Illinois residents are feeling particularly gloomy about their state, with its high unemployment, billions of dollars in debt, decades-long battles against corruption — and another possible tax hike waiting for them after the November election.
The bad mood surfaces in public-opinion polls that startle even the pollsters, with one survey showing that more people want to leave Illinois than anywhere else in the U.S. It’s also evident in the voting booth, where turnout in the March primary was the lowest on record. Now the cynicism is shaping one of the nation’s most competitive governor’s races, too.
“People are down in the dumps,” said Rod Spears, a retired Army officer and conservative activist from southern Illinois who says he hears the same concerns from his golfing buddies, all union members and lifelong Democrats.
The governor’s contest essentially boils down to Gov. Pat Quinn’s insistence that it’s not as bad as it used to be versus the Bruce Raunher’s exhortations to throw the bums out and start over.
Rauner’s success depends on patching together the right combination of disaffected voters in a state where Republicans start at a big numerical disadvantage. He’s spending millions of dollars on campaign ads targeting blacks, Hispanics, women, undecided suburbanites and downstate Democrats.
While the state’s struggles aren’t new — some extend back to when the last Republican governors were in charge — it has not experienced a true statewide rebellion in the ballot booth for some time.
“We are a disaster,” declares Rauner, who rattles off the well-known shortcomings at each campaign event: four of the last seven governors sent to prison, about $5 billion in overdue bills, one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S. and the worst credit rating of any state.
Since Quinn took over, Illinois has seen some improvement, but Democrats are worried about fading voter interest. They recently approved same-day voter registration and extended early voting hours for the fall election — two measures thought to help Democrats by making it easier for young people and other less consistent voters to cast ballots.
For some voters, it’s a matter of low expectations. Garry Thomas, who helps run fruit stands on Chicago’s streets, says he thinks Quinn is “pretty much doing what he can.” The 51-year-old plans to pull a straight Democratic ticket this fall, as his family has done for generations.
“I’m sure it could be worse in a lot of other places,” Thomas said. “I’m the working poor, but compared to people in Ghana, I’m living the life of Riley.”
Ivier McShane, 46, an Army veteran from Chicago, said he plans to vote in November, but isn’t enthusiastic about either candidate.
“I do not think it matters,” he said. “I just don’t have (any) faith in any of them.”
David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said when he moved to the state from Iowa six years ago, he found Illinoisans joking about their state’s dysfunctional politics. Not so today.
“It’s not a laughing matter anymore,” Yepsen said.
In a poll of 1,001 registered Illinois voters conducted by the institute earlier this year, 89 percent said they believe corruption is somewhat common in the state. A separate poll by Gallup found only 28 percent of Illinois residents said they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in their government. That was the lowest percentage of any state, with the next lowest — Rhode Island — at 40 percent.
Half of Illinois residents in another Gallup poll said they would leave the state if they could, with about one-quarter saying they wanted to leave for work or business reasons. Smaller percentages mentioned weather, location and quality of life.
SARA BURNETT, Associated Press