200 interviews and some surprising finds on ‘Pulse of the Heartland’ beat

Old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting in three Illinois cities before the midterms helped me quickly dispel assumptions about voters.

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Sun-Times reporter Mitch Armentrout conducts an interview in 2017.

Reporter Mitch Armentrout gets the job done in person.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Just one more interview.

Standing outside an office building near downtown Freeport, Illinois, this fall, the end of a long reporting day and a grueling reporting month was finally in sight.

I was asking everyday residents for their thoughts on major issues heading into the midterm elections, and I was looking for one more interview before calling it a day. Trying to keep my cross-section balanced, I was looking for someone on the conservative end of the political spectrum — a task that was proving surprisingly difficult in deep red, semirural northwestern Illinois.

My man-on-the-street prayers appeared to be answered in the form of burly, mustachioed Gary Jakubowski, who looked and sounded like a blood relative of Mike Ditka. And it wasn’t just his Bears sweatshirt and aviators.

I was all but assured Mr. Jakubowski would check the far-right box in my reporter’s notebook when he started by declaring, “It feels like I’m losing my country.” Surely, I thought, the preamble to a MAGA-inspired monologue bemoaning “woke culture” and yearning for simpler times.

I almost dropped my pen as he went on to denounce “Donald Trump and the right-wingers,” explaining that he dreaded lies of fraud in the 2020 presidential election, not the supposed loss of American values to the Democratic Party agenda, as I’d heard from plenty of other people who look like Gary.

Walking back to my car, I could only shake my head and chuckle at how lazily I’d judged this book by its cover. After spending weeks talking to more than 200 likely voters in different corners of the state, I should’ve been well past making such an assumption.

It’s a hard habit for any of us to break, but that was one of my goals for our “Pulse of the Heartland” series. Talking to a broad swath of voters across Illinois, I wanted to get past the assumptions that elected leaders, pundits and, yes, journalists, make all too often when it comes to diagnosing which issues matter most to the average resident. It’s easy to say Republicans want to protect gun rights and Democrats want to codify abortion rights. It’s much harder to map the ground in between and figure out if any of it is common.

Our “Pulse” series — the brainchild of my boss, Sun-Times political editor Scott Fornek — aimed to take a snapshot of the most pressing everyday issues on the minds of voters as they prepared to cast their ballots.

I ended up writing three dispatches in the series, which I wouldn’t have thought possible — or bearable — after my first late-summer sojourn to the streets of north suburban Waukegan. I could barely get people to spare the time of day, let alone share their thoughts on sensitive social issues.

It was hard not to think that was at least partly due to the demonization of supposed “fake news” journalists that has proliferated over the last decade. A few people even told me so directly, one of them calling me a “leftist fat cat,” which seemed harsh. I’m a husky cat at most.

But more of that early struggle surely was due to my need to find my footing again with shoe-leather reporting. As a reporter who has mostly covered politics during a pandemic over the last few years, I’d grown more accustomed to working the phones with officials than hoofing out straight person-on-the-street pieces.

I soon figured out how to better tailor my questions for thoughtful responses. Turns out people don’t like being put on the spot for a list of “the most important issues” — but they’ve often got more than two cents to share when you ask what elected leaders do that pisses them off.

I found my stride on a second visit to the generous people of Waukegan, and even more so on subsequent trips to Peoria and, finally, Freeport. The bosses blessed me with two things that are exceedingly rare in the newspaper business: plenty of time to report and write and an expense sheet to explore the state.

Over the six days that were dedicated to reporting on the ground in the three cities, I logged almost 800 miles on my decrepit ’99 Buick Century (how’s that for a fat cat?), something like 108,000 steps on my pedometer app and roughly 16 hours of interviews recorded on my cellphone.

More than 200 people were kind enough to share their time with me across the three cities, but that figure only represents about half the total number who were approached by this sometimes lost and often sweaty reporter from Chicago.

Harder to quantify is the number of hairs pulled out of my head as I tried to condense all this reporting into three stories of about 1,600 words each — an unimaginable expanse by daily journalism standards, but something like cramming an elephant through a doorway with the amount of information I’d gathered.

My talented colleagues often did a more elegant job with their dispatches from elsewhere in the state: Tina Sfondeles in downstate Centralia, Manny Ramos in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood, David Struett in south suburban Dolton and Elvia Malagón along the city’s diverse Argyle Street corridor as well as the South Shore community.

Together, I believe we painted a nuanced picture of what Illinoisans want to see from their leaders.

But it never hurts to get just one more interview. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Men fish off a pier in Waukegan in September of 2022.

Men fish off a pier in Waukegan in September.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

A pedestrian waits for the signal in downtown Waukegan in September of 2022.

A pedestrian waits for the signal to cross the street in downtown Waukegan in September.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

The Illinois River valley, as seen from Grandview Drive in Peoria in October 2022.

The Illinois River Valley, as seen from Grandview Drive in Peoria in October.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Jeremiah Collard poses for a photo in downtown Peoria in October 2022.

Jeremiah Collard in downtown Peoria in October.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali presides over a city council meeting in October 2022.

Peoria Mayor Rita Ali presides over a city council meeting in October.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

A man works on a storefront in downtown Freeport on Nov. 1, 2022.

A man works on a storefront in downtown Freeport in November.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

People walk down a street in Freeport, Illinois, on Nov. 1, 2022.

People cross Chicago Avenue at Clark Street in Freeport in November.

Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

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