Gov. Pat Quinn used the phrase “our Illinois” almost 30 times in one form or another last week during his annual State of the State address.
“In our Illinois, everyone should have access to decent health care,” Quinn said.
“In our Illinois, working people find good jobs, not just for today but for tomorrow.”
“In our Illinois, we find a way to get hard things done.”
In our Illinois, Quinn said, we are a “community of shared values.”
While the phrase was mainly a rhetorical device for a constitutionally mandated annual speech, it’s important to point out that Illinois isn’t really “one” and doesn’t have all that many “shared values.”
“Our Illinois” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
Imagine trying to govern a state so diverse that it included both Boston and Richmond, Va. Waukegan is about 40 miles north of Chicago at the same latitude as Boston. Cairo, at the southern tip of Illinois, sits at the same latitude as Richmond.
While the Chicago area’s similarities to Bostonian liberalism might be obvious, our state’s history has more in common with Richmond than you might think.
For the first few decades of the 19th century, a state-owned salt works in Saline County in southern Illinois used slave labor and produced almost a third of state government’s revenue. Fights over whether Illinois should become a slave state dominated the General Assembly for years.
These days, southern Illinois politicians closely resemble Kentuckians, or southern Virginians, for that matter.
But our diversity and differences go much further than that.
In Chicago, we have unimaginable wealth next door to some of the worst poverty in the nation.
We have the third-largest city in the nation, substantial suburban sprawl, numerous river- and energy-dependent regions and a vast portion consisting of rural counties with few people in them.
We have Chicago wards that voted almost unanimously for Barack Obama last year, and dozens of downstate counties that almost always vote straight Republican since Abraham Lincoln joined the party.
We have more black residents than any “free” state except New York. And we have some counties that are so “white” that I know some black legislators and lobbyists who are afraid to stop for gas on their way to and from Springfield.
Our industrial capacity is almost unparalleled, yet we grow more corn than any state except Iowa.
Our Republican Party is almost hopelessly divided and nonexistent in Cook County. We have Chicago-area Republicans who openly supported former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and now back Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
We have many downstate residents who believe Chicago is by far the biggest problem in Illinois, and the state would be much better off the city wasn’t part of Illinois.
Many of our southern Illinois Democrats make many suburban Republicans look downright liberal.
Barack Obama won most of those typically Republican suburban counties last year, but he lost Madison County, near St. Louis, even though every other countywide Democratic candidate won there.
Our liberal Democrats are among the most “progressive” in the nation. But there are so many Democratic factions in some Chicago wards that you almost need a passport to cross the street.
The Nov. 6 election produced supermajorities in the Legislature for the Democrats, but those are majorities in party name only. In a year when southern Democrats are pushing hard for a concealed-carry law, the 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary election revolves largely around gun control.
So, while I often get frustrated with the way Pat Quinn governs — and for very good reasons — it’s always important to keep in mind that this state is nearly ungovernable, particularly in these times when people are so sharply divided by just about everything. Consensus among such cultural, ethnic and political diversity is almost impossible to achieve.
None of this means that governing is impossible, however, and this column isn’t meant to excuse any of Quinn’s many shortcomings.
But the next time you think that solving Illinois’ serious problems ought to be easy, remember that nothing has been easy in Illinois for many years.