As the sun rose, the first frost of the season flashed silver across the mowed fields of Adams County, Illinois, and the same small group of regulars gathered at the Fast Stop gas station in Payson. They get their coffee here most mornings before commencing the day’s business. (One definition of progress: Americans used to worry about getting gas from a coffee shop; now we think nothing of getting coffee from a gas station.) Most of the guys are retired or close to it—firefighters, farmers, machinists. All but a couple of them are Republicans, and when they talk politics, as a visitor from out of town asked them to do one morning not long ago, they speak with an air of weary resignation. Like most people who’ve bothered to pay attention, they’re pretty certain what will happen on November 6, when the state decides who its governor will be for the next four years—the incumbent Republican, Bruce Rauner, or the Democrat challenger, J. B. Pritzker.
“We were just debating whether there’s such a thing as a conservative Democrat in Illinois anymore,” one of the regulars told the visitor. “We decided there are not.”
Another regular agreed. “Just about everybody around here owns a gun,” he said. “And nowadays if you own a gun in Illinois, you’re a Republican.”
“Basically,” said a third, “we’re never going to win another election statewide. The numbers just don’t add up. Which means not much is going to change.”
Adams County will vote for Rauner on November 6, but it won’t make a lot of difference, all agreed. Political scientists divide Illinois into three sections. First there’s Chicago, which fills almost all of Cook County. Then there’s the Chicago suburbs. And then there’s everywhere else. Technically, everywhere else is called “downstate.” Payson and Adams County are part of everywhere else. Chicago, politically, is as blue as a Cubs cap, of course. The once reliably red suburbs slip occasionally toward a pale periwinkle, though experts differ on when or whether the change will be permanent. Everywhere else, 90 percent of the state’s landmass, is Republican. It’s not unheard of in the last 20 years for a statewide Republican candidate to carry every county but one or two and still lose his race, so long as Cook County is one of the counties he loses.
Rauner’s victory in 2014 was a kind of reverse fluke. He lost Cook County, he won the suburbs and downstate, and he still managed to win the election, though his popular vote barely rose above 50 percent. He became the first Republican governor since a man named George Ryan won in 1999. But this underestimates the uniqueness of Rauner’s victory: Republicans and Democrats had rotated in and out of the governor’s mansion in the capital of Springfield for 40 years without much change in the way the state was governed. A lot of them were crooks—four of Rauner’s nine predecessors, including Ryan, went to jail. Alone among recent governors, Rauner ran as a radical: a reformer who promised to upend, in fact to reverse, the way his predecessors had governed the state. Staying out of jail would be a bonus.
Four years later, Rauner and his critics, Republicans and Democrats alike, agree that his efforts at reform haven’t succeeded, although they differ on why this is so. Rauner’s chief problem in his re-election, according to polls, is that his critics include two out of every three voters in the state. The three most recent surveys put his support at 30, 32, and 27 percent. Pritzker, a billionaire businessman from Chicago, runs 15 to 20 points ahead. “He’s the most unpopular governor in the history of the state,” says Christopher Z. Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. No one disputes this. The question is what comes in the wake of Rauner’s failure. And everyone seems to agree that Chicago, for all its crime and fiscal mismanagement, will thrive after its fashion, as one of the great cities of the world. And the suburbs will probably trail along after Chicago. But downstate . . .
“You just wonder whether this is our last chance,” said one of the regulars at the Fast Stop.
Two more propositions everyone in Illinois seems to agree on: (1) The state is a mess, and (2) it shouldn’t be.
Even in the rust belt, Illinois stands out for its economic sickliness. “We’re not Greece or Puerto Rico yet,” says Adam Schuster, an economist with the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. “We’re not functionally insolvent. But we’re right on the doorstep.” Estimates of the state government’s debt vary wildly, but the watchdog group Truth in Accounting puts the number at $216 billion, including unpaid current accounts and unfunded obligations such as pensions—especially pensions. This jaw-dropping figure places Illinois 48th out of the 50 states. Credit agencies rate Illinois’s general obligation bonds at just above junk status. The state avoids junk ratings, analysts say, only because it retains the power to tax and thus, theoretically, the power to balance its books at a single confiscatory stroke. For practical purposes, in other words, Illinois’s bonds are junk.
