© 2023 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Wake Up! Donate $91.90+ to the Year-End Drive and receive the 2023 Murrow Mug. Support continued journalism.
Illinois Issues
Archive2001-Present: Scroll Down or Use Search1975-2001: Click Here

Squeeze Play: Southern Illinois was forced to give the most ground on the new congressional map

Next month, voters in two Saline County townships will discover just how much the state’s political landscape has changed. After decades of choosing among familiar home-grown pols, Democrat Glenn Poshard, say, or Democrat David Phelps, these southern Illinoisans are about to get to know Tim Johnson, a Republican from faraway Urbana who wants to represent them in the nation’s capital.

Voters in the central Illinois city of Decatur will see new names on the ballot for U.S. House, too. As will voters in Chicago’s Hispanic neighborhoods. 

In fact, there are at least three key congressional primary contests this spring, two centered in Chicago and one in an oddly shaped district that stretches from Rock Island to Macon County. But there’s no question southern Illinois faces the biggest political shuffle. And that’s where the fall’s most-contested general election race is shaping up. 

These shifts are the result of the nation’s once-a-decade exercise in congressional redistricting. Because Illinois didn’t grow as fast as other states, it will lose one of its 20 districts next year. And because population growth within the state lagged in southern Illinois, that region was forced to give the most ground.

On March 19, all Illinoisans will confront for the first time the dramatically different congressional boundaries approved by the General Assembly last year. The new 15th District, for instance, covers a wide swath of central Illinois’ rich farmland, from Livingston County south through U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson’s home base in Urbana. It then hugs the eastern border of the state, hooking south just enough to capture U.S. Rep. David Phelp’s home in Eldorado at the northeast corner of Saline County.

Rather than face Johnson, Phelps opted to take on another incumbent, Republican Rep. John Shimkus of Collinsville, in the new 19th District, which encompasses a sizable chunk of southern Illinois and some of the Metro East area. 

For many in the southern reaches of the state, this battle will be the focus of the state’s congressional elections come November. That’s likely the case for those beyond Illinois, too, because the outcome of the race in the 19th could affect Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert’s ability to hang on to his slim six-seat majority in the U.S. House. And the contest could get extra attention simply because Hastert, from suburban Yorkville, is an Illinoisan himself. 

At the least, partisan control of the state’s delegation is at stake. With only 19 seats, Democrats and Republicans will no longer be evenly matched, as they have been for the past seven years. 

Both parties are primed for a hard-fought — read big spending — showdown. “The jury is still out on how [this race] will rank nationally, but we expect to spend more than we have in the past,” Shimkus says.

For now, there’s a primary to get through. Yet, while Phelps faces a challenge from little-known and underfunded Democrat Vic Roberts, a retired coal miner from Taylorville, he’s already looking ahead to the Shimkus race.

Known throughout the vast rural stretches of his southern Illinois congressional district as a gospel performer, Phelps was singing a different tune last May. As negotiators struck a rare bipartisan deal on new district boundary lines, the socially conservative Democrat from a mining enclave at the edge of Saline County discovered the blues: He’d been chosen as the sacrificial lamb in the plan to cut the size of the delegation.

“The goal was to create districts that no one would have to lose,” says GOP remap point man Mike Stokke, a top aide to Hastert. 

Early on, the chances for that looked good. With Democrat Rod Blagojevich foregoing a re-election run to pursue the governor’s mansion, negotiators initially thought his 5th District could be folded into other Chicago-area districts. But slow growth in southern Illinois put the spotlight on Phelps. 

To accommodate Republicans and Democrats, negotiators drew a map that would pit the second-term congressman against freshman Tim Johnson in a district that stretches more than 200 miles from Streator to Eldorado.

The move drew sharp reaction from political leaders in the south, primarily because the population base of each of the new districts that touches the region is not in southern Illinois.

