NR Digital

Where the Sidewalk Ends

by Kevin D. Williamson

Danger and despair in Pat Quinn’s crumbling Illinois

East St. Louis, Ill. — ‘Hey, hey craaaaaacka! Cracka! White devil! F*** you, white devil!” The guy looks remarkably like Snoop Dogg: skinny enough for a Vogue advertisement, lean-faced with a wry expression, long braids. He glances slyly from side to side, making sure his audience is taking all this in, before raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge. Luckily for me, he’s more like a three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg, a few inches shy of four feet high, probably about nine years old, and his mom — I assume she’s his mom — is looking at me with an expression that is a complex blend of embarrassment, pity, and amusement, as though to say: “Kids say the darnedest things, do they not, white devil?” It’s not the last challenge like this I’ll get here where the sidewalk ends, or the most serious one. I start off in Hinsdale, Ill., hometown of Pat Quinn, America’s Worst Governor™, a borough of stone mansions and yoga-panted women with vastly complex Starbucks orders, where I admire the Gordon Abbott house designed by the draftsman William Drummond from Frank Lloyd Wright’s shop, and then journey Marlow-like down U.S. 55, the dyspeptic alimentary canal of Illinois, from the shadows underneath the gloomy turret of the Joliet penitentiary to the stagnation of Normal and Bloomington, across the vast stretches of lightly populated Corn Belt and through the almost-as-empty state capital at Springfield, where the only sign of life is a convention of legionnaires in their jaunty, flare-intensive garrison caps, then onward and downward toward the Mississippi until finally arriving at my terminus in East St. Louis, where instead of meeting my Kurtz I get yelled at by a racially aggrieved tyke with more carefully coiffed hair than your average Miss America contestant.

If you seek a monument to Governor Pat Quinn, take a good long whiff of the despair and decay around here. If his political career is indeed euthanized this November, they should bury its rotting carcass right here in East St. Louis, like Christopher Wren at St. Paul’s Cathedral: Lector, si monumentum ad Pat Quinn requiris, circumspice. If this is the Land of Lincoln, then Pat Quinn is the gubernatorial John Wilkes Booth.

The bookends of Governor Quinn’s plan to reverse the fortunes of his ailing state were (1) a public-works program that he promised would ameliorate the state’s physical decay while creating — Pollyanna herself snorts derisively — 400,000 new jobs, and (2) an anti-violence program to turn around the relentless campaign of murder that has terrified and exasperated Chicagoans referring to their city as “Chiraq” — say it “chai-RACK” — a linguistic play on the fact that during the height of the Iraq War there were months in which more Americans lost their lives to violence in Illinois’s cultural capital than in Nouri al-Maliki’s Mesopotamian snake pit.

The new anti-violence initiative, no surprise, has been roughly as successful as having Bob Beckel dance the lead in Giselle. Chicago’s civic leaders have felt themselves obliged to launch a campaign against saying “Chiraq,” which pretty much tells you nine-tenths of what you need to know about the state of affairs in that city. The other tenth is this: The anti-violence program has not reduced crime and is itself the target of a federal criminal investigation into possible misuse of the $55 million in funds it has received. The Illinois auditor general has noted “pervasive deficiencies” in the program’s financial recordkeeping. The program seems to have been converted into a slush fund — the money was appropriated, and then local aldermen were consulted as to which organizations they’d like to pour that money into. A big chunk of it went to a program run by the husband of a Quinn ally, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown. That’s Illinois for you: turning an anti-crime program into a criminal racket.

Other investigations are under way, including one into improper hiring practices at the state department of transportation, regarding whether Democratic cronies were parked in government jobs through illegal political patronage. Quinn ally Carmen Iacullo “retired” unexpectedly when the investigation was opened. Pat Quinn, who has always campaigned as a reformer, is at the center of a compound sewage tornado of official misdoings.

As for those 400,000 new jobs, the Associated General Contractors of America, a.k.a. the builders’ lobby, calculates that construction employment tanked in the wake of the public-works campaign. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that there are nearly 20,000 fewer people employed in Illinois today than when Governor Quinn took office, even though the population has grown. The reason? Hostile business climate, high taxes that are only getting higher under Governor Quinn, and the fact that the economy seems to be suffering from a terminal case of being dead. Governor Quinn promised an infusion, but hasn’t even stanched the hemorrhage. 

Public-works projects, however, aren’t simply about connecting unemployed people with government-issued paychecks. Public works are conventionally intended to be works that benefit the public. There’s zero evidence of that having happened here. East St. Louis calls to mind any number of locales — Detroit, Calcutta, Monrovia — none of which you’d want on the poster for your reelection campaign.

East St. Louis in fact has a strangely rural feel to it, owing to the fact that the abandoned homes, vacant lots, and public spaces have been allowed to become so unkempt and overgrown that as you drive through sections of the city’s center, tall verdant walls of foliage press upon your car on either side, sometimes nearly meeting canopy-like overhead, giving the urban streets the feeling of a country lane. What really bakes your noodle is realizing that behind those Amazonian clusters of weeds and wildness that have encroached on the asphalt are, maybe ten or twelve feet back on either side, sidewalks, or the ruins of sidewalks, and, behind them, the remains of houses and other buildings, some of them long vacant, some of them burned, their husks left standing where they are — and some of them occupied. Every 500 feet or so, you come across the homestead of some industrious citizen who keeps his dwelling in fine trim and excellent repair, and these gaps are like core biopsies into the tumor-riddled tissue of the city: They expose the adjacent remains of crumbled and uprooted sidewalks, vast piles of garbage, the ghost architecture of stripped foundations. One older gentleman is just mowing the hell out of his lawn, stopping occasionally to wrestle with the pull-cord starter on his mower, assaulting the grass like it owes him money. On either side of him is urban jungle taller than he is, taller than all of the corn in the cornfields I passed on the way here.

I don’t like his odds.

The encroaching vegetation leaves the motorist with no option but to drive in the middle of the street. Unfortunately, the pedestrians are left with only the same option, and two women make their way slowly down the street, glaring at my oncoming car like Davy Crockett staring down a bear. When the vegetation recedes, exposing the underlying urban blight, it is shocking: Even the Planned Parenthood building is barred up, and the state department of human services building is surrounded by barbed wire, both of which facts surely are of some concern to the slender and lightly dressed young women who — before 10 a.m. — are attempting to make intense eye contact with any and all passing vehicles, one of the few signs of commerce on display. But civic life is not entirely dead: A group of volunteers is cutting a ribbon beneath a billboard showing an abused canine over