A View from the Suburbs: The once-Republican suburbs have become more Democratic

Jan 1, 2001

Madeleine Doubek
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Addison Township Democrat Linda Bourke Hilbert ran for the DuPage County Board last fall like the placeholder she was supposed to be. She didn't knock on many doors. She didn't mail any campaign literature. On election night, Hilbert was so convinced she would lose, she paid more attention to presidential returns than her own.

A newspaper reporter broke the stunning news to her of her upset victory over incumbent Republican Myrene Iozzo by three-tenths of 1 percent, or about 200 votes. Hilbert became only the fifth Democrat ever elected to the DuPage County Board and the first since 1982. "I'm dreaming. I'm pinching myself" Hilbert told the Daily Herald that night. "I'm used to being a loser. It's just the nature of being a Democrat in DuPage."

Hilbert's incredible victory in an obscure contest likely was helped by her first-place ballot position. But it also symbolizes a solid trend that is the key Illinois story of the 2000 election: The once rock-ribbed Republican suburbs have become more Democratic.

A number of factors are working against Republicans. Suburban population is booming and becoming more ethnically diverse. Those settling in the suburbs from Chicago and elsewhere now are keeping their independent or Democratic political leanings. Despite its most unified and peaceful convention in years, the Republican Party nationally, and often locally, is most often seen as pro-gun, a GOP analyst says. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has established an image as the party that cares about skyrocketing prescription drugs and affordable higher education.

In statewide campaigns. Republicans long have relied on the suburbs to rack up vote margins to offset huge tallies in Democrat-dominated Chicago, but the bedrock has shifted beneath their feet. Republicans are losing races at the local level and failing to turn out the percentages they need statewide to carry the Land of Lincoln. "The days of sitting back and saying we have a safe Northwest suburban district, or Lake, or McHenry or Kane are over," says Art Hanlon, a political consultant who has worked for years for GOP Senate President James "Pate" Philip of Wood Dale. "We have to start doing more bread-and-butter issues."

Democrats won and proved they can continue winning in several once-safe Republican districts. Freshmen Democrats Jack Franks of Woodstock and Susan Garrett of Lake Forest deflected strong Republican challenges to keep their state representative seats in McHenry and Lake counties.

In Lake, county Democratic Chairman Terry Link of Vernon Hills turned back the GOP challenger to his state Senate seat. Democrat Karen May won the state representative seat previously held by Highland Park Democrat Lauren Beth Gash, who herself won 49 percent of the vote in a tight contest with Republican U.S.Rep.-elect Mark Kirk of Wilmette for the 10th District seat being vacated by Rep. John E. Porter. And Democrat Mary Ellen Vanderventer held the county recorder's job after a tough campaign from Green Oaks Mayor Tom Adams.

Elsewhere, Republicans eked out victories they had been expected to win with ease. The Republican Kane County state's attorney nominee nearly lost to a Democrat. In Northwest Cook County, state Rep. Rosemary Mulligan of Des Plaines survived a close call over Mary Beth Tighe, a woman who ran with financial backing from Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Rolling Meadows Democrat Sue Walton gave state Sen. Wendell Jones of Palatine the scare of his political life with a razor-thin race that wasn't determined until well into the day after the election. Appointed to the seat once held by U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, Jones wasn't supposed to face a tough contest. But with significant state party and Senate Democratic financial backing, Walton stunned the GOP by buying air time on Chicago television in the campaign's closing days that drew attention to Jones' support for gun owners' rights. The Walton-Jones race will join the rare few state Senate contests that topped the $1 million spending mark.

The Democrats' foray into the suburbs did not come overnight. Throughout the 1990s, Democrats carved a niche. At the local level, Link and Gash led the charge and were followed by Franks and Garrett.

President Bill Clinton's I-feel-your-pain persona played well in the suburbs in 1992, but he was helped by the ballot presence of Ross Perot. In 1996, the incumbent carried suburban Cook, Lake and Will counties. Clinton never had much of a contest in Illinois from GOP nominee Bob Dole - that's why it's especially significant that Gore did even better in the suburbs than his predecessor.

Four years later, Democrats here and elsewhere seemed lukewarm about ill-at-ease campaigner, Vice President Al Gore, yet Gore bested Clinton by nearly 3 percentage points in suburban Cook and by almost 2 percentage points in DuPage and Lake counties. Clinton did better than Gore in Kane County, but Gore did about a percentage point better than Clinton in McHenry and Will counties.

The core of the suburban Republican base has always been DuPage County, where Philip presides as the longest-serving GOP party chairman. In 1988, George Herbert Walker Bush carried DuPage by nearly 123,622 votes. His son carried it by less than 50,000 votes. And nearly 23,000 more Democratic presidential votes were cast this year compared to 1996.

The DuPage machine showed its age at both the presidential and county board levels. "I don't think anybody saw this coming," DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom told the Daily Herald after Hilbert's upset. "I think we should take this as a wake-up call that, as the GOP, we have to remember we have to continue to work and get our vote out and realize you can't take anything for granted."

State Democratic Party Chairman Madigan took nothing for granted. He is capitalizing on growing numbers of Hispanic and Asian residents in the suburbs and, ironically, on the Republican-crafted end to straight-ticket voting. "That, in traditionally Republican areas, has really helped Democrats," says Madigan spokesman Steve Brown. Republicans, he says, have not paid enough attention to demographic shifts.

From 1990 to 1998, DuPage, Lake, McHenry and Kane collar counties added more than 90,000 Hispanic residents and 33,000 Asian residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. "It's just a question of recognizing that trend and then going after it," Brown says.

While Democrats held their seats in typically Republican suburban areas and nearly picked off two more, Madigan helped a central Illinois Democrat win election to the state Supreme Court, thereby ensuring a Democratic majority could rule on redistricting next year.

The road back to solid Republican ground in the suburbs looks like a long one. "The gun issue has hurt us badly among women," says Hanlon. "Democrats have done a better job of demagoging. When they hear these messages that Republicans are screwing your parents on prescription drugs, it works." Hanlon continues, "Mike Madigan has been very shrewd about exploiting all that. They can play in our districts and we can't play in theirs. "

Madeleine Doubek is assistant metro editor/projects & politics editor for the Daily Herald.