For the last two years the state operated without a budget, greatly adding to the general air of political and economic chaos. Finally a group of Republican legislators in the capital joined with the Democratic majority this summer to cobble a compromise. The governor vetoed it, and the veto was overridden. The bipartisan compromise raised the state income tax rate from 3.75 to 4.95 percent—the reason for the governor’s veto. Among the 50 states, Illinois’s income tax rate is only middling, ranking from 25th to 36th depending on who’s doing the counting, but overall its total average tax burden, according to the economic research firm WalletHub, is the worst in the country. A home-owning family in Illinois earning the U.S. median income of $55,000 can expect to pay 14.89 percent of that to the state. For comparison’s sake, they would pay 11.86 percent if they moved next door to Indiana and just 5.67 percent for number one Alaska. Only New Jersey—New Jersey!—has higher property taxes. In many Illinois municipalities it’s not unusual for owners of a house assessed in the $150,000-$200,000 range to be paying more in property taxes than in principal and interest on their mortgage.
After he laid out all these unhappy facts with tables and charts at his office at Bradley University’s Foster College of Business in Peoria, I asked Joshua Lewer, chairman of the economics department, how his fellow Illinoisans were reacting to the mess. (Lewer, by the way, has seen his property tax rise by 60 percent over the last decade while the value of his home stayed flat.) “A lot of them just leave,” he shrugged, with that familiar Illinois air of resignation. Out-migration has been a problem in the deindustrialized states of the Midwest for two generations, but Illinois has managed to outdo its rivals. From 2015 to 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau tells us, 114,000 residents left Illinois, an out-migration rate of 9 per 1,000 citizens. The next highest neighboring state was Michigan, with a rate lower than 3 for every 1,000. Jobs are returning with the Trump boom—indeed, nearly every business owner you talk to is hoping to hire—but at a slower pace than elsewhere. Wage growth is second to last in the country since the 2008 recession.
A recent poll showed that only one out of four Illinoisans had confidence the government could improve conditions in the state. A poll by Southern Illinois University a couple years ago was even more alarming. Only 10 percent of residents said the state was headed in the right direction. Nearly half—47 percent—said that offered the opportunity, they would move to another state without hesitation. The overwhelming reason given was taxes (27 percent), followed, at 16 percent, by the weather, which by general consensus is unbearable for eight months out of the year though no one ever does anything about it. “Confidence—consumer confidence, business confidence, confidence in everything—is just extremely low,” says Jim Ardis, the mayor of Peoria. Decatur magazine cites a national survey of CEOs from 2017 that ranked Illinois the “third worst state to invest in,” after New York and California.
To return to the second proposition everyone agrees upon: Illinois really shouldn’t be a mess. “That’s the awful thing,” Ardis says. “Illinois has so much to offer.” The advantages make for a rare combination. It’s located near the center of the country, crisscrossed with heavy rail and mighty interstates and easily navigable freshwater rivers that can guide you (and your products) from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mississippi and thence to anywhere in the world. Vast stretches of the state are given over to some of the world’s most fertile and versatile farmland. Its map is dotted with municipalities to every taste, from small cities and farm hamlets to river towns and lush suburbs and of course the great Sodom rising up at the edge of Lake Michigan. One or another segment of its diverse workforce is educated to suit every style and level of commerce: agriculture, light industry, heavy manufacturing; the workers come from an above-average system of K-12 education and at least two world-class universities. Even for those aesthetic numbskulls unable to grasp the timeless, lonesome beauty of the prairie, the state’s landscape offers the bluffs above Galena, the river canyons of the national forests to the south, and nearly everything in between. (And no deserts.)
