Fur Flies Over Control of a Tiny Chicago Airport

Urban-suburban divide reflects national political split between mayors and governors

For a vivid picture of the interests dividing many American cities and their suburbs, visit Chicago's Meigs Field.

This tiny shoreline airport within the city limits is at the center of a tense debate over who controls air travel into and out of the region. But with the debate turning into a bitter feud between Illinois's top two politicians, some experts say it mirrors an emerging rift between urban and suburban interests around the country.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D) aims to bulldoze Meigs Field and turn it into a park. Gov. Jim Edgar (R) has persuaded state lawmakers to seize the field and save it as one of the state's "crucial economic assets."

"It has escalated into a personal duel that has focused a lot of political muscle and a lot of time and dollars on something that is not very important," says Paul Green, a political scientist at Governors State University in University Park, Ill.

In large part, Mayor Daley and Governor Edgar are devoting so much energy to the issue because of the changing composition of their core constituents.

Middle-class residents have fled the inner city for the suburbs, taking their votes with them. This rise of suburban political power at the expense of cities is straining relations between governors and big-city mayors from New York to California, analysts say. The trend is shaping debate on the full spectrum of state issues, from taxation and crime fighting to transportation and welfare reform.

"The key point is the suburbanization of American politics, with suburban lifestyle and suburban government taking over state government," says Mr. Green.

Tension between cities and suburbs dates back at least to the beginnings of the mass exodus of residents from cities after World War II. But the friction has worsened in recent years because of cutbacks in welfare and other public spending vital to cities.

In recent Illinois elections, the shift has become more noticeable, with Chicago's Republican-dominated suburbs and "collar counties" outweighing the vote of Democratic Chicago.

"The new suburban voters do not want to cut off all government benefits to the poor or isolate the cities, but they are very, very conscious of their tax burdens and they don't want their money to be wasted," says Michael Malbin, a political scientist at the State University of New York in Albany.

SUBURBAN migration has also eroded the tax base of many cities, making them more dependent on state legislatures for budgetary support. Finally, since 1990 states have reshaped voting districts more along racial lines according to the terms of the Voting Rights Act. The redistricting has sharpened the divide between suburban and urban voters.

Like many states, Illinois early this decade redrew its political districts after the 1990 Census revealed population growth in the suburbs and shrinkage in the cities. Chicago yielded to its suburbs one seat in the US Congress, one in the Illinois Senate, and three in the Illinois House of Representatives.

Daley has sought to rebuff the suburban challenge by asserting Chicago's autonomy. The mayor's efforts have been especially intense since Republicans won both the statehouse and governor's mansion in 1994.

But Edgar has been swift to respond. He has tried to prevent Daley's offenses from undercutting efforts by suburban Republicans to launch pet projects and curb both taxes and entitlements, often at Chicago's expense. The Meigs wrangle is just the latest of many such clashes.

Edgar failed to persuade Republicans in 1992 to support a proposal by Daley for a new regional airport in southeast Chicago. Since then, Daley has refused to consider other sites and scorned a proposal by Edgar to build the new airport in a suburb. That same year, Edgar thwarted an effort by Daley to build casinos in Chicago.

Last year, Daley created an airport authority with Gary, Ind., torpedoing an effort by suburban Republicans to form a regional airport authority and seize control of O'Hare and Midway airports. This spring Edgar backed down when state GOP leaders opposed his plan to reform school funding by cutting local property taxes and boosting the state income tax. Daley supported the initiative.

The state's two top politicians face widespread criticism for indulging in a vendetta that could thwart bipartisan agreement over many vital matters, including the reform of welfare and school financing. "It certainly is taking attention away from real issues that face the state," says John Pelissero, a political science professor at Loyola University in Chicago.

"The business community wants the mayor and governor to focus on big issues like education reform and find a spirit of compromise," says Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.

But the intensifying feud and divergent positions of Daley and Edgar have muddied the middle ground. In September, Daley beat back a court challenge by the state and shut down the airport. But the state quickly won a stay that kept the shuttered airport intact.

Then, through vigorous statehouse campaigning, Edgar compelled lawmakers on Dec. 4 to authorize the state to take control of the field on June 1. He threatens to ask the legislature next month to approve a new bill giving the state immediate control of the airport.

Daley says Edgar has trampled the principle of "home rule." A state court was scheduled to take up the matter yesterday.

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