downstate back then was almost seamless when it came to supporting the coal industry, the lifeblood of the region. While there was always “irritation’’ toward Chicago among downstaters, he said, the local downstate Democrats didn’t usually pay politically for their party affiliation, and some actually viewed it as an advantage. “It was helpful to me [as president of the Coal Association] because these downstate Democrats could deal with the Chicago Democrats.’’

Today, Pensoneau says, the distrust by downstate voters and lawmakers toward Chicago has a more acidic quality to it, with downstate Democrats “fairly or unfairly’’ getting blamed for their affiliation with what is considered Chicago’s Party. “I think that polarization has actually increased,’’ he said.

That’s the sense of Republicans like Luechtefeld, the Okawville state senator. “Democrats in southern Illinois have always been pretty darned conservative ...[but] it just appears to many southern Illinois voters that the Democratic Party is being run by Chicago,’’ says Luechtefeld.

Meanwhile, the shrinking of the coal industry has given the two parties downstate less common ground to stand on, while more aggressive conservative activism nationally has tapped into the right-leaning sentiments that have always been part of southern Illinois’ culture. “A lot of southern Illinoisans are philosophically ripe for the Tea Party,’’ says Pensoneau.

Jackson’s recent paper, 2010 Elections: Illinois Still Blue Despite the Red Wave that Swept the Nation, theorizes that realignments such as the ongoing expulsion of the Democratic Party downstate can have negative consequences beyond the party itself. The paper, for SIU’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, posits that the Democratic Party’s traditional role of reaching into both liberal and conservative geographic areas smoothed over some of the sharper lines of our political system as a whole.

“The cross-cutting social and political cleavages of yesteryear contributed to and reinforced more moderation among the partisans and office-holders of both parties,’’ Jackson wrote. “This more recent realignment reinforces the natural divisions in the state and makes the partisan and ideological competition more intense.’’ Ultimately, he wrote, that sharper division “makes it more difficult for the political system to process and settle conflict in ways which seem legitimate to all the players.’’

Deanna Demuzio, the Carlinville Democrat, lost a Senate seat she’d held since 2004 — and which her late husband, Vince Demuzio, a former state Democratic Party chairman, had held before that since 1975. Their family had been a core of downstate Democratic politics for generations.

Demuzio noted that Democratic losses across the district in November extended down to the county and local levels. She attributes it in part to the conservative wave nationally, but also to stubborn unemployment problems in the region that hurt incumbents generally and Democrats especially.

“Democrats are always associated with the worker, and if they’re not working, they’re not associating with us,’’ Demuzio says. “Unemployment is very difficult for us. That’s a huge message being sent down here.’’

State Sen. Sam McCann, the Carlinville Republican who defeated Demuzio, agrees that long-term Democratic losses in the region are in part because of economic issues — though he frames them somewhat differently.

“Our fathers’ and grandfathers’ Democratic Party seems to have abandoned us, the JFKs and the Trumans,’’ says McCann. “The concept [back then] was of Democrats being the working man’s party ... but today we have a 67 percent [state] income tax increase’’ passed entirely by Democrats. That, McCann says, amounts to ‘‘penalizing’’ the very constituents the party claims to represent.

Members of that shrinking club, the Downstate Illinois Democrats, insist they are still labor’s best hope, while their social views continue to be in line with their constituents rather than their national party.

“On social issues, we tend to look more like Republicans,’’ admits Rep. Dan Reitz, a Steeleville Democrat and a former coal miner who perennially champions both pro-labor and pro-gun legislation. Standing on the House floor recently, Reitz gestured to the Republican half of the chamber and declared: “I’m more conservative than a lot of the people on that side of the aisle. I reflect the views and beliefs of my area.”

Kevin McDermott is Springfield bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Illinois Issues, April 2011


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