The new 19th, drawn to favor Shimkus’ re-election, leans Republican and encompasses an estimated two-thirds of the territory Shimkus represents. It touches the Kentucky border on the southeast and runs northward into the neighborhoods of Springfield’s south side. Rural areas around Effingham, Mount Vernon and Jerseyville were combined with such urban centers as Collinsville and the capital city. 

Shimkus, who was elected to Congress in 1996, is a former Madison County treasurer. He sports a solidly pro-business Republican record in Congress. “I’m a conservative Republican. I’ll keep spreading that message to the new parts of the district,” he says.

In the 106th Congress, he and Phelps parted ways on a proposed Patients’ Bill of Rights, with Phelps voting “yes” and Shimkus voting “no.” But while the two former teachers also differed on a trade agreement with China, they agreed on such social issues as banning so-called “partial birth” abortion and requiring gun show background checks.

Shimkus acknowledges Phelps may have a leg up when it comes to support from organized labor, but he says he anticipates gaining some union backing simply because he will have access to Hastert — assuming Republicans remain in control of the House after the November election.

“I’ll never have a 100 percent rating from the AFL-CIO,” Shimkus says. “But I will get some labor support.”

In the 2000 presidential election, only 41 percent of voters in that new district supported Gore. Still, Phelps is counting on two things to swing votes his way. For one, his conservative ideology jibes better with voters in that region than that of the environmentally minded former vice president, who may not have engendered support in the economically ravaged coal mining industry that dominates the southern part of the state.

Phelps also is counting on getting support from southern Illinoisans angered that new district lines mean their representatives could live as far away as Urbana or Collinsville. 

Johnson, for instance, talked of his desire to serve central Illinoisans when he was vying for the open 15th District seat in 2000. Now the attorney and former state representative will have to alter his campaign pitch to include the words “southern Illinois.” 

Johnson, who prides himself on constituent services, took six months to open a district office in Bloomington — just 45 minutes from his Urbana office. If he wins, he’ll be faced with trying to find a way to connect with voters at least two hours away in Eldorado.

With Phelps facing off against Shimkus, however, Johnson is enjoying a rare free pass as a freshman lawmaker and has no known opponents as he heads toward a second two-year term.

The race in the 19th isn’t the only one to watch as Illinois’ long election season begins to heat up. There’s a marquee primary match-up in Chicago’s staunchly Democratic 5th District, where an open-seat battle is brewing between two well-funded and well-known Democratic candidates.

Incumbent Rep. Blagojevich opted for the governor’s race. And former President Bill Clinton’s aide, Rahm Emanuel, is expected to tap Mayor Richard Daley’s political power base in an effort to win that seat. But Emanuel faces a stiff contest with former state Rep. Nancy Kaszak, who lost a prim-ary bid to Blagojevich when the two ran for the congressional seat in 1996. Among the six other Democrats who filed is Peter Dagher, also a former, though less- visible, aide to Clinton. 

The winner of the Democratic primary in the 5th — home turf of legendary former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski — is regarded as a shoo-in for victory in November. 

Emanuel, who was a senior adviser to Clinton, and Kaszak have already tapped powerful pipelines of campaign cash. 

Emanuel, who quit the White House in 1998 to return to Chicago as an investment banker, was finance director for Daley’s 1989 mayoral campaign. He also was former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon’s deputy finance director when the Illinois Democrat made his first bid for the Senate in 1984.

Emanuel’s political and fundraising connections may be top-notch, but Kaszak argues she is more connected to the district’s large Polish community through local activism and her role as a state lawmaker from 1993 to 1996. “I’ve lived in the district for 25 years. 

I have roots in this community,” she says, emphasizing that she thinks Emanuel merely “parachuted” into the district to take over Blagojevich’s seat in Washington, D.C. 

This district, which extends from the lakefront to O’Hare airport, encompasses the Lakeview neighborhood, which Kaszak represented in the Illinois House. She has backing from EMILY’s List, an organization dedicated to helping fund pro-choice women candidates.

