CHICAGO – The people of Illinois are feeling particularly gloomy about their state, with its high unemployment, billions of dollars in debt, decades-long battles against corruption – and another possible tax hike waiting for them after the November election.
The bad mood surfaces in public-opinion polls that startle even the pollsters, with one survey showing that more people want to leave Illinois than anywhere else in the U.S. It’s also evident in the voting booth, where turnout in the March primary was the lowest on record. Now the cynicism is shaping one of the nation’s most competitive governor’s races, too.
“People are down in the dumps,” said Rod Spears, a retired Army officer and conservative activist from southern Illinois who says he hears the same concerns from his golfing buddies, all union members and lifelong Democrats.
The governor’s contest essentially boils down to the incumbent’s insistence that it’s not as bad as it used to be versus the challenger’s exhortations to throw the bums out and start over.
The race pits Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who portrays himself as a reformer, against businessman Bruce Rauner, an untested multimillionaire on whom Republicans have pinned their hopes that Illinois could become the next blue state to elect a GOP governor.
Rauner’s success depends on patching together the right combination of disaffected voters in a state where Republicans start at a big numerical disadvantage. He’s spending millions of dollars on campaign ads targeting blacks, Hispanics, women, undecided suburbanites and downstate Democrats.
While Illinois’ struggles aren’t new – some extend back to when the last Republican governors were in charge – it has not experienced a true statewide rebellion in the ballot booth for some time.
“We are a disaster,” declares Rauner, who rattles off Illinois’ shortcomings at each campaign event: four of the last seven governors sent to prison, about $5 billion in overdue bills, one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S. and the worst credit rating of any state.
He’s leading a parallel campaign to impose the first-ever term limits on lawmakers – an effort to drive supporters to the polls and make his name synonymous with change.
Shunning a suit and tie and sometimes showing up on his Harley to greet voters, Rauner frequently reminds folks he’s not one of the politicians who got Illinois into its mess, despite his long history of big-dollar campaign contributions and hobnobbing with the political elite. Critics say he has not laid out a plan for how he would govern, and they portray him as out-of-touch with working people, saying he used his clout – and a six-figure donation – to get his daughter into an elite high school.
Quinn, meanwhile, is touting the turnaround he says the state has made since the dark days of Rod Blagojevich, the foul-mouthed former governor who led Illinois to financial near-catastrophe and is now in prison for trying to sell Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. The former lieutenant governor, Quinn assumed office after Blagojevich was impeached and won the office himself in 2010, but he scores some of the lowest public popularity ratings in the country.
“Illinois is making a comeback,” he has proclaimed.
Since Quinn took over, Illinois has seen some improvement.
Unemployment is tapering off, the state’s mountainous backlog of debts to service providers has been cut nearly in half and lawmakers approved a deal to belatedly fix the nation’s worst-funded public pension system – which ticked off the state’s public unions, usual Democratic allies and led to numerous lawsuits.
This spring, Quinn asked lawmakers to extend a temporary income tax increase to avoid severe cuts to schools and other programs, but lawmakers facing re-election balked. Instead, Democratic leaders say they will need to reconvene after the election to raise more revenue – possibly by extending the tax increase.
Meanwhile, Democrats are worried about fading voter interest. They recently approved same-day voter registration and extended early voting hours for the fall election — two measures thought to help Democrats by making it easier for young people and other less consistent voters to cast ballots.
For some voters, it’s a matter of low expectations. Garry Thomas, who helps run fruit stands on Chicago’s streets, says he thinks Quinn is “pretty much doing what he can.” The 51-year-old plans to pull a straight Democratic ticket this fall, as his family has done for generations.
“I’m sure it could be worse in a lot of other places,” Thomas said. “I’m the working poor, but compared to people in Ghana, I’m living the life of Riley.”
Ivier McShane, 46, an Army veteran from Chicago, said he plans to vote in November, but isn’t enthusiastic about either candidate.
“I do not think it matters,” he said. “I just don’t have [any] faith in any of them.”
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said when he moved to the state from Iowa six years ago, he found Illinoisans joking about their state’s dysfunctional politics. Not so today.
“It’s not a laughing matter anymore,” Yepsen said.
In a poll of 1,001 registered Illinois voters conducted by the institute earlier this year, 89 percent said they believe corruption is somewhat common in the state. A separate poll by Gallup found only 28 percent of Illinois residents said they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in their government. That was the lowest percentage of any state, with the next lowest – Rhode Island – at 40 percent.
Half of Illinois residents in another Gallup poll said they would leave the state if they could, with about one-quarter saying they wanted to leave for work or business reasons. Smaller percentages mentioned weather, location and quality of life.