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Proposal to make Chicago a state shows Illinois divide

Whether it's the state's shaky finances, its recent tax hike or strict gun laws, downstate Illinois knows it can always vent its frustration by blaming Chicago.

By Jim SuhrAssociated Press / December 10, 2011

Republican Illinois state Rep. Adam Brown listens to speakers at the state Capitol in Springfield. Brown and Republican state Rep. Bill Mitchell, both from central Illinois' Macon County, are crafting a plan that would split Illinois into two states, separating out Cook County, which has more than 5 million people and is the nation's second most-populous county.

Lisa Morrison/Herald & Review/AP

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Grafton, Ill.

Whether it's the state's shaky finances, its recent tax hike or strict gun laws, downstate Illinois knows it can always vent its frustration by blaming Chicago.

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The metropolis to the north may be Illinois' cash cow, but it dominates the political scene and has for most of the state's 193 years, producing the current leaders of both legislative houses and the governor, who doesn't venture into the hinterlands much but does so more often than his prison-bound predecessor, Rod Blagojevich – also a Chicago guy.

While most downstaters – here a name bestowed on towns even north of the city – are resigned to shaking a collective fist at the Windy City, two central Illinois lawmakers are pitching a unique, if outlandish, solution to eliminating the state's cultural divide: make the Chicago area the 51st state.

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"Downstate families are tired of Chicago dictating its views to the rest of us," said state Rep. Bill Mitchell as he and fellow Republican state Rep. Adam Brown announced their proposal with straight faces at a news conference. "The old adage is true: Just outside Chicago there's a place called Illinois."

Secessionist movements, some more serious than others, have a long history in the U.S. But from the South's attempt to leave the Union to more recent proposals to carve new states out of California and Arizona and make Vermont its own country, these movements involve groups who want to break away.

Not in Illinois. Under the lawmakers' proposal, the state would be telling Chicago and Cook County to get lost. Without the domineering, overly liberal and tax-hungry metropolis, Mitchell and Brown contend, Illinois could be more like GOP-run Indiana.

For some down south in the Land of Lincoln, their resentment toward Chicago is less about politics than values. They are generally more conservative, and more opposed to the state's recent income tax hike, civil unions law and abolishment of the death penalty.

Political pundits pan the proposal as a stunt meant to score political points during challenging economic times, and it has virtually no chance of success, needing the backing of the Democratic governor, Democratic-controlled Legislature and Congress.

Charles Wheeler, a longtime Statehouse reporter who now teaches journalism at the University of Illinois at Springfield, alluded to another north-south Illinois split – the one between Chicago Cubs fans in the north and St. Louis Cardinals down south – when dismissing the idea.

"I think it's goofy. It's more likely I'll be the starting first baseman for the Cardinals next April than for this to pass," Wheeler said.

Even if a split were possible, it could be financially disastrous for downstate Illinois.

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