Then there is the less measurable but still distinct matter of state character. Illinois towns and their citizens, through a combination of native whimsy, a desire for uniqueness, and a play for commerce, have long been given to stunts. A complete list would fill a book and has, several times. The town of Chester boasts its larger-than-life Popeye statue, so pop-eye-ular that statues of Olive Oyl and Wimpy have been added to fill out the population. No one would dare tear down the two-story outhouse in the town of Gays, offering a double-decker experience not nearly as gross as it sounds. A citizen of Cornell got up the idea of the Friendship Shoe Fence, which is a fence draped in laced shoes, furthering (somehow) the cause of friendship. Freeport built a one-third scale Wrigley Field, for no particular reason. You can see the Home of the Sock Monkey in Rockford, a tribute to the city’s sock-making heritage. You don’t have to travel far, wherever you are, to get the joke.
A few years ago a pair of NPR reporters worked with a demographer from the Brookings Institution on a silly but revealing project. They set out to find the “perfect state”—the state that was most representative of the USA as a whole. They tested five criteria for a state’s population: racial makeup, educational attainment, age, median income, and religiosity. Illinois took the prize, mapping the country more closely than any other state in one category after another. In some important respects, Illinois is the country built to scale. You don’t have to be a native deeply attached to your home state to worry that if Illinois can’t make it, then maybe the country can’t either.
So what happened? In 2014, Bruce Rauner thought he had it figured out. He ran for governor that year on a “Turnaround Agenda” to “shake up Springfield,” the sleepy capital famous for a sclerotic bureaucracy overseen by an inert, self-dealing legislature of part-time pols. As an outsider with very little political experience and a venture-capital fortune large enough to fund his own campaign, Rauner seemed the model of a selfless public servant.
But he quickly proved himself a terrible politician. Rauner’s turnaround agenda was admirably but also laughably ambitious: 44 separate reforms, including term limits for politicians, caps on property taxes, and dozens of other items designed to offend any constituency that had a strangle-hold on some coalition of state legislators. Tort reforms and workers’ compensation cutbacks (Illinois is often called the most litigious state in the country) would pass only over the dead, plump bodies of trial lawyers. Restoring sanity to the runaway pension system would lose him the votes of more than a million pensioners. A repeal of prevailing wage laws and compulsory union dues would run into the solid wall of legislators financed by state and municipal worker unions, who would also kill new apprenticeship programs designed to bypass organized labor.
So Rauner decided to do everything all at once in his first year. He would advance each reform while also fulfilling his mandatory duty of reaching a budget deal with the same legislators the rest of his agenda was trying to emasculate. He looked surprised when the large Democratic majorities in both the senate and house were disinclined to help him. Rauner’s signal success came from outside the system. In 2015 he launched the lawsuit that came to the Supreme Court as Janus v. AFSCME—a landmark decision in the history of labor law forbidding unions from collecting dues from nonmembers.
With the state budget frozen, services suffered, although both the governor and legislature took care to fund the projects and activities—schools and roads, preeminently—most visible to the public eye. Rauner dropped one item after another from his original agenda, until the fabled 44 had been reduced to 5. The legislature remained uncooperative. In a familiar act of journalistic alchemy, the mainstream media in Illinois managed to cover this standoff between two stubborn negotiators as if it were the fault of only one of them, who happened to be the Republican. Rauner was depicted in the press as a confused, petulant booby. Meanwhile—another familiar trick—he sought the good will of his political adversaries by betraying his friends. Ostensibly pro-life, he signed a bill mandating state payments for abortions for poor women; allegedly a skeptic of illegal immigration, he signed a law discouraging law enforcement from detaining people on the basis of their immigration status.
Rauner seemed surprised again this year when he faced a vigorous primary challenge from a conservative state representative. He won by 20,000 votes out of more than 700,000 cast. Having alienated the right of his party and the center of the voting public, he now turns to Pritzker, his Democratic opponent. The campaign has been uniquely unpleasant and vicious, probably because on the face of it so little is at issue. Rauner’s platform commits him to doing what he said he would do four years ago, though the chances of this are by now provably small. He is left to seek votes by portraying himself as the last obstacle to the certain ruin a united Democratic state government would bring.
