Suburb shift turns state blue
OAK PARK, ILL.
Henry Kranz used to consider himself the Alex Keaton of his West Side Chicago family, the only Republican in a house full of Democrats. His first time at the ballot box, he voted for Republican Dick Ogilvie for governor. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Kranz's name.]Skip to next paragraph
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Today, Mr. Kranz is more Toby Ziegler of "West Wing" than the Keaton character portrayed by Michael J. Fox. He and his wife joke about being "Swedish socialists" when they discuss issues like high CEO salaries. His top concern is healthcare, and he's a confirmed pacifist.
Still, Kranz - who used to run a small press and sponsor poetry readings, and now works with nonprofits to encourage charitable giving - doesn't think all the change has been his. Back when he voted for Ogilvie, it was because he valued the idea of "treading lightly on individual freedoms." It's a notion he still agrees with, but which he thinks the Republican Party has drifted from. He abhors proselytizing and has "real trouble with being my brother's keeper."
While there's no archetypal Illinois voter, Kranz's political journey is in some ways emblematic of the direction his state has gone. For decades, it was the classic swing state, voting for the winning presidential candidate 22 of 25 times in the 20th century. It went for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford. From 1976 to 2002, Democratic mayors in Chicago were balanced by GOP governors in Springfield.
But lately, the state has grown steadily more Democratic and is no longer considered in contention in presidential politics. Voters went for Al Gore over George Bush by a surprising 12-point margin in 2000. Now, it's just one more US state that has left the middle ground, the Midwest's lone blue state in a Thomas Hart Benton landscape of purple and red.
A variety of factors is propelling the shift, everything from the Paul Simon effect - a reference to the popular late Democratic senator, elected by typically conservative downstate voters - to the lack of a Republican presence in Chicago, where just 1 out of 50 aldermen is from the GOP.
But perhaps most important, there's the steady trend leftward in the suburbs. Indeed, for much of the past century, Illinois was the prototypical swing state because of the ring of humanity around Chicago. While the Democrats dominated in urban Chicago and the Republicans downstate, the suburbs ended up playing referee. They still do, but with rising numbers of Democrats in what were once Republican strongholds.
"The mix has stayed pretty much the same in the city and downstate, but in the suburbs it's gone from being overwhelmingly Republican to being more competitive," says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at University of Illinois-Chicago and a former Chicago alderman.
The city, too, has been changing. Long a manufacturing hub, the City of Big Shoulders now has twice as many professionals and technicians as production workers. Instead of being a big brother to Kansas City or Detroit, Chicago now has a service-sector cosmopolitanism that makes it the heartland's biggest answer to coastal cities like San Francisco. Ruy Teixeira, coauthor of "The Emerging Democratic Majority," calls greater Chicago an "ideopolis" - a metropolitan hub with culture and diversity, where fewer people now pack meat and more practice law or perform in theaters. An economy oriented toward the production of ideas "tends to be fairly liberal, especially on social issues," he adds. Now "those kind of voters really set the tone in a lot of the suburbs."
Consider Monica Frigo, a young clerk who's lived in suburban Park Ridge for 19 years. She remembers when her family was the only one in her neighborhood with a Clinton/Gore sign out front. Now, Democrats "are starting to come out of the woodwork," she says, handing out Kerry/Edwards stickers at a town art fair. Plenty of residents are taking her stickers, including ones that say: "Republicans for Kerry."
Many inner-ring suburbs, within Cook County, have become Democratic. But even in farther reaches such as DuPage County, which has sent very conservative Congressman Henry Hyde to the US House since 1975, Democrats are starting to have a presence. Two Republican house seats in the suburbs, Mr. Hyde's and Phil Crane's, are considered in contention this fall.