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.

(page 3 of 3)


Hillary, junior class vice president at Maine East High School

In some ways, the young people moving into Park Ridge aren’t much different from the Rodhams of 1950: They’re professionals, moving into their first houses, starting families. The median household income in Park Ridge is more than $80,000, about twice Chicago’s. And Park Ridge is still 95 percent white. Politically, though, they couldn’t have less in common with the gruff conservatives: Most are pro-choice, pro-gun control, and pro-government, willing to tax themselves for schools and libraries. These newcomers may have migrated to the suburbs from Chicago, but unlike their World War II-veteran forebears, they didn’t shed their city values as a sign of upward mobility. The older pattern was, you moved to the suburbs when you could afford it and often became a Republican like your neighbors, observes the Chicago political consultant Don Rose. “The move to the suburbs is no longer only based on your rise in income,” he says. “It’s not as much of a status symbol. Your political choices do not seem as totally tied to your economic status as they once were. You can earn $200,000 a year and be a Democrat.”

The Clinton Administration’s moderate politics—signing NAFTA and reforming welfare—helped make these well-to-do white homeowners comfortable with the Democratic Party, says Park Ridge’s Russ Stewart. “They were just a bridge from the party of Humphrey and Mondale and Dukakis, which was deemed as being a party of minorities,” he says. “They put a new face on it, where taxes are not taxes; they’re investments.” Because they balanced the federal budget, the Clintons were also seen as fiscally responsible, a timeless suburban value. Ruy Teixeira, coauthor of The Emerging Democratic Majority, identifies the Chicago area as an “ideopolis” whose professionals benefited from the prosperity of the Clinton years, especially the shift from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge-based economy. As a result, suburban Cook County has become “irretrievably Democratic,” Teixeira says. The change in suburban voting patterns has even spread to the collar counties. Look at Lake County. It was once a rural preserve of dairy farms, resort cottages, and WASPy North Shore enclaves. Only Waukegan, North Chicago, Buffalo Grove, and Highland Park—with its significant Jewish vote—were Democratic. The party didn’t elect its first countywide official until 1970. But as urbanization began creeping up from Chicago, so did Democratic vote totals. It is now the state’s quintessential swing county. In 1996, Bill Clinton won Lake County by 166 votes. The county voted twice for George W. Bush (he squeaked by with 49.9 percent in 2000, and 50.5 percent in 2004), but it dumped the archconservative congressman Philip Crane in 2004, replacing him with Democrat Melissa Bean. Three of its five state senators are Democrats, contributing to the party’s 37-22 majority in a body that was controlled by Republicans just six years ago. “These people are moving out to Lake County, and the realtor never told ’em they had to vote Republican,” says Pete Couvall, vice-chair of the Lake County Democratic Party. Couvall says voters were also turned off by the stridency of the Republican Right, especially its attacks on Bill Clinton. When the Republican Party was dominated by moderates from Midwestern and Northeastern states, it won Illinois comfortably. Once the party was captured by conservative ideologues, Illinoisans shied away. Hillary saw the first stirrings of this movement as a college student at the 1968 GOP convention. It reached its apotheosis in 1994, when Republicans took over Congress. “Newt Gingrich was the best friend we ever had,” Couvall says. “His conservative views, his hypocritical views, what he did to the president.”

The bluish line in Chicago’s suburbs has changed the tint of the state at large. Illinois politics was once marked by the competition between Democratic Chicago and its Republican suburbs. Downstate held the balance of power. In six successive elections, from 1968 to 1988, Illinois voted Republican for president. Since the early 1990s came along, the political line between city and suburb has been erased, and the state has been reliably Democratic.

* * *

While the Clintons helped set the trend in motion, the election that confirmed the Democrats’ ascendancy in Park Ridge took place in 2006, when Dan Kotowski, an antigun crusader with roots in Chicago, won the 33rd district state senate seat. Kotowski is the town’s first Democratic state senator since before the Civil War. He defeated a Republican state senator, Cheryl Axley, by presenting himself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat—"fiscally accountable and socially progressive"—a description that could have fit the Rockefeller Republicans, Hillary Clinton’s last stop in the GOP. A tireless bellringer, Kotowski says he found disenchantment with the Republican Party behind door after door on his trips around the district. “I can’t even tell you the number of people who told me they would never vote Republican again,” he says. “I talked to a guy who said he voted Republican in the last presidential election. He said, ‘I made a mistake.’”

That’s something a young Goldwater Girl, going door to door in 1964, would never have heard.

Photograph: AP Photo/File

Share

Advertisement

Submit your comment