Pritzker, for his part, is unwavering in his support for good things and fiercely opposed to the bad. Among the good things are more tax revenues. He proposes to replace the state’s flat income tax, mandated by the constitution for now, though he declines to say who would pay the higher rates, aside, of course, from the rich (undefined). His supporters are flirting with a “vehicle miles tax,” which would tax drivers for each mile they drive. More tax revenues would help fund more good things. Chief among the bad things Pritzker fiercely opposes is Bruce Rauner.
Pritzker is a fixture of state politics but only as it plays out in the vape-filled rooms of Chicago and Springfield. He has bankrolled dozens of Democratic campaigns over the last 20 years. Pritzker’s fortune was inherited from one of the largest fortunes in the country, now spread over a large family tree, with holdings ranging from cruise lines to hotel chains. His main success as a dauphin has been to avoid the financial disasters his less discreet siblings and cousins have managed to engineer with their share of the family money. (A bank run by his sister failed in 2001 with a loss of more than $2 billion.) Pritzker has been content to dabble in philanthropy and run a professional association of venture capitalists. (Somebody has to speak for the VCs.)
This year he’s directing his munificence to himself. He has pumped more than $165 million of his personal fortune into his campaign. With the $50 million that Rauner has kicked in on his own behalf, the 2018 gubernatorial election in Illinois will probably end up the most expensive state race in U.S. history. Seeing the two men spitting insults at one another in a televised debate, you can’t help but think that even in Illinois there must be better ways to spend $220 million. Side by side the two candidates make for an odd couple. Rauner is long and lean and angular, with the hangry look of a marathon swimmer on an unnecessary diet; Pritzker is short and round and fleshy, with the well-fed, self-satisfied look of a man who long ago decided diets were for losers. On the debate stage it’s as if Jack Sprat (who would eat no fat) and his wife (who would eat no lean) are in the midst of an ugly child-custody battle.
The most important man in this battle is offstage—and indeed remains anonymous even to many Illinois voters. “Michael Madigan is the single most powerful state legislator in the country,” says Mooney, the UIC political scientist. Madigan is one of the last surviving protégés of Richard J. Daley, the Chicago mayor who before his death in 1976 perfected the most enduring Democratic machine in American politics. (His son Richard M. Daley went on to rule Chicago for another 20 years starting a decade after his father’s death.) Madigan has represented his district on Chicago’s southwest side since 1971. With a two year interregnum in the 1990s, he has been speaker of the Illinois house for nearly 40 years. He is both the shaper and the embodiment of the way of politics that has brought Illinois to the brink.
Other Midwestern states, for better and worse, have a political culture at least partly under sway of an ideological tendency. Wisconsin, not the Land of Lincoln, was the birthplace of the Republican party and home to great progressives like Robert La Follette. Southern Indiana was the setting for the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Iowa’s politics has always been infused with Christian piety. Illinois has none of this—what it has in their place, what it has that all its neighbors lack, is an urban powerhouse at the center of its political force field. The real impress on Illinois politics has been the ethnic machine of Chicago, transplanted into Springfield and spreading from there to all corners of the state.
And ideology has nothing to do with it. Madigan has moved with the direction of his party. He began his career, for instance, when Catholic politicians like him understood abortion to be murder, and he’s just as comfortable today with its status as the preeminent sacrament of feminist individualism. The purpose of a machine, as Mooney points out, is the allocation among friends of the spoils of power: the jobs, contracts, services, and perquisites that government affords. “It’s a very practical mindset,” Mooney says. “It’s all about ends and not means. And that kind of thinking doesn’t really require any one person to take responsibility for long-term planning of the government’s direction.”
Madigan, by all accounts, is fiercely intelligent. When the legislature is in session he always eats dinner in the same seat at the same Springfield restaurant. Lunch is an apple, sometimes two, at his desk, and in meetings he seldom speaks: The signal that the meeting is over is when he starts eating the apple, according to pols who have experienced the brushoff. He doesn’t use email and seldom a cell phone, preferring communication face to face. When he takes questions from the press it is considered a historic occasion. One veteran Springfield reporter said the other day he had never interviewed Madigan, but he did have fond memories of a Madigan press conference back in . . . 2004. “He must have spoken for 45 minutes!” the reporter said.
