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Meet the people working to kick Chicago out of Illinois

Supporters behind the New Illinois movement say the Pledge of Allegiance prior to an informational meeting about the organization's plan to separate the state of Illinois from Cook County during a meeting at a hotel in Mount Vernon, Ill., on July 20, 2019. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

It is midday and hot as a firecracker in the historic town of Mount Vernon, Ill.

The sun is nearly unbearable on the asphalt parking lot of the Fairfield Inn out by the highway as a stream of people makes its way inside the lobby; spry retirees in couples; middle-aged people carefully shepherding white-haired parents in their 80s; a few younger folks.

Inside, state Rep. Brad Halbrook, one of the event’s organizers, is on damage control, ricocheting between groups of men in wide suspenders and ladies in T-shirts and slacks. He shakes hands, apologizing, explaining to the crowd spilling through the lobby that they will have to wait for a second session of the meeting they have come to attend — the meeting room is already standing room only. The July 20 event, planned for about 60 people and advertised on Facebook, seems to have drawn around 200.

Ron and Carolyn Carnell, a couple from Hartford, Ill., didn’t take any chances — they brought their own folding nylon chairs and snagged a spot inside the meeting room. Ron made Carolyn forego lunch at the Cracker Barrel so that they could arrive early. “I knew in my heart of hearts this thing was going to be packed,” he says. A former mayor of his small town, he knows a lot of people, and in his circles, the topic of today’s meeting comes up a lot, he says.

On the screen at the front of the room, the first slide of a Power Point presentation hovers: “A Plan for Splitting the State of Illinois.”

In Mount Vernon, a town where attorney and nascent statesman Abraham Lincoln once argued before the state Supreme Court in the dignified old courthouse, Ron Carnell, and all the other Illinoisans in the room, have crowded in eagerly to hear about a plan to secede from the Land of Lincoln.

Or, to put it another way, they’d just like to kick Chicago out.

Over the past two years, the movement to divide the state of Illinois into two states — Cook County in one, the other 101 counties in the other — has been gaining support. In February, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker was pursuing an agenda for Illinois that included new tax and abortion policies, Halbrook refiled a resolution in the state legislature, HR 101, in which he and six co-sponsors asked the U.S. Congress to recognize Chicago as the 51st state. “I hear it a lot from my constituents, that we need to be separate from Chicago,” Halbrook says. “I thought yep, this is what we need to do.”

The resolution, which could be dismissed as simple political maneuvering — plays big at home, but has scant chance of seeing daylight in the legislature — is also backed by several grassroots groups agitating for separation. One of them, Illinois Separation, founded by Collin Cliburn, of Athens, Ill., has 24,000 followers on Facebook, and growing. Cliburn is also holding events at venues from wineries and gun shops to community centers around the state through August and September to capitalize on the cause’s momentum.

G.H. Merritt, who refused to reveal her face for a photograph, is founder of the New Illinois movement. Merritt spends a lot of time telling people what her movement is not. “This is not a racist movement; we are not a white supremacist movement,” she says. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

‘They think we’re a bunch of country bumpkins’

G.H. Merritt, a Lake County woman who founded New Illinois, the group hosting the Mount Vernon event, starts her presentation after the prayer and Pledge of Allegiance. She points out to the crowd — now using New Illinois brochures to fan themselves as the overwhelmed air conditioning loses its grip — that the idea of a state split isn’t new. In fact, groups from either downstate or Chicago have tried to secede from Illinois several times since 1840, when a group of northern counties asked to be given to Wisconsin. (The state line was set above the tip of Lake Michigan in 1818.) In the 1970s, a group of western counties dubbed themselves the Republic of Forgottonia. And in 1981, a Chicago legislator pushed a secession bill through the state Senate, as a public poke at downstate counties for complaining about CTA funding. The bill was tabled by then Speaker of the House George Ryan. Most recently, downstate legislators proposed a split in 2011, after election data showed that in 2010 Gov. Pat Quinn won only three downstate counties — and gained the governorship by carrying Cook County.

But the current us versus them drive to “divorce” Chicago from the rest of Illinois, while it shares elements with earlier efforts, comes in an era of heightened political conversation in America. More importantly, it’s a direct outgrowth of the stubborn urban-rural divide that underlies many of today’s most divisive social and economic issues. “It’s really important to note that this has nothing to do with Democrat or Republican,” says Merritt. “It has to do with urban, rural and suburban. The economies and cultures and needs and interests of non-urban areas are different from those of a big city like Chicago. The problem is, in our state government we have a one-size-fits-all approach and things are foisted on the other parts of the state.”

