I suppose it was appropriate that I first heard the commercial just as we crossed into Winnebago County, returning from a whirlwind weekend trip to Michigan.  At first, the words didn’t register; it was only when I heard the voice of Kris Cohnor rather, Kristine O’Rourke Cohn, since it is an election year, after all—in the last few seconds of the commercial that I woke up and realized just what I had been listening to:

Hello.  This is Jim Edgar.  As your former secretary of state, I know how the office touches everyone.  And we all share in the frustration over the long lines and wait for services.  But I think I have a solution.  I urge you to get to know Kristine O’Rourke Cohn, candidate for secretary of state.  Currently, Kristine O’Rourke Cohn is the county-board chairman in Winnebago County, where she manages 1,800 employees and balances a budget of over $100 million.

People like Kristine.  She’s thoughtful, energetic, and believes government should work for us, not against us.  Kristine O’Rourke Cohn is a proven, professional administrator and will be a breath of fresh, clean air.  I know she has the right experience to cut the long lines and restore people’s confidence in state government.  On November 5, I’m voting for Kristine O’Rourke Cohn for secretary of state.  I urge you to do the same.

In the weeks since, I have heard the commercial dozens of times, on local and Chicago radio stations, though not on WNTA, the most politically conservative talk-radio station in Rockford—which seems a bit odd, since Cohn is a Republican.  (WNTA talk-show host Chris Bowman and Cohn have bumped heads on many occasions, however, and Cohn is not one who forgives easily.)  Every time I hear it, I feel as if I’ve slipped a little further into the Twilight Zone.  Is the Kris Cohn that we know here in Winnebago County really the Kristine O’Rourke Cohn that Jim Edgar (a former Republican governor of Illinois, as well as secretary of state) is endorsing?  Some of the claims in the commercial might make you think otherwise.

Much of the script is simply the obvious spin-doctoring that political consultants get paid enormous sums to produce: Does Kris Cohn really manage 1,800 employees?  Well, there are approximately 1,800 people employed by Winnebago County; Cohn’s actual staff, however, is relatively small.  Like most counties in the Midwest, Winnebago County offers a wide variety of social services through semiautonomous county agencies, most of whose employees certainly do not think of themselves as “managed” by the county-board chairman.  Does Cohn balance a budget of over $100 million?  Well, the county’s budget is around $120 million, and it is balanced every year—though, as county-board member Pete MacKay (a former rival of Cohn’s for county-board chairman) likes to point out, that’s because Illinois law requires all counties to have a balanced budget.  And Cohn herself, embroiled in local political controversies about county spending, has often reminded critics that the 24-member county board approves the budget—she can only make recommendations.  (The county-board chairman only votes in the case of a tie.)

Again, all of that is fairly standard spin-doctoring.  But let’s take it at face value for a moment.  If Cohn really does manage all of the county’s employees and single-handedly balances the county’s budget, then who is to blame for the massive failure of law enforcement in Winnebago County?  For the second year in a row, Winnebago County has the highest crime rate in Illinois.  In a state that includes Chicago and the collar counties, that, unfortunately, is pretty impressive.  But the news gets even better.  While crime rates have dropped all across the state over the past year, three counties have seen their rates rise significantly:?Winnebago, up a whopping 29 percent in the first quarter of 2002; and two predominantly rural counties, Ogle (up 25.1 percent) and Boone (up 8.5 percent), which have the misfortune of being located next to Winnebago County.

And now, as of October 1, Sheriff Richard Meyers has closed the county’s jail annex, turning 96 prisoners back out on the street.  Why?  County budget cuts caused by a decrease in revenue, the result of the recession of the past year and a half.  The answer, according to Jim Edgar’s “proven, professional administrator”?  A brand-new, $130-million jail, financed by a one-cent sales-tax increase, which should further depress the local economy.

The new jail, complete with 1,200 beds, sheriff’s offices, and courtrooms (but, strangely, no parking near the public entrance), would occupy over nine square blocks of downtown Rockford and sit directly across the street from the Rockford Rescue Mission and St. Mary’s Oratory (see “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” The Rockford Files, October).  It’s an open secret that the county has long desired the property on which St. Mary’s stands; now, since the jail would cover the lot in which most of the congregation parks, some parishioners have begun to suspect that Winnebago County hopes to solve the problem of public parking for the jail by making life uncomfortable for St. Mary’s.  The lot, after all, would be the ideal site for a parking garage.  Bishop Thomas Doran, whose devotion to St. Mary’s and the Latin Mass Community of Rockford is well known, may have something to say about that, however.

Since the current average daily population of the Winnebago County Jail is about 560, the county’s decision to build a 1,200-bed facility has raised eyebrows as well.  While Sheriff Meyers argues that the county will fill 1,000 beds per day by 2020, what will happen in the meantime?  Are the additional beds a way to help Cohn balance the county’s budget, by renting them out to other counties and municipalities whose own jails are overflowing?  If so, what impact will that have on the crime rate in Winnebago County, when criminals’ families and friends come to visit them here?

While the spin-doctoring portions of the radio spot provide food for thought, it’s in the more subjective parts of the commercial that Jim Edgar’s voice begins to sound like Rod Serling’s.  “People like Kristine.”  No, people elect Kristine, and in that, she has benefited from her wise decision, years ago, to switch political parties.  Her political positions, however, have not changed: As a Republican, she’s no less liberal than she was as a Democrat.  But in a Republican county dominated by an increasingly Democratic city, Cohn can easily defeat conservative candidates in Republican primaries and Democrats in the general election.  Still, few of those who vote for Cohn and even fewer of those who have had to deal with her politically and professionally, would claim to like her.

Cohn is certainly “energetic” (“thoughtful,” on the other hand, is a matter of opinion), but Edgar’s claim that she “believes government should work for us, not against us” makes the familiar, spine-tingling music begin to swell.  Under Cohn, Winnebago County government has certainly worked for someone; as county engineer Joe VanderWerff declared at a recent public meeting in Roscoe, “My job is not necessarily to promote development; it is to serve the developers.”  When citizens stand in the way of developers’ plans, they evidently become part of “them,” rather than part of “us.”  Just ask Tom and Jan Ditzler, who lost half of their land over two years ago to a road project that still is not complete, despite being well over budget (see “For Keeps! A Christian Defense of Property,” Views, April 2001).  Or H. Ward Sterett, Chronicles’ art director, whose historic home, the oldest in the village of Roscoe, is threatened by Cohn’s renewed interest in extending Perryville Road north to the Wisconsin border.  This, despite Cohn’s angry declaration that the county would not spend “one more cent” on extending Perryville Road after Roscoe Township successfully blocked the project in January 2001 (see “Not in Your Back Yard,” Letter From Rockford, May 2001).  Asked why she had changed her mind, Cohn frankly admitted that she thought that the developers who own land along the proposed route “deserve an answer.”  Her campaign committee’s financial-disclosure forms reveal that those same developers, who have bank-
rolled her local political campaigns, are now helping to fund her run for secretary of state.

All of the road-building and development during Cohn’s tenure as county-board chairman certainly gives a different spin to Edgar’s claim that, as secretary of state, Kristine O’Rourke Cohn “will be a breath of fresh, clean air.”