Pulse of the Heartland: Centralia voters say Chicago treats southern Illinois like ‘an afterthought — it’s two different worlds’

The Sun-Times visited the downstate city to see what’s on voters’ minds. Perhaps not surprisingly, COVID-19, jobs and abortion are uppermost. But like much of southern Illinois — and other downstate areas — it’s all wrapped up in a deeply ingrained feeling of being forgotten.

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The Centralia water tower greets travelers heading northbound on Hwy, 51.

The Centralia water tower greets travelers heading northbound on Hwy, 51.

Antonio Jacob Martinez for The Sun-Times

CENTRALIA, Ill. — When Bruce Merrell casts his ballot for governor this November, he’ll be thinking about education, COVID-19, roads, transportation and corruption.

Who is he voting for?

Darren Bailey.

Why?

“He’s a Republican,” the 70-year-old retiree said with a laugh.

“That’s about all you need. The Democrats control Illinois. They control pretty much the presidential election and electoral votes. Chicago and northern Illinois controls the state so, you know, I think people that live in southern Illinois, we realize that we’re an afterthought,” Merrell said.

Retiree Bruce Merrell discusses his hometown of Centralia, Ill.,  politics and the November election.

Retiree Bruce Merrell discusses his hometown of Centralia, Ill., politics and the November election.

Provided

“It’s two different worlds. The viewpoint of a person from Chicago about what the people are in southern Illinois is they’re practically not even human. They consider southern Illinois to be backward,” said Merrell, retired president of Centralia’s St. Mary’s Hospital.

“And I think that’s true throughout the nation. The nation is divided into not only two political parties, but urban and rural, and in general, rural people are Republicans, urban people are Democrats,” he said.

That sense of being left behind, forgotten, not understood comes up again and again when you talk to residents of this historic railroad town in southern Illinois.

The Chicago Sun-Times visited the city 271 miles southwest of Chicago as part of an effort to see what’s on voters’ minds and what might influence their choices in November.

Pulse of the Heartland
Pulse of the Heartland series logo from the Chicago Sun-Times

Perhaps not surprisingly, COVID-19, jobs and abortion are uppermost in the minds of residents in Centralia. Down here, church congregations have been praying for the “unborn child” long before Roe v. Wade was overturned.

“Pritzker Sucks” signs littered Centralia during the pandemic, and many locals are still upset over the Democratic governor’s pandemic mandates that shuttered businesses and schools. They see it as a stripping of liberty and choice that they just can’t forgive.

But like much of southern Illinois — and other downstate areas — it’s all wrapped up in that deeply ingrained feeling of being forgotten.

“It’s a poor town. There’s not a lot of income here,” said Debbie Elling, assistant general manager of the Centralia Sentinel, the morning newspaper founded during the Civil War.

But just as they care about their local high school basketball team, Centralia residents care deeply about who is running for governor — and “are the funds going to come down from Chicago?”

“Is it just going to be the usual, southern Illinois gets nothing?” Elling asked. “But Pritzker is, I think, trying to do his push down here. Because it is a Republican area. He’s got to bring something to them.”

Debra Elling, assistant general manager of the Centralia Sentinel, shares her thoughts about the town and its history.

Debra Elling, assistant general manager of the Centralia Sentinel, shares her thoughts about the town and its history.

Antonio Jacob Martinez for The Sun-Times

‘No real Democrats left’

Prayer and freedom are important here.

And right now, Shannon Shipley is praying that former President Donald Trump will run again in 2024 — and that Illinois will soon be free of Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The Centralia High School teacher said she believes the investigations into Trump are political — and she’s worried information is being “planted.”

“I just feel like there’s a lot of people out there that can come against him, and I’m praying as hard as I can for him because I can’t imagine what his life is like,” she said.

Generations of family members live in this quiet church-going, Second Amendment-friendly city of just over 12,000 people, where residents have voted solidly and increasingly Republican over the last three decades.

“Well, there are no real Democrats left anymore, of the old sector,” said Dave Agee, who runs a financial services office in a building built in 1888 across the street from City Hall. “I think it’s time for a third party — because most of the country is in the middle.”

Longtime  Centralia resident and financial services agent Dave Agee discusses the area’s political landscape.

Longtime Centralia resident and financial services agent Dave Agee discusses the area’s political landscape.

Antonio Jacob Martinez for The Sun-Times

Bailey’s portrayal of himself as a southern Illinois farmer running for governor to represent the “forgotten” people is appealing in a place with a median income of about $39,000, where many union rail, manufacturing and factory jobs have disappeared.

Centralia is in the middle of four counties — Clinton, Jefferson, Marion and Washington, with the largest portion of the town in Marion County.

It’s a part of railroad history. Established in 1853, the town is named for the Illinois Central Railroad. A route from Centralia became the railroad’s Chicago branch, stretching all the way to Lake Michigan’s shores. Centralia was also part of the Underground Railroad system, the secret network that helped enslaved people escape the South.

The city is 83.4% white, 8.5% Black or African-American and about 5% Hispanic, according to 2020 U.S. Census figures.

And all four counties that encompass Centralia overwhelmingly supported Trump’s presidential runs.

‘Don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you’

Shipley and her husband Reid, the principal of Centralia High School, voted for Trump twice, and they said they plan to do so again, should he run again. To Reid Shipley, the reasons to support Trump are all about “freedoms.”

“People in rural communities are patriotic, and they see the more freedoms, the more ability to kind of do what we want to do and how we want to do it,” Reid Shipley said. “A ‘just leave me alone. Don’t bother me, and I won’t bother you,’ kind of attitude.”

