Suburb shift turns state blue
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In Cook County - where those inner-ring suburbs are concentrated - the trend is even more extreme. In 1996, the suburbs accounted for just 25 percent of the Cook County Democratic primary vote. By 2004, it was 37 percent. The upshot: Al Gore enjoyed a stunning 40 percentage point spread over George W. Bush in Cook County. Four decades earlier, in another tightly fought race, John F. Kennedy's margin over Richard Nixon there was 9 points.Skip to next paragraph
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Demographic change accounts for part of the shift, with newer arrivals including Hispanic immigrants, middle-class workers, and professionals from more liberal states. But many moderate Illinois voters have also become increasingly disenchanted with a Republican Party they see moving away from them on social issues. The result is an emerging Democratic bloc that is often fiscally conservative - antitax, for instance - but culturally more liberal.
"As the national Republican Party has moved farther to the right, especially on issues like choice and guns.... They have lost many mainstream Republicans who are turned off by that kind of position," says Michael Mezey, a political scientist at De Paul University in Chicago.
Luvie Myers is a case in point. She's the mother of three teenagers, the wife of a consultant, who's lived most of her life in Winnetka, an upscale suburb on Chicago's North Shore. Throughout the 1980s, Ms. Myers was a Republican, voting twice for Reagan and for the first President Bush. "He was a class act. Patrician, sensible, educated, very experienced in government - a lot like someone who would live in Winnetka," she says.
But she feels differently about Bush's son, and abhors the current Republican Party. The turning point for her was the rise of the culture wars. "In the 1980s, those conservative people who spent all their time telling you how to live your life were kind of on the fringe," she says. "Now you feel like the Republican platform has espoused these ideas that to me are institutionalized bigotry. I can't stand it."
How people feel about abortion and gay marriage has become a sort of litmus test, she says, and she has a harder and harder time relating to those people who come down on the opposite side of the debate.
Die-hard conservatives certainly remain in Illinois. But many Republicans here are people like Chuck Dressel, whose family has owned an hardware store since 1923. He's says he's Republican because "small business owners are Republicans." But he's antigun, for abortion rights and birth control, and would like to see healthcare extended to more people. He thought the invasion of Iraq "had to be done," but he's concerned about where the war is headed, and how many Americans have died. He's still leaning toward supporting Bush in November - he and his wife usually cancel each other out - but says his mind isn't made up.
"I guess I'm an economic Republican," he says, standing in an aisle packed with nails and bolts. "I'm not really excited about welfare for able-bodied people."
Mr. Dressel lives in River Forest, but neighboring Oak Park, where he runs his hardware store, has become one of the most liberal of the Chicago suburbs, a place that early on moved away from its Eisenhower roots and now exemplifies one of the new political truisms, that people seek out places where their neighbors think the same way they do.
A leafy oasis of top-notch schools and stately homes, but not far from the Loop, Oak Park has become a mecca for left-leaning professionals who want a suburban lifestyle but don't want what they consider the homogeneity or closed-mindedness of the suburbs.It's the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway and home to the largest concentration of Frank Lloyd Wright designs.
If Oak Park is more Democratic than most suburbs, the views of its residents reflect the broader shift that's been taking place in the surrounding area. Those residents are part of what pundits see as the growing base of the Democratic party: more white- than blue-collar, idealistic, highly educated professionals who listen to NPR and go to art-house films.
And they are active in politics. Signs for black Senate candidate Barack Obama began appearing on people's lawns six months before the primary.
Conversations with residents here reveal a rich tapestry of concerns, even if most agree on the man they'll vote for in November. For Kranz, healthcare is at the top of the list, because of how it has affected his own life. His wife, trained as a clinical psychologist, would like to have a private practice but instead designs employee-assistance programs for a company so the couple can get health benefits.