The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These Illinois Republicans are rallying around a bill to kick deep-blue Chicago out of the state

The skyline of Chicago beyond a foggy Lake Michigan. (Jeff Haynes/Reuters)

Brad Halbrook stood in front of a crowd of more than 1,600 people on March 10 in Effingham, Ill., roughly 200 miles south of Chicago. According to supporters who were there, the rallygoers went wild when Halbrook — a Republican state lawmaker — talked about his big idea: a resolution to separate Chicago and its 3 million residents from the state of Illinois.

If Halbrook and his supporters have their way, the 51st state would not be the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico. It will be the Windy City.

Halbrook, who represents a district east of Springfield, Ill., reintroduced a bill in February to create a new state around Chicago. According to Halbrook, there are eight co-sponsors, up from three when it was introduced last year. The bill has a long way to go; it needs at least 60 votes to pass the Illinois House of Representatives, to say nothing of the state Senate or the governor.

And yet the bill’s supporters are hopeful, pointing to a rising tide of frustration toward what they see as Chicago’s overstated influence in Illinois politics, namely around issues of gun rights, debt, immigration and abortion. After the 2018 election, Democrats now control the state Senate, House and governor’s office.

“This isn’t an idea that’s going to go very far,” said Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan (D).

Yet the call for separation has picked up speed in part because of the work by grass-roots movements such as Illinois Separation and New Illinois to spread the movement to the county level in the past year.

“The movement is building,” Halbrook said.

Collin Cliburn, 32, started the Illinois Separation blog in 2018. Cliburn, who is a carpenter and works on the separation movement part-time, has lobbied counties throughout the state to introduce a nonbinding resolution to the ballot.

“I want to show the legislature that this is truly what the people want, and the only way we can do that is through a nonbinding resolution,” he said. According to Cliburn, he’s seeing momentum for the nonbinding resolution in 20 out of the state’s 102 counties.

One county has already decided to put the issue to a vote. Effingham County, in southern Illinois, will include the question on the 2020 ballot.

G.H. Merritt, co-founder of New Illinois, said she was considering moving out of the state as she became increasingly unhappy with the new administration’s economic policies. “Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning,” Merritt said. “Why should we be the ones to leave?”

People outside of the metropolitan Chicago area feel as though they don’t have a voice anymore, Merritt said.

“Forty percent of the population live in Cook County, and they completely dominate state politics,” she said. “The other 60 percent have to dance to their tune.”

According to Halbrook, while Chicago is an economic force in the state, the rest of Illinois holds the key to its own economic success: agriculture. “One in 4 jobs is related to agriculture so there is another economic driver,” he said.

Merritt, who was formerly a nonprofit administrator, said it’s not really a “red, blue, Republican and Democrat thing. It’s an urban versus rural thing."

Many researchers and scholars see statehood movements like Illinois’s as a symptom of a growing division between large cities and rural communities. Similar movements in California and New York have crept into the mainstream, too.

“This is an idea that has been around and comes and goes,” said John Jackson, political professor emeritus at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. “Especially if you have one or two big cities and a lot of rural areas.”

While Cook County and the five urban counties that surround Chicago have turned heavily Democratic, the rest of the state has grown more and more Republican, according to Jackson.

“It’s a way for conservative and Republican legislators to let up steam,” Jackson said. “It’s always popular downstate to run against Chicago.”

The problem isn’t unique to Illinois, according to Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization. Jones, a scholar on religion, culture and politics, said it’s particularly evident in states with a healthy, vibrant city center and a larger agricultural base. He attributes part of this national trend to younger generations who are moving out of rural areas, as well as an increase in ideological sorting.

“For younger people, there’s evidence that people are moving to fit their ideological and cultural identity,” Jones said.

According to the PRRI’s 2018 American Values Atlas, the differences between Chicago and the rest of the state are stark. In Chicago, 53 percent of the population is white. In the rest of Illinois, that fraction is 73 percent. Roughly 28 percent of non-Chicago residents hold a college degree, while 36 percent of Chicagoans do.

While people might be paying closer attention to the divide between cities and rural communities now, the problem isn’t new, according to Jones. “It’s been a long-term trend, this isn’t the last five to 10 years,” he said. “It’s been the last couple of generations.”

A 2018 Pew Research Center study on the similarities and differences between rural and urban communities found the divide fell almost strictly along partisan party lines, according to senior researcher Ruth Igielnik. While there have always been more Democrats than Republicans in urban areas, there’s been a stronger concentration in the past 10 years, Igielnik said. “Twice as many voters identified as Democrats than Republicans in urban communities,” she said.

“It was really divisive,” Igielnik said. “We really didn’t see many political similarities.”

Back in Illinois, Merritt said the proposal was more than a conversation starter. It’s a movement of people who are “willing to fight for our home,” she said.

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