CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — If your elected representatives are trying to persuade you that you’re not being properly represented in state government, they just might be right.
That’s the insight former Republican governor Jim Edgar imparted as he jabbed the inexperience and lack of accomplishment of the far-right conservative lawmakers who are stoking regional tensions and calling for a downstate divorce from Chicago at rallies around the state.
“I think the voters need to send competent people to Springfield,” Edgar told WCIA on Sunday afternoon. “Because if you’re not getting anything from Springfield, maybe it’s not just because you’re from downstate. Maybe you don’t elect the right people.”
The former two-term governor served from 1991 to 1999. He was the last downstate politician elected to hold the highest office in Springfield, and left office with very high approval ratings.
He offered his opinions about the downstate dissatisfaction at the outset of a week-long Edgar Fellows workshop where he and other state leaders train and network with dozens of emerging leaders in public policy and government.
“I think that’s a legitimate frustration, just as I’m sure when Republicans dominated in state government that they didn’t get taken into consideration,” Edgar said of the lawmakers and voters who feel Chicago politicians carry the most clout in the statehouse.
“Part of that is politics,” he said. “Part of that is that we do have a very lopsided Democratic majority now. Part of the problem is that Republicans mishandled their opportunity. They had a great chance. Bruce Rauner had a great opportunity four years ago. If he had been willing to meet people halfway and to recognize he didn’t have all the answers, he’d still be governor. There’s no doubt in my mind.
“I can remember when I first came to Springfield 50 years ago, again, downstate was in the minority,” he said. “But they were able to work the system and get things. I think that’s what the elected officials need to do is figure out, ‘Alright, we’re in the minority. How can I get something done?’”
House Republicans Brad Halbrook of Shelbyville, Dan Caulkins of Decatur, Darren Bailey of Louisville, Chris Miller of Oakland, Blaine Wilhour of Beecher City, have rallied supporters at events around the state urging people to join a movement to ‘Fight for 51,’ which they hope would make downstate Illinois the 51st state in the nation.
In measuring legislative accomplishments this year, Halbrook went 2-for-19. The two bills he wrote that passed and became law made technical changes to how downstate and suburban counties can pick assessors and how local townships can fill vacant positions. The 17 other bills Halbrook proposed went nowhere.
Caulkins wrote eight bills in 2019. None of them passed. He also carried two Senate bills for Senator Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet.) Both of those passed both chambers and await a decision from Governor Pritzker.
“Part of the obstacle was being immersed in a new system and not completely understanding the process it takes to get bills passed,” Caulkins said. “It’s part of the learning curve. It’s part of the process. I think it takes a session or so for people to figure it out.”
Miller proposed 10 new bills this year. One of them became law. It created a state license plate for service members who fought in the Global War on Terrorism, and allowed nonprofits to get temporary driving permits.
Bailey sponsored seven bills in the spring legislative session. The only one to reach the Governor’s desk and become law is a plan to double fines for passing a school bus in a school zone.
Wilhour sponsored only two bills in 2019. One passed into law. His measure to allow deputy fire chiefs to use flashing lights on their cars passed both chambers with little opposition and earned the signature of the Governor.
Halbrook, Wilhour and Bailey could not immediately be reached for this story. Miller did not respond to a request for comment.
The group of disgruntled downstate legislators blame House Democratic leadership of refusing to give their ideas a fair hearing in committees or on the floor.
“They can say whatever they want, and they can feel that way. And a lot of people feel that way,” Edgar acknowledged. “I’m just saying if you’re working in a system where you’re in the minority and you want to help your constituents, then you have to try and figure out how you can work with them. Fighting with people might be fun, and maybe it plays well back home, but it’s not very effective.”
“Illinois is one state, contrary to what some people might say,” Edgar said. “There’s no way they’re going to kick Chicago out of the state. Sure, maybe it sounds great at a rally in Mount Vernon or some place, but in reality that’s not going to happen.”