December 15, 2008
Notes from the Underbelly of IllinoisBy Randall Hoven
I live in Illinois. Land of L-somebody. Also the land of President-elect Barack Obama, Senator Dick Durbin, Governor Rod Blagojevich (indicted) and former Governor George Ryan (in prison). In fact, according to the Chicago Tribune, our "most recent five [governors] were criminally indicted; the last three served prison terms."
Our governor is a Democrat. Our state senate is Democrat. And our state house is Democrat. The only real opposition Democrats face here is other Democrats. Knowing that, you might think Illinois is sort of a Massachusetts on the Mississippi. But you would be wrong.
For example, while Massachusetts ranks 8th in total state taxes per capita, Illinois ranks only 29th, below Nebraska and Kentucky. In state expenditures per capita, ours was just $3,604 in 2004, less than our next-door, red state of Indiana, at $3,781. Alaska's, for example, was $10,387! Take that, Sarah Palin. And the state where Sarah Palin was born, Idaho, one of the reddest of red states, spent $3,651, or more than Illinois. (Hint to Republicans: walk the walk!)
So while Illinois taxes and spends less than many of its red counterparts, it allows no-limit casinos. Bars can stay open until 3 am. No helmet laws! (One of only two such states.) We have a porn and sex-toy shop right here in Alton, IL on Broadway, our main city drag. A few miles away, in the seedy bergs of Brooklyn, Venice and East St. Louis, we have real pole dancing and where, on certain nights, the back room is reserved for "couples only." (If you arrived by yourself, one of the little ladies present will be glad to be the other half of your "couple", for a modest sum. Don't ask me how I know this. And I actually don't know the sum, so it might not be so modest. Nothing else there is.)
Illinois is sort of financially conservative and socially liberal (or libertine). Except for the debt thing. While we don't tax or spend all that much, we apparently spend more than we tax. I'll let our Democratic state comptroller, Dan Hynes, explain the situation.
"At the end of fiscal year 2007, Illinois' outstanding general obligation bonds totaled $19.9 billion, including $10 billion in pension funding bonds. According to Moody's Investor Services, Illinois' net tax-supported debt per capita was $1,985 which ranked 7th highest nationwide. When measured using net tax-supported debt as a percentage of personal income, Illinois' rank jumped from 20th in 2000 to 6th highest in 2007."
So Governor Blagojevich has a couple of accomplishments under his belt. One, taking Illinois from 20th place to 6th in debt as a fraction of income. Two, outlawing smoking almost everywhere, even in bars and casinos. So in just seven years he's made us both less financially conservative and less socially liberal (or less libertine, anyway). For that alone, I'm in favor of locking him up.
You also can't tell the Republicans from the Democrats in Illinois without a score card. My Democratic US Representative, Jerry Costello, is solidly pro-life and pro-gun. The Catholics like him. The NRA likes him. And he voted against the $700B bailout -- both times. My Democratic state senator is a Viet Nam vet who reads at Catholic mass. His car has pro-life bumper stickers on it. His wife teaches natural family planning. Our former Republican governor, George Ryan, was pro-choice, anti-gun and not too fearful of spending and taxing. His Democratic opponent, Glen Poshard, was opposite in all these categories (explaining his loss).
It is easier to categorize the duck-billed platypus than Illinois politics.
Let's drill down a bit. I live in the city of Alton, in Madison County. Madison County was the number one "judicial hell hole" in 2003, according to the American Tort Reform Association. By 2007, however, it merely made the "watch list". Cook County, however, was the number three judicial hell hole in 2007. So in this "Chicago vs. Downstate" competition, Chicago is currently winning the judicial hellhole contest. Can't win ‘em all.
Part of that could be due to Tom Lakin, the one-time leading filer of class action lawsuits in our little hellhole. Barrister Lakin was not just any lawyer; he was a rich one. And not just rich, but asbestos rich. Then things went bad for old Tom. According to my local paper, the Alton Telegraph,
Asbestos was very, very good to Tom Lakin. Cocaine, not so much. And thus Madison County lost one of its best players in the annual hellhole games.
You can't swing a dead cat in Alton without hitting a trial lawyer. And within two blocks of wherever you are is a property under condemnation by the city. Within three blocks is a church. Four blocks a bar. Five blocks a pawn ship. Six a tattoo parlor. And a casino in walking distance.
The public schools are about 35% African-American. Yet the hanger-on at the public golf course uses the N-word with abandon with total strangers (white ones, anyway). There is a private club that is known for excluding African-Americans, and everybody knows it. And everybody is a Democrat.
The only things the bigots here hate more than N-words are Republicans (with an exception given for Ron Paul).
It's actually kind of exciting. Like Rick's American Cafe in Casablanca, everyone has something to hide. I, for example, hide the fact that I frequently contribute to a "right-wing" online magazine (not a blog!). If this were to become public, the local hardware store for example, with its "Impeach Bush" signs behind the counter, might not serve me. Neighbors would cross the street as I approach.
If you go to the swampy areas that girdle the Mississippi river, you can smell the rotting carcasses. On a still night you can hear the beetles and other crawly things feasting on those carcasses. Ah, the circle of life. Life in Illinois. But don't get cocky; you all live in Illinois.
At one of the best bars in Alton and the world, the owner will occasionally sing Toby Keith's I Love This Bar with the band.
That's life in Illinois. If you still have your teeth and your claws, join the circle of life with your fellow swamp things -- in Illinois. Dostoyevsky would feel at home here. It's just so human. Venal, vulgar, violent, messy, unpredictable, human. Land of Lincoln and Douglas. Land of Elijah Lovejoy and the mob that killed him. Land of Al Capone and Eliot Ness. Land of the City That Works, miles of corn fields, a Great Lake and the Mighty Mississippi. Mobsters, farmers, nuns, hookers, bond traders, rednecks, bikers, truckers and suckers.
I can say about Illinois what General George Patton said about war: "God help me, but I love it so."