Am I Blue!

When Hillary Clinton was growing up in Park Ridge, the town—like most of suburban Chicago—was emphatically Republican. Her youthful slide from right to left previewed by three decades a similar, remarkable shift among Illinois voters.

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Park Ridge has gone from Republican red to Democrat blue, just like its favorite daughter, Hillary Clinton


In the fall of 1964, two high-school girls from Park Ridge—Hillary Rodham and her best friend, Betsy Johnson—developed a crush on the same man. His name was Barry Goldwater, and he was the Republican nominee for president.

Today, Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Republican Party have little use for each other. But that campaign season, it was hard to find anyone more devoted to Goldwater’s hopeless cause, even in conservative Park Ridge. Hillary chaired Young Republican meetings in Betsy’s basement, and dressed as a Goldwater Girl, wearing a cowboy outfit and a ten-gallon hat adorned with the candidate’s catchphrase—AuH2O. “We actually set up the Youth for Goldwater headquarters in Park Ridge,” recalls Betsy Johnson, now Betsy Ebeling. “It was right downtown. I remember my sister brought in her sewing machine and sewed red, white, and blue bunting.”

Hillary had been turned on to Goldwater by one of her first political mentors, a conservative-leaning history teacher who encouraged her to read The Conscience of a Conservative, the Arizona senator’s campaign biography. Her youthful infatuation with the Republican Party was reinforced by her father, a crusty, fiscally conservative draper who was so tight with money he paid for the family house in cash and refused to give his children an allowance. In 1960, Hugh Rodham supported Richard M. Nixon for president, and so did his 13-year-old daughter.

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Even as a teenager, Hillary was intensely interested in politics. And in Park Ridge, in the early 1960s, politics meant the Republican Party. Set just beyond Chicago’s Northwest Side, Park Ridge was a train-station Cook County suburb, almost uniformly white, Protestant, and professional. While it wasn’t as tony as the North Shore, it was full of young strivers fleeing grimy, crowded, corrupt Chicago. Hillary’s parents, Hugh and Dorothy Rodham, moved there in 1950 from the city’s North Side. Perhaps foreshadowing the genteel aspirations of its future residents, in 1873 Park Ridge had changed its name from the earthier, urban-sounding Brickton. “The town was very conservative,” remembers Kathy Burgess, who as Kathy Rodgers sat next to Hillary in homeroom at Maine East High School. “There was a big Republican organization there. I can’t remember anything about Democrats at all.”

Yet Hillary’s journey from Republican to Democrat hasn’t made her a turncoat to her hometown’s values. It’s made her a pioneer. The suburb that was once an exemplar of Chicago Tribune-Eisenhower Midwestern Republicanism is now turning Democratic. And Hillary didn’t just presage the change. She helped make it happen. Maine Township, which includes Park Ridge, Niles, and Des Plaines, began voting Democratic for president in 1996—when Hillary’s husband, Bill, was running for reelection. It hasn’t gone Republican since. The Democratic trend has been repeated all over the Cook County suburbs and is happening in the collar counties, too. Not to mention Illinois as a whole, which has become a reliably blue state in recent presidential and statewide elections.


 

Illustration: Peter and Maria Hoey

 

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