Madigan’s power is enforced quietly and without pity. Under house rules, all legislative staff report to the leader. All perks from office space to parking slots flow through his office. He has an active program of internships and apprenticeships, bringing in recruits from all over the state. “It’s like a training program for politicians,” says Mooney. Most important, he is not only the house majority leader, he is chairman of the state party. Every dollar of party campaign funding is under his control. Over the years a dozen wayward Democrats who crossed him on important votes have found themselves suddenly faced with primary challengers, well-funded and usually victorious. And every other Democratic officeholder knows it could happen to them.
“There’s one common denominator in Springfield over the last 40 years as the state has gotten deeper in trouble,” Ardis says. “And that’s Madigan.” Indeed, Madigan was present at what Adam Schuster calls the “original sin” of Illinois government finance—he was a delegate to the constitutional convention of 1970 when a provision was inserted into the new state constitution that state pensions, once enacted by the legislature, could never be reduced. A cascade of political folly ensued, at the hands of Republicans and Democrats alike. In 1990, a Republican governor signed a provision that guaranteed increases in state pensions at a compounded rate. Increases have been regular and untouchable ever since, thanks to Madigan and his colleagues, with the resulting horror stories that fill the state’s newspapers—like the retired teacher from the Chicago suburbs with a $452,000 pension payout. Eighty percent of the state’s last tax increase went to the pension system.
Sooner or later, a political machine becomes its own object: The purpose of the machine is to keep the machine alive. This is the evolutionary stage that the Chicago machine, downstate version, has reached over Madigan’s long reign. There’s little chance that Rauner, given a second term, could reverse it, and no sign that Pritzker, once elected, would care to. Governor Pritzker’s political destiny will likely resemble that of Louisiana’s Oscar K. Allen, a puppet that the state’s true ruler, Huey Long, installed in the governor’s chair in the 1930s. He earned the nickname “OK.” “A leaf blew in through OK’s office window yesterday,” one observer said. “He signed it.”
Despair is a sin, even in Illinois, and the resignation felt by the regulars at the Fast Stop in Payson, while understandable, isn’t necessarily the final word. On the other side of the state is the leafy town of Sullivan, population 4,300, which boasts a stately brick courthouse from 1906 and a town square of the kind you come to expect when you travel the two-lane highways of the state: There’s a restaurant, a Dollar Tree, maybe a theater, and lots of abandoned storefronts.
This year Sullivan hosted the last of the state’s Oktoberfests on the town square, with food trucks, vendors of scented candles and religious trinkets, moonbounces, fundraising bake sales, and the main event: a performance by the Sullivan Singers. The group, by the look of it, comprises a healthy percentage of the high school student body. Mingling through the crowd they were unmistakable for their purple T-shirts and unbridled enthusiasm.
It was a golden afternoon but a wind storm blew through—the moonbounces had to be disassembled, the proprietor of the pony ride packed up his pony, a bake sale table tipped over, and a few vendors shuttered their trucks. The singers were undeterred. They shortened their program but this compression seemed only to intensify their showmanship. Their specialty is the Broadway show tune, and it involves much movement—hips, shoulders, feet, arms in all directions. Fingers splay, then compress into fists, heads rise, then lower dramatically. The girls swing their ponytails while the pudgy boys stand back admiring.
For their last number they sang “Just Wanna Be with You,” from High School Musical 3. “I got a lot of things I have to do / All these distractions / Our future’s coming soon / We’re being pulled / A hundred different directions / But whatever happens / I know I’ve got you.”
The music was a heaping portion of Hollywood uplift, and the kids were by-God determined to put it across, and the effect was enchanting, exhilarating: pure energy, good humor, fellowship, and innocence. The wind for a moment died down. The hour was getting late. The autumn sun came slanting straight at the Sullivan Singers, right down East Jefferson Street, lighting their orthodontics and their animated faces, and for a moment, no one could tell if it was rising or setting.
Andrew Ferguson is a national correspondent at The Weekly Standard and is the author of Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America.