News Column

Diversity Marks 2nd Congressional District

Feb 25, 2013

Rick Pearson and Bill Ruthhart

Among Illinois' 18 congressional districts, the most geographically and culturally diverse one may be the seat that covers the South Side and south suburbs.

The issues facing the 2nd District and its more than 718,000 residents are a mix of urban, suburban and rural. Violence is a problem in the Roseland neighborhood. There is changing racial diversity in Olympia Fields and Flossmoor. Farming is a top concern in Momence, while folks in Peotone continue a long wait for an airport. At the district's far end sits Pembroke Township, grappling with decay as one of the state's poorest communities.

That's also the playing field for the 14 Democrats and four Republicans who are competing in special primary elections Tuesday to decide who makes it to a special April 9 general election to succeed disgraced former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Last week, Jackson pleaded guilty to converting $750,000 in campaign funds to personal use for lavish spending over the past seven years.

For the political leaders in the district who live far outside Chicago, the election represents a new day -- an opportunity for a new congressional representative after 17 years of feuding with Jackson.

"It's very difficult to represent," said Larry Walsh, the Will County government executive and a former Democratic state senator. "I will feel more comfortable with a new congressman now than what I have been dealing with as county executive the last eight years. The atmosphere is going to be different right off the bat. It will be a different feeling on all sides. One of trying to be productive."

Given the district's makeup, the Democratic nominee is expected to become the next member of Congress. Jackson was AWOL from the campaign trail as he battled a diagnosis of bipolar depression and federal ethics investigations and still won with 63 percent of the vote in November.

But in the 2nd District, Democratic partisanship is among the only unifying forces. Drawn by Democrats for Jackson as a district where minorities make up a majority of the population, the district is split 56 percent African American and 37 percent white, according to the most recent federal census. Among voters, the split is 54 percent black and 34 percent white, according to the mapmakers.

It was the Democrats' desire to ensure the district retained an African American majority that pushed its boundaries southward. More than 180,000 African Americans moved out of Chicago during the previous decade, and Kankakee County's black population could help make up the difference. The district now stretches 55 miles from north to south.

Including Kankakee County also meant the district also now has sizable chunks of rural Illinois -- areas with plenty of land but few voters, forcing candidates to think beyond their urban and suburban sensitivities to ponder questions about agricultural policy. Much of the county previously was part of a much more rural 11th Congressional District until the post-census redistricting.

Still, there's more to Kankakee County than agriculture.

Pembroke Township Supervisor Leon Mondy said he is hopeful the new map lines, along with a new representative in Congress, can help bring jobs to the eastern part of the county. With no industry, population flight has accelerated, and the township, including the village of Hopkins Park, carries a high unemployment rate.

"We really have no infrastructure, no business, and our school is in trouble and on the way of closing because the state has dropped its contributions by about 60 percent. We don't have any industry or the tax base to keep the school going," Mondy said. "I hope that they shine some light and try to work and help us."

The district's median household income is about $46,600, according to the census. But the district's city and south suburban sections are suffering economically. From January through September 2010, the home foreclosure rate was 60.1 per 1,000 homes in that part of the 2nd District, according to data provided by RealtyTrac, a real estate tracking firm. That was the highest rate among what was then the state's 19 congressional districts.

Of the nearly 79,000 votes cast in the district congressional primary last March, 56 percent came from suburban Cook, 33 percent from Chicago, and more than 4 percent each from Will and Kankakee counties.

The district's vast geographical and cultural diversity has been playing out in the campaign through the dominant issue of gun control and gun violence. While urban and suburban Democrats promote their support of President Barack Obama's initiatives to ban military-style assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines and create a universal background check of gun buyers, rural portions of the district emphatically support gun-owner rights.

Of the top three Democrats -- former Rep. Robin Kelly, Ald. Anthony Beale and Debbie Halvorson -- only Halvorson, a former one-term congresswoman from Crete, has opposed an assault weapons ban and a prohibition on high-capacity magazines. But Halvorson also supports a federal gun registry and universal background checks, positions not backed by the National Rifle Association.

Walsh, the Will County executive, is backing Halvorson, a colleague from his state Senate days, though he considers the other top candidates friends he can work with. Walsh's biggest frustration was Jackson's effort to push for control over a Peotone airport for the past decade when it wasn't in the congressman's district.

But mapmakers put Peotone in the new 2nd District, something that Walsh said caused trepidation among Will County politicians of both parties out of fear that it would give Jackson more control. With Jackson gone from the political scene, Walsh said an agreement on moving forward with an airport is more likely.

Still, the controversy about control over the potential future development of Peotone will be hard to tamp down. Only days ago, the Will County Board voted to ensure any governing plan over an airport will have majority representation from the county.

"This was and always will be an airport in Will County," Walsh said. "I could not sit back and watch a governance plan of any kind that Will County residents were not a majority of. ... (And) if that can't be accomplished, then maybe there's not the need of an airport there."

Source: (c)2013 the Chicago Tribune. Distributed by MCT Information Services

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