Nationwide, the urban-rural conflict percolated into prominence in the 2016 election, and has continued to boil over. The New Illinoisans have company in the state separation business: both New York and California are currently facing their own state split movements.

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University of Wisconsin at Madison political scientist Kathy Cramer, author of “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker,” says that people in rural places share “the feeling that we just don’t get our fair share. We don’t get it in terms of resources, but also in decision-making power. Because the people who make decisions, they’re not from here, they’ve never lived in a town like this, they don’t know us and they don’t like us and they don’t respect us. They think we’re a bunch of country bumpkins.”

Cramer, who spent years studying rural attitudes and perceptions through direct conversations in small towns all over Wisconsin, describes a rural resentment and disenfranchisement that she suspects goes back to economic shifts that started in the 1970s. “It’s not new,” she says, “but there has been a new legitimacy given to this idea that there’s a huge difference between us, and it’s not surprising that now we’re seeing it in more places.”

In New Illinois’ Mount Vernon summit, Merritt takes the crowd through a list of grievances, many of which echo the interviews in Cramer’s book: state corruption is so bad, Illinois is a laughingstock; the state fiscal crisis and underfunded pensions spell a financial apocalypse — she conjures an “economic asteroid” headed our way; and since state representation is determined by population, not geography, rural voters aren’t getting the representative government the U.S. Constitution entitles them to. Chicago, because of political dominance driven by population, is walking all over them.

“How many people in here have thought about wanting to separate from Chicago?” she asks. Every hand goes up.

Standing at Lincoln's New Salem Historic Site, Collin Cliburn, of Athens, Ill., is founder of the Illinois Separation movement, which he started on Facebook and now has 24,000 followers. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

'We need to just cut it off and draw the line at I-80’

Across the state on the same Saturday in July, Illinois Separation’s Cliburn is meeting with another group of like-minded individuals. He is planning a run for state Senate based on the separation platform, and is meeting with other people interested in getting separation-minded candidates to run for office.

Cliburn, a 32-year-old flooring installation contractor and carpenter, leads Illinois Separation mainly via Facebook. “I’m a manipulator of social media,” he says, noting that he tried a couple of different names for his group with limited Facebook success, then hit on the more streamlined Illinois Separation — a name that fit nicely on T-shirts, too — as support picked up. “To be completely honest,” he says, “it’s kind of the same things the Russians did. But I wouldn’t consider that meddling with an election because it’s Americans doing it.”

He now sells separation merchandise as a way to fund Facebook advertising, and uses a network of multiple pages to push Illinois Separation forward. His plan is to circulate petitions county by county, urging referendums on state separation as a way to demonstrate widespread support. In April, Effingham County expressed its support for the idea by putting it on the ballot for the next election.

The idea of state secession came naturally to Cliburn, he says — like many people in the downstate counties, he’s been hearing about it since he was a kid. “Back when I was about 8 years old, I remember my dad in a political conversation saying ‘Nah, we need to just cut it off and draw the line at I-80.’ That’s the first time I remember hearing that.”

John Jackson, a professor of political science at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU Carbondale, says that anti-Chicago sentiment has always been a part of downstate thinking — and the state’s politicians have always exploited it. “I’ve lived here 50 years, and (politicians) have been running against Chicago for as long as I’ve been here,” he says. “This fanning of the flames of divisiveness based on geography, class, race, identity politics is practiced by a good part of the leadership of this state. I think in most states that have a big city and lots of rural areas, (rural resentment) occurs. But I’m not familiar with any other case where the political leading class stresses divisive themes as much as they do in Illinois.”

That kind of politics, Jackson says, is rooted in something deeper — like Cliburn’s memory of his father talking about a state split. “Symbolic politics work when they tap into deep-seated, already existing values,” he says. “If you’re rural, you’re supposed to think one way. If you’re urban, you’re supposed to think another way.”

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Cliburn, who counts himself a White Sox fan but says “one night in the city is enough for me,” spent his early years visiting battlefields with his dad, and participating in historical reenactments at places like Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site in Petersburg, where Abraham Lincoln worked as a young man, studying law in his spare time. Cliburn, who had volunteered there since he was 6, was distressed as a teen to see the state government make deep cuts in the site’s budget. “They were taking my history away,” he says, “and maybe that’s when I started getting a little more conservative.”

