Tuesday, April 5, was a beautiful day in Rockford. By the time the sun had burst through our windows in a blaze of red and orange, the chill had already left the air. The pitter-patter of little feet—squirrels on the rooftop; children on the floor below—was accompanied by the excited trills of songbirds. With few clouds in the brilliant, blue sky, the temperature was headed to a high for the year.
It was a perfect day for an election, and the city election office, watching the forecast, had predicted a moderately high turnout. With a three-way mayoral race on the ballot, there was little excuse for voters to stay home.
I had my doubts, however. Having followed the course of the campaign, I didn’t believe that Rockford voters would find any of the candidates sufficiently exciting to vary their normal routine. Turnout, I predicted, would be about the same as the previous mayoral election—possibly lower. And that would benefit the incumbent mayor, Doug Scott, whose Democratic machine could be counted on to get out the vote.
After casting my own vote for independent candidate Larry Morrissey, I came in to the office and called Stephanie Caltagerone, afternoon talk-show host for WNTA, godmother to my daughter, and an avid Morrissey supporter. “When do you want to have me on to explain why Larry lost?” I asked, only partly in jest. Her reaction was predictable, and, while she claimed to be confident that Larry would win, I could tell that she was nervous, too. Every four years, the citizens of Rockford are told that this is the most important election in 16, 20, 24 years. This time around, however, the usual hyperbole might well be true.
While the Democrats have controlled City Hall for 24 years, Doug Scott has been a rather pale reflection of his predecessors, John McNamara and Charles Box. McNamara, elected in 1981, had guided the city out of the deep recession of the early 1980’s—helped, of course, by the Reagan recovery. Box, first elected in 1989, had continued McNamara’s collaboration with local developers, and the city limits had expanded inexorably to the east, butting up finally against Interstate 90. In the long run, of course, the “growth”—big-box stores, chain restaurants, vinyl-sided subdivisions—is unsustainable, but it provided an illusion of prosperity that propelled Box to two reelection victories, despite his administration’s virtual abandonment of the rest of the city and his endorsement of a federally imposed school-desegregation plan that drove Rockford’s property-tax rates to the highest in the nation.
In many ways, Scott took office at an ideal time. Because of the I-90 boundary, the city’s growth eastward had slowed. The desegregation lawsuit was in its final stages, and the school district would be released from federal control in June 2002. Thanks to the efforts of some dedicated merchants, restaurateurs, architects, and investors (Larry Morrissey and his family among them), Rockford’s downtown was turning around. All Mayor Scott had to do was concentrate on jobs and the core city, and he could look forward to several terms in office.
Rockford’s economy, however, needed close attention, and Scott didn’t provide it. The effects of NAFTA, permanent normal trade relations with China, and the corporate mergers and consolidation of the 1990’s had begun to hit Rockford hard, and the damage was only compounded by the general collapse of the American economy in the wake of September 11. Scott didn’t put much effort into fighting to retain manufacturers who make up the core of the local economy, and the Rockford area lost over 11,000 jobs during his term. With unemployment in the city in the low double digits, few voters were excited about the prospect of giving him another four years.
“In a two-man race,” I wrote in this space in March, “Morrissey might well have a chance at beating Doug Scott; in a three-person race, however, Scott will return to the mayor’s office.” Despite Doug Scott’s lackluster performance, as the race shaped up, I saw little reason to revise that prediction. While the Republican candidate, Gloria Cardenas Cudia, had little money, she did have the party label, even though some prominent Republicans were publicly supporting Morrissey and more were quietly doing so. Morrissey’s campaign was frustratingly content-free; while he mercilessly exposed Doug Scott’s failures as mayor, he offered very few specific proposals of his own, preferring to talk about “leadership” and “vision” and “results” and “participation” and “lines of communication”—not the sort of campaign rhetoric that guarantees a high turnout on election day.
And, in fact, as the sun set in a glorious display of oranges and purples that evening, the local news stations reported that turnout had been lighter than predicted. In the end, over 13 percent of the voters who had come to the polls in 2001 simply stayed home. It should have meant that my prediction came true.
The Democratic machine did its job: Doug Scott received only 835 fewer votes than he did in 2001—a loss of 5.75 percent, which meant that he actually captured a larger percentage of those who did vote. The big surprise, however, was that the election turned out not to be a three-person race at all. While Cardenas Cudia never had a chance of winning, or even of placing second, she scraped together only about 500 more votes than Doug Scott lost. With turnout down by about 5,200 votes, Morrissey picked up the rest of the difference, vaulting ahead of Doug Scott by 4,613 votes. The mayor’s office in the second-largest city in Illinois had gone to a 36-year-old independent.
I did get something right: “When the votes are counted on April 5,” I had written, “the Republican Party will likely become the third party in Rockford.” In fact, that’s an understatement: It’s become more of a footnote than a party. In their act of self-immolation, however, the Republicans helped accomplish something that they had been unable to do themselves: bring to an end the long night of Democratic rule in Rockford.