But while Kaszak may be best remembered for her neighborhood activism in trying to limit night baseball games at Wrigley Field, Emanuel helped shepherd the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress. The issues in the district mirror those in other districts across the nation: prescription drug costs, health care costs and job security.

“The open seat in the 5th has all the makings of being a real donnybrook,” says Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, who also is chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party.

In the nearby 4th District, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez faces a potentially serious Democratic primary challenge from lawyer and fundraiser Martin Castro, who, as part of the incumbent protection plan put into play by the makers of the new map, was drawn out of the district by just a few hundred feet. 

This new district is similar to its 1990 Hispanic-majority predecessor, a thin, horseshoe shaped design created in response to the Voting Rights Act of 1982. Nearly three-quarters of its residents are Hispanic, according to 2000 U.S. Census figures. Like the 5th, this district leans heavily Democratic, with 78 percent of its voters casting ballots for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.

Brown says Castro, a former member of the Chicago Library Board, may present a tough race for Gutierrez. But, he contends, the immigration rights activist will likely come out on top. “I think Gutierrez is a pretty well established political figure, and I suspect he will be very hard to beat.”

Gutierrez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, is a former cab driver, social worker and Chicago alderman. After winning tougher elections in 1992 and 1994, he has cruised to victory in each of his last three bids.

But, pointing to the incumbent’s activism on issues affecting Puerto Rico, Castro questions Gutierrez’s agenda. Though he doesn’t disagree with the importance of immigration issues or problems Puerto Ricans might have with U.S. government policies, Castro says that’s not the only thing a congressman should be known for at a time when there are issues to be dealt with back home.

“[Gutierrez’s agenda] doesn’t mesh with the needs of people in his district,” says Castro, who touts his efforts to improve educational offerings in the inner city as an example of what he’ll do if elected.

John Joseph Holowinsky, who has run against Gutierrez before, also filed as a Democrat. 

At the western edge of the state, meanwhile, voters face change of another sort. Republicans have apparently given up trying to unseat 10-term U.S. Rep. Lane Evans of Rock Island. His 17th District was redrawn to lean more decidedly Democratic. 

In the 2000 election, for example, more than 53.5 percent of the vote in the region covered by the new district went to Gore.

Evans, described by most as “solidly liberal,” fended off former Republican TV anchor Mark Baker for three consecutive, high-profile elections. 

In the memorable 1998 race, Evans announced he had Parkinson’s disease, yet still overcame Baker and an influx of dollars from national GOP sources.

Nonetheless, Republican voters in the expansive 17th, which stretches southeast in an elongated arc to Decatur, will see political newcomers Pete Calderone, a fishing tackle salesman from Galesburg, and Tony Rees, an accountant from Aledo, on the ballot, with the winner facing Evans in November. Rees, who has never held elective office, says the economy likely will be the big issue in the race. Blue-collar workers in that district have been rocked by plant closings in the Quad Cities and Decatur.

“Thirty-dollar-an-hour jobs with great benefits are being replaced by eight- and 10-an-hour jobs with few benefits,” says Rees. “We need economic leadership in Congress. We need to restore some of our economic base.”

But with Evans and other incumbents across Illinois running in districts designed to favor their re-election chances, the eyes of the state — and possibly the nation — will be turning next fall to the match-up between Shimkus and Phelps.

In the 1970s, the Phelps Brothers were on tour as a gospel group, traveling to churches and events throughout what will be the new 19th District. When the political bug bit David Phelps, the troupe began setting up in parking lots of local Wal-Mart stores, where they would sing from the back of a pickup truck and tell anyone who wandered by that they should vote for the young man leading the songs.

“We’d cover 10 counties in a day,” says Phelps.

Though he doesn’t anticipate revving up the truck in 2002, Phelps won’t guarantee he’ll put a lid on his singing voice as he attempts to keep hold of a seat in Congress. “You’ve got to use your talents to try and get your name and message out.” 


Kurt Erickson is the Statehouse bureau chief for The Pantagraph of Bloomington.

Illinois Issues, February 2002

Related Stories