Rockford has long been a Republican city, which is not surprising considering that industry—at least through the 1980’s and, to a lesser extent, even now—has formed the basis of her economy. Today, however, Rockford is becoming increasingly Democratic. I do not necessarily mean that Democrats have begun to dominate city politics. Even though the mayorship is in its third decade of Democratic control, the city council is still fairly evenly divided, and the last two Democratic mayors, John McNamara and Charles Box, often acted like Republicans—at least in terms of their unabashed support for developers and development. (Our current mayor, Doug Scott, has more traditional Democratic concerns, which is not necessarily a bad thing. For instance, he seems more focused on Rockford’s struggling downtown than on her “thriving” East State Street corridor of big-box stores and chain restaurants.)
Nor am I referring to Rockfordians voting for Democratic candidates for state office, a phenomenon that had more to do, in this election, with current Republican Governor George Ryan’s complete betrayal of his constituency than with party identity. In an election dominated by the Republican Party nationwide, the states of the Upper Midwest—particularly Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin—have returned to Democratic control, and national Republican strategists are already talking about writing off these states—the stronghold of the Reagan Democrats of yore—in 2004. In Illinois, only one Republican candidate for state-wide office, incumbent Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, triumphed. And Republican Winnebago County Board Chairman Kris Cohn—since the election is over, she can drop the “O’Rourke” again—lost her home city by a two-to-one margin, almost the same margin by which she lost the state.
Rockford’s increasingly Democratic nature is more a matter of attitude than of party identity. Six years ago, when The Rockford Institute first became involved in the fight against the judicial takeover of the school district, our call for a return to local control seemed to resonate among Rockfordians. A few months later, a rather conservative Republican candidate for mayor, Timothy Simms, almost defeated incumbent Democrat Charles Box. That fall, voters turned the school board over to a majority who had campaigned on ending federal control, slashing out-of-control spending, and reducing one of the highest property-tax rates in the country.
While candidates and columnists were beating the drums for local control, it became clear that voters and activists were engaged in a tax revolt. Their hopes were dashed when the school-board majority caved in to judicial taxation and put up only a halfhearted fight against overspend-ing, opting instead to try to end the lawsuit quickly. They succeeded, and, as of last June, federal control came to an end; but they lost the board majority in the process, largely because their own repeated requests for additional taxes left their supporters dispirited.
Which brings us to the recent election, when Rockford voters approved the fourth school-district referendum in a row, as well as a one-cent sales-tax increase to build an elaborate $132-million county jail in the heart of downtown Rockford. Such referenda, it might be argued, are the very essence of local control, though only if you believe in popular democracy rather than representative government. But “What kind of person votes to raise his own taxes?” as my colleague Christopher Check asked, the day after the election. Actually, there are two answers: first, the person who doesn’t expect to pay those taxes—the non-property-owner or the welfare recipient, for instance; and second, the person who has decided that he’s tired of taking any personal responsibility for his community’s problems. Both groups, unfortunately, are on the increase in Rockford and across the country. Certainly, the rapid transformation of the fabled “soccer mom” vote from Republican to Democratic (particularly noticeable in the Chicago suburbs) is an indication of the rise of the second group.
In the weeks before the election, I heard numerous people express their concern that, if the sales-tax increase did not pass, the Winnebago County Board would raise our property taxes instead. They had good reason to believe that this would be the case: When the referendum was first announced, county officials declared that the jail would be built even if the sales tax did not pass. But think about the logic at work in the minds of these people, most of whom have never voted for a Democratic candidate: Far better to vote for a sales-tax increase, which will be at least partially shouldered by visitors to Rockford, than to risk even the possibility of a property-tax increase, which we would have to bear on our own.
I understand the temptation. But if Winnebago County needs a new 1,200-bed jail to house an average daily population of 560 (a proposition that has not been proved), then who, in fact, should pay for it? Outsiders, who receive no real benefit from it, or the citizens of Rockford and Winnebago County, whose property will presumably be more secure with fewer criminals on the streets? To the extent that a sales-tax increase does shift some of the burden onto visitors, isn’t that really just another form of welfare?
Before any type of tax increase was passed, there should have been a vigorous, honest, public debate about the need for a new jail and about possible alternatives. (For instance, only about 180 of the average daily population of 560 really needs to be there; the rest are largely awaiting release on bond). But that would have required a certain level of civic commitment, a willingness to get involved in a fight that might not be won. Better to throw some money at our elected officials in the vain hope that they will make the problem go away. Better still if we can take at least some of that money out of someone else’s pocket. We are all socialists now.