Come November, the couple said they will not be voting for Pritzker, whose mandates, they say, harmed the town’s businesses and created mental health issues. More broadly, Reid Shipley said he believes Pritzker has misrepresented the interests of residents of southern Illinois, many of whom strongly support the Second Amendment and are anti-abortion.

“People are generally tired of, if something is happening in Chicago, we make a state law for everybody. This is a very wide, diverse state from top to bottom,” Reid Shipley said. “I think people down here tend to believe it doesn’t really matter what we say.”

‘There are jobs here’

Founded in 1863, the Centralia Sentinel is only 10 years younger than the city itself.

Its masthead features pyramids and the words “Egypt’s Greatest Daily” — an homage to southern Illinois’ “Little Egypt” moniker, a name coined after a heavy winter and spring frosts in 1831 damaged corn crops north of Jefferson County.

Southern counties were unaffected by the extreme weather, and the Bible reference of Jacob’s 10 sons going down to Egypt for corn became a common saying. That’s according to an account given to the Sentinel in 1889.

Debra Elling gives a tour of part of the Centralia Sentinel offices as she discusses the town and its history.

Debra Elling gives a tour of part of the Centralia Sentinel offices as she discusses the town and its history.

Antonio Jacob Martinez for The Sun-Times

Elling, the paper’s assistant general manager, has worked there for 38 years. Residents love the newspaper’s high school sports coverage — particularly of the Orphans, the basketball team that has reached the state finals 24 times and won three titles.

Centralia is home to a Duncan Hines factory, where you can smell the sweet aroma of cake mix wafting through the air outside. Also in town is the Swan Corp., which makes bathtubs and shower stalls. Another factory makes cardboard boxes for the cake factory.

“There are jobs here,” Elling said. “You can walk into any of those factories and get a job making $15 an hour walking in. They’ll hire you. But there’s not enough people willing to work to fill it.”

Amid some of Centralia’s anti-Pritzker signs and sentiments, there was also some positive buzz about a $1 million grant awarded in August to help a wine district in downtown Centralia.

Zoe Castang, manager of the Crooked Creek Winery, is optimistic about ecomomic development in Centralia.

Zoe Castang, manager of the Crooked Creek Winery, is optimistic about ecomomic development in Centralia.

Antonio Jacob Martinez for The Sun-Times

“More businesses are wanting to come downtown. I love what this business is doing for the town,” Zoe Castang, a lifelong Centralia resident and manager at Crooked Creek Winery said. “And I hope that it continues to build and grow and people want to come downtown.”

Abortion ‘huge, huge issue’

As staunchly Republican as the town is, not everyone is upset about Pritzker’s handling of the pandemic — or happy about the U.S. Supreme Court decision to reverse Roe v. Wade.

Nicole Lloyd said she hasn’t been paying attention to the governor’s race, but abortion rights are a key issue when she’s picking candidates. She said the fight against abortion is a “huge, huge issue” for voters in Centralia.

“I’m a nurse, and I don’t feel anybody should be able to tell a patient they can’t get whatever. Some laws are so, so restrictive.”

As a nurse, Lloyd, 28, endured the worst of the peak of the pandemic — as southern Illinois hospitals grappled with ventilator shortages, as did most hospitals in the state. It gave her an appreciation for mandates, which she said she believes lessened the load on area hospitals.

“When things were bad, there were no ventilators for miles. So that’s why I’ve always, always supported the mandates,” Lloyd said.

Mike Middleton in the Centralia Area Historical Museum.

Mike Middleton in the Centralia Area Historical Museum.

Antonio Jacob Martinez for The Sun-Times

Four of the state’s last five Illinois governors were from Chicago — and the four often boasted that they’re working just as hard for all of the state. And even though Centralia is represented in the Illinois House and Senate by Republicans, residents complain that the big city — many times Democrats with different social views — always dictates top races.

“When you run for state office, the joke was, as long as everybody in Chicago votes for you, the rest of us can vote against you, and you’re still going to win, because Chicago is so heavily Democratic, and there are just so many people up there,” said Mike Middleton, a former teacher and executive director of the Centralia Area Historical Society.

A candidate ‘that shows everybody respect’

The party label is not what matters most to Joshua Donahue, a longtime Centralia resident who runs Silver Age Collectibles, where he sells pop culture memorabilia and records, among other products.

“I’m not necessarily somebody that has to vote Democrat or has to vote Republican,” Donahue said. “I’ve voted Democrat heavily lately, just because of the climate and kind of what the Republicans … stand for lately.”

The issue of abortion rights is weighing on his mind and will factor into his voting decisions come November, he said.

“Anybody that would be against abortion, and turn Illinois into that, I’m against. I would want Illinois to be a safe haven,” Donahue said. “I’m personally against abortion, but I’m for the choice to be able to do what’s best for you.”

Bicentennial Park commemorates Centralia’s founding in 1853.

Bicentennial Park commemorates Centralia’s founding in 1853.

Antonio Jacob Martinez for The Sun-Times

When it comes to candidates to support, Donahue said he’s looking for someone who “shows everybody respect.”

Four years ago, Pritzker won just three southern counties — none of them part of Centralia. His best showing in those four counties was in Marion, where he received just over 33% of the vote. In 2014, former Gov. Pat Quinn didn’t win any counties outside Cook.

Merrell, the retired hospital administrator, said he isn’t expecting any big shift among Centralia residents this year — regardless of how much difference their votes ultimately make.

“We just expect that the U.S. senators are going to be Democrats and that the governor is usually going to be a Democrat,” he said. “And that the House and the Senate in Illinois is going to be controlled by Democrats.

“And so, when you get a chance to vote for a Republican, you vote for a Republican, even though you know the Republican is not going to win.”

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