Like other state split supporters, he is against the recent abortion bill passed by the legislature — “I don’t think taxpayer money should go to pay for an abortion,” — and observes of legalizing cannabis, “The government only wants it when they see they can make money off of it.” But his sense of unease came to a head in 2017 over an issue that’s a common sticking point downstate: gun control. He penned an online manifesto, advocating a state split. “I was just so upset because they were taking away our rights. I said my piece, and it started to get a few hundred shares. And that’s where it all started.”

‘This is not a racist movement’

Merritt gets why Cliburn is intent on the gun issue, and the two frequently compare notes on their efforts to divide Illinois. But guns aren’t what brought her around to the state split idea. “This is not a Second Amendment group,” she says, with a little sigh.

As the leader of New Illinois, she spends a lot of time telling people what her movement is not. She sees a lot of angry comments on her Facebook page, but she lets people vent, unless the comments turn openly racist or violent. “This is not a racist movement; we are not a white supremacist movement,” she tells the crowd in Mount Vernon near the start of her presentation, and mentions that her husband is Hispanic before continuing her remarks on illegal immigration in Illinois. A state in financial crisis can’t afford to spend on schools and services for those who are here without legal permission, she explains. Illinois’ sanctuary state policy “puts our state in rebellion to the federal government.” A ripple of agreement passes through the crowd.

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The tinge of racism is tough to shake when you’re talking secession, Cramer points out. “Part of the rural urban divide unfortunately is racial. I understand the argument that this is not a racial argument. We’re talking about being overlooked and disrespected. And there’s a lot of legitimacy to that. But then you say we’re going to excise the portion of the state with the highest percentage of people of color in it. Because we are so segregated, when you talk about those people in the city, by definition you are often talking about people of color.”

Some people have accused her of racism, Merritt says, rolling her eyes. Dividing the state, she says, could potentially help suffering downstate communities like East St. Louis and Cairo, which have more people of color. “Imagine what we could do for them if the new state was stronger economically.”

She grew up in Lake County

Merritt’s presence adds a sense of suburban participation to the state split movement. She grew up in Lake County, attended Catholic school and helped her dad, a public school teacher and contractor, at his summer job building houses. Starting as a teen, she became immersed in the political movements of the day, including feminism and the farm workers’ rights causes of Cesar Chavez. “They were working on a grape and lettuce boycott,” she says, “and I got a bunch of their literature and would put it on cars in the Jewel parking lot to try to get people to not buy grapes.”

Later, she joined the Jesus people movement, lived in a commune with her husband, and over the years took on other causes, including sponsoring Vietnamese refugees. Though she spent time as a stay-at-home mom to her son and daughter, she also worked for Native American groups, work that inspired her to seek a master’s degree in nonprofit administration. “I’ve always had a big heart for people who weren’t being treated well, I guess.”

Slowly, she began to think that, when it came to state government, she might be one of those people. Struggling during the 2008 financial crisis, she felt other states were more economically healthy, but she couldn’t leave her aging parents and her Illinois home behind to seek better opportunities. “My father, who is now passed away, built my house,” she says. “I just don’t want to sell it.”

Still, paying taxes to a state plagued with corruption and fiscal mismanagement raised her ire — and her activist spirit. “I thought, ‘Why should we be the ones who have to leave? Why don’t we try and fight for our home? What can be done?’ You’ve got a whole lot of people here who are not getting the representative government we are entitled to under the Constitution.”

State Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, at his home near Shelbyville, on July 29, 2019. Halbrook filed a resolution in the state legislature in which he and six co-sponsors asked the U.S. Congress to recognize Chicago as the 51st state. “I hear it a lot from my constituents, that we need to be separate from Chicago,” Halbrook says. “I thought yep, this is what we need to do.” (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

The New Illinois plan

Merritt’s research into the idea of a state split (“I had to make sure it was really doable; we don’t want to be just tilting at windmills”) introduced her to a California state split movement called New California, and soon that organization was mentoring her own — New Illinois, founded in 2018. The roadmap to statehood includes a Declaration of Independence, reading grievances against Illinois aloud on the steps of county courthouses, and eventually a new state constitution.

The idea, it turns out, is not quite as far-fetched as it may sound.

The New Illinois plan relies on Article IV, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, which allows new states to be formed from existing ones, with the permission of the state legislature and Congress. Of course, “those are two big ‘ifs’” says Jackson. “There is no way the Congress is going to start dividing up U.S. states.”

Jackson also points out the other glaring New Illinois assumption — that the five suburban collar counties around Chicago would go along with the new state. When a man in the Mount Vernon crowd raises his hand to ask whether Halbrook believes his colleagues from the collar counties would want to be a part of the split, he pauses before answering. “No,” Halbrook says. “No, I don’t believe they’ll want to.”

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State split proponents point out, however, that three U.S. states, Kentucky, Maine and West Virginia, were formed by state split in the 1800s. Vermont, through a different process, also separated from New York. Some pundits have even suggested that allowing large states to divide might be a way to return some balance to today’s U.S. Senate, where power is currently tilted toward less populous states as population disparity between urban and rural areas continues to rise.

And, in spite of conventional wisdom that holds that, without Chicago, the remainder of Illinois would be poverty-stricken, supporters of the split insist that, without Cook County, the other 101 counties would resemble Indiana in population and economy. “That seems reasonable; that’s probably true,” says David Merriman, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Fiscal Futures Project and an expert in state and local public finance. “But a lot of the collar counties’ economy is tied up with the Cook economy.” If you think Brexit sounds complicated, Merriman says, “This would be just as complicated.”

Halbrook takes a more simplistic view: “They say we can’t make it without Chicago,” he says, his voice rising. “I say we can’t make it with them!”

But parsing the realities behind downstate suspicions that Chicago gets a too-big piece of the fiscal pie isn’t exactly simple. Last year, Jackson led a study published by the Simon Institute, which offers the only current, detailed analysis of fiscal flows between the Illinois counties. “Our findings are that southern Illinois gets back $2.81 for every tax dollar we send to Springfield,” he says, “whereas Cook County gets back 90 cents — less than a dollar. And the collar counties get back 53 cents on a dollar.”

“The basic facts are exactly what I would expect,” says Merriman, “which is that the wealthier counties pay more in taxes than they get in revenue. Illinois is a big state, but two-thirds of the economic activity in the state is in Cook and the collar counties.”

The New Illinoisans take issue with this analysis. “The report is flawed,” Halbrook says. “I don’t know why they cherry picked their numbers, but they did. They didn’t include transportation dollars, for instance. We’re having someone do a new analysis, including all the numbers, but it’s going to take some time to do it right.” Merritt includes a preemptive take-down of the Simon report in her presentation, urging supporters to wait for the new numbers.

“I certainly look forward to seeing that analysis, if they do it,” says Jackson.

Supporters of the New Illinois movement meet with State Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, at a hotel in Mount Vernon on July 20, 2019. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Politicians deepen the divide

Money is a major factor in the state split movement, largely because many rural residents have trouble making ends meet in towns where industry has moved away, good jobs are scarce and taxes feel inordinately high. “There are so many people leaving the state right now because it’s cheaper to live somewhere else,” says Christine Downen, standing at the back of the New Illinois meeting in Mount Vernon, her 81-year-old father by her side. “The only people staying are those who have ground and don’t want to leave it.” Downen, whose family has owned a 40-acre farm for 102 years, has seen the factory that was her town’s biggest employer shuttered and houses all around her go up for sale. She came to hear about the state split because “maybe this is a last chance to save it.”

Across the backroads towns of the state, the situation is the same. “I don’t ask for support,” says Cliburn, “but I’m struggling. My neighbors are struggling. Everybody around me is struggling these days.”

People in rural communities, Jackson says, “really are a part of a world economy and all kinds of things that are happening internationally that are hard to understand and are almost exclusively outside their control. It’s understandable that they feel fed up with that loss of control. So they look for scapegoats, and when someone is willing to offer them easy scapegoats, they are eagerly believed. The problem is that a note of realism is often missing, because leaders tell them that solutions are simple when they are not.”

Cramer also faults politicians for deepening the divide. “I don’t think things are going to change until our leaders play a different tune. At some point we have to get beyond this, or we’re not the United States. At some point, we have to realize we are responsible to one another. And even if we feel slighted, just seceding from each other isn’t going to fix it.”

“You can’t have leaders who pander to the worst,” says Jackson. “You’ve got to have people explain a more realistic view of the future that can be bought into by people in southern and central Illinois.”

But can that clear-eyed view emerge in a state where pitting people against each other has always been a winning political strategy? In 1877, Mount Vernon faced a schism of its own. The town, which had banned the sale of alcohol, was divided when one section split off, forming the village of East Mount Vernon, where drinking would be legal. Things didn’t go so well — the new saloons quickly became a nuisance, and a court ruled that East Mount Vernon wasn’t properly incorporated in the first place. In the end, the town reunited, and the East Mount Vernonites voted whisky drinking back into law in old Mount Vernon.

Was everyone happy? Most likely not. But they worked it out.

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