Rural America's clout in Congress eroding fast

For more than a generation, Eldorado, Ill., has known little but loss.

Along Locust Street, the red-brick husks of departed cafes and hardware stores are markers of a prosperity long past - when corn farmers from this fertile crescent fed the US, and Hungarian immigrants poured in to work the coal mines.

Nearly half the storefronts are empty, with cracked, stained window glass. Upended toilet bowls sit behind the doors of the closed town theater, which a plumbing shop uses for storage.

After decades of decline, it seems Eldorado is losing something more: its political voice. Redistricting of Illinois' congressional districts earlier this month essentially left the southern one-third of the state without any representation of its own in Washington.

The story is mirrored in virtually every farming town and coal community from Appalachia to the Sierra Nevada, as the forces of demographic change sweep across the rural landscape. America is no longer a tribe of small towns. It is increasingly a suburban nation, and in this recast country, the country is losing political clout.

The change has been gradual. Rural areas have long been losing congressmen and state legislators. But as state lawmakers nationwide work through redistricting plans this year, it's clear the trend has accelerated.

In some states, rural constituencies have virtually no power anymore. In others, such as North Dakota, which have been defined by their agricultural heritage, more than half the legislature will now come from urban districts.

The shift has altered not only what gets done, but also how - such as a rise in partisanship, some legislators say.

But with more and more Americans now living in the suburbs, change is inevitable, and it has only added urgency to rural lawmakers' efforts to keep themselves - and their constituents - relevant in modern politics.

"There's been a decrease in [rural] influence because of a decrease in population," says Kendall Brace, a redistricting expert at Election Data Services in Washington. "We've seen a continuation of the trend,... but it's also hitting some new states."

Mapped right out of a career

In Illinois, it's hitting Rep. David Phelps - an Eldorado resident and southern Illinois's lone congressman - the hardest.

With Illinois's delegation dropping from 20 to 19, someone will have to lose a seat, and the new district map all but assures that it will be he.

The map divides rural southern Illinois into three districts that each include comparatively large cities in central Illinois, making it almost impossible for anyone from the more sparsely populated south to win.

"There's got to be a fairer map than that," says the trim, middle-aged representative, who claims it is designed only to protect the longest-serving incumbents. He has signed on to a lawsuit started by citizens here that claims the map is unconstitutional.

"It's a different culture down here," he adds, "and what this does is it separates us."

Indeed, somewhere south of Effingham, Illinois changes. Instead of the wide-open prairies, where an expressway overpass can be the highest point for miles, the Midwestern heartland begins to meld with an aspect of Appalachia.

From Eldorado, the spectral blue outline of Kentucky hills rises to the east. Radio stations here offer only country or classic rock. And people speak with an unmistakable twang - a verbal reminder that it's four hours to Memphis and six to Chicago.

After all, it's El-do-RAY-do.

This uniqueness, both demographic and geographic, means that southern Illinois has its own interests - from coal to conservation - that must be preserved, locals say. Moreover, there's a broader concern that agricultural interests could be slighted if southern Illinois's representatives come from cities like Champaign and East St. Louis.

Joe Bramlet, for one, knows the value of having his representative close at hand. The Bramlets have worked this patch of southern Illinois soil since they came out of Tennessee two centuries ago, and Phelps has helped him carry on the tradition, Mr. Bramlet says.

"David has been one of the best friends of farmers we've had," says Bramlet, his skin turned olive by the sun.

So far, this has been a good season. There has been rain, and on this day, his cornfields appear immaculate - a sea of serrated green below the high and cloudless summer sky. With crop prices low, however, he'll still need government subsidies - and a friend in Congress.

Friends of agriculture have been harder to come by, both in Congress and in state legislatures. As growing suburban districts create increasingly suburban legislatures, more state money has been going to beltways and bilingual education at the expense of programs and money to help family farmers.

"A lot of states where agricultural interests have a lot of clout, I suspect you'll see an erosion, despite how important agriculture is," says Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

State Rep. John Maloney has seen it in the 10 years he's been in the North Dakota Legislature. Although his state is the No. 1 producer of a litany of agricultural items - from flax to canola to oats - the House agenda has slowly slipped into a more suburban course, he says.

"We've always respected agriculture as being our leading industry, but I've definitely seen a trend away from protection of farmers," he adds.

Given the new census numbers, the trend should only continue. The growing suburbs of Fargo and Bismarck need more representation, which would come at the expense of rural lawmakers. As an emergency measure, the House may expand the number of seats to keep as many rural members as possible.

While Nevada is considering a similar solution, other states have resigned themselves to losses. Texas, for instance, could lose as many as 10 rural seats - and such losses may reshape more than the agenda.

Already, Texas state Rep. David Swinford says, the declining number of rural legislators has shifted the emphasis on morality in the House.

Without question, many urban and suburban politicians are deserving of the utmost respect, he notes, but countryfolk just come at lawmaking from a different - and valuable - perspective.

"We take more time for family," Representative Swinford says. "We have more of a relationship with the people."

Different political perspective

In many ways, it's the notion that the ideals of community, forged in small towns at county fairs and ice cream socials, can be brought to government.

Indeed, Swinford and others say rural lawmakers tend to be less partisan, in part because they are so far removed from the party machinery that often dominates inner-city politics.

"The urban members are more political than the rural members," says Swinford. "We pay a lot less attention to parties."

It's an opinion that Phelps shares. At a rally in Eldorado's modest community center - little more than an oversized trailer - he plays to that point emphatically: This battle over redistricting is not about parties, and it's not about him. It's about saving a political voice for southern Illinois. It won't be easy, he says.

But that admission doesn't seem to surprise any of the 150 people who wedged their way into the meeting hall taped with red-white-and-blue bunting. Easy is for Chicago. Easy is for St. Louis.

For Eldorado, etched from the black soot of antiquated coal mines and founded on cornfields that no longer yield a profit, nothing has come easy. So Eldorado will fight, as it always has.

"Our character is with people who, for generation after generation, have been determined to live here despite the hardship," says Phelps. "We want to help ourselves, but we need a voice."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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