Monday, September 1, 2008

St. Paul, Minn., not the place for Chicago political people to be this week

The Chicago Argus will not be paying as much attention to the nominating convention taking place this week in St. Paul, Minn., as it did to the Democratic Party pep rally last week in Denver – and not because of some political bias against the Republican Party.

It’s just that the Chicago presence in the town where Charles Comiskey owned and operated one of his first ball clubs (eventually converting that baseball franchise in the Western League into the Chicago White Sox of the American League) will be minimal.

IF THIS WERE the “Illinois Argus” or the “Springfield Argus,” then the Republican National Convention taking place today through Thursday would be the main event because it would be a chance to hear from the local political officials who have spent the past couple of days telling themselves that Republican presidential hopeful John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate was a bold move that will appeal to rural folks.

It won’t help him take Illinois, because this has become such an urban-oriented state – much to the dismay of people from places such as Rockford, Springfield and Carbondale.

As it is, the weakened state of the Illinois Republican Party (which has allowed Democrats to take over everything on the Statehouse Scene in Springfield and to allow a Chicago Democrat to be the heart of a national movement that could boot them unceremoniously from the White House) is such that our state’s Republicans are getting banished to the back of the Xcel Center arena where the convention is taking place.

This week will be about seeing some of the outer suburban political people along with officials from central Illinois try to assert themselves, only to realize that the heart of the Republican Party these days is in the states where “rural America” prevails.

WHILE ILLINOIS MAY have a geographically large swath of its land with rural characteristics, the bulk of the population lives in the urban areas (about two of every three Illinoisans is a Chicago area resident, with almost half of the state’s population living in a Chicago suburb).

It’s not like Illinois resembles neighboring state Indiana, where the part of the state that is an extension of the Chicago area accounts for about 10 percent of the overall population. The rest of the state tends to think in terms of the need of holding that 10 percent in check (to prevent the influence of urban Chicago from “contaminating” the people who don’t think of it as an insult to be called “Hoosiers”).

That is why I never thought the Obama campaign should seriously regard Indiana as some sort of swing state whose 11 Electoral College votes they could win, and why I’m not surprised to learn that Indiana Republican Chairman Murray Clark is telling NPR affiliate WBEZ-FM radio that the choice of rural Alaskan Palin clinches the Nov. 4 Indiana elections for the McCain/Palin campaign.

He may be right.

OF COURSE, THE thought of keeping someone from “dreaded Chicago” out of the White House likely would have meant many Hoosiers would have voted for McCain/Lieberman, McCain/Ridge or McCain/Fonda (as in Jane) – if it meant not casting a ballot for Obama.

It also is why I don’t discredit a story I read in the Southern Illinoisan newspaper of Carbondale, where the local political officials are predicting strong McCain support across the 96 Illinois counties that lie outside the Chicago area.

Jackson County Republican Chairman Bruce Wallace probably is correct when he says Obama, “doesn’t have much juice south of I-80. I think the southern part of the state is going to be McCain.”

On the surface, it has become a paradox of Illinois politics. The roughly 30 southernmost counties that comprise Southern Illinois (a.k.a., “Little Egypt,” to some) have long histories of supporting the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt and strong Democratic Party organizations that oppose Republicans for local offices.

BUT THE URBAN views on social issues often don’t play well here (I’ve heard one political observer say of Southern Illinois residents who cast votes for Democrats, “they don’t realize the Democratic Party doesn’t care about them anymore”) and many of the people who vote for a Democrat locally will turn to the GOP for its candidates for federal office.

But it ultimately comes down to population. The Chicago suburbs comprise such a large percentage of the state’s people, and many of those tend to associate more with Chicago than with rural Illinois. At most, Southern Illinois is about 5 percent of the state’s overall population. Even when combined with solidly Republican central Illinois, it only comes to about one-third of the people.

So as sad as it may seem so some (and I’m enough of a government observer geek to find intellectual stimulation in the activities of any political persuasion), the show in St. Paul is not going to have a strong area presence.

Taking a quick look at the speaker schedule, I found only one Illinoisan on the convention program. Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. – whose North Shore suburban congressional district is turning so much less and less conservative that a Democrat may actually defeat him on Nov. 4 – was to speak Monday. Yet his appearance is among the ones to be curtailed due to a desire to downplay political festivities at a time when it appears a hurricane may strike the U.S. mainland.

KIRK NEEDED THE public attention to prop himself up, which is sad considering he has a respectable record during his eight years in Congress.

It’s a far cry from the political show in Denver, where Chicago political people dominated the first scheduled day of the program, and continued to pop up throughout the week.

The people from our area who get a trip to St. Paul this week are the have-nots of Illinois’ political scene – the ones who get to hang out with the party bigwigs from states where the Republican Party still matters in hopes they might learn a strategy or two that might make them more competitive here in the future.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Illinois is to the national Republican Party what Chicago is to the ( Illinois GOP. And I still remember the 1996 state GOP convention where the Chicago “delegation” was banished to six chairs in a back corner of the Assembly Hall arena.

It may very well be true that the presidential aspirations of Barack Obama don’t have “much juice” ( in Illinois south of Interstate 80. But that doesn’t mean he won’t win the state as a whole.

Did anyone ever really believe the Obama/Biden campaign would be competitive in Indiana ( outside of Gary?

The Republican National Convention this week will be John McCain’s best shot of knocking down to size ( the 6 percent lead Obama had Sunday (according to the Gallup Organization) over the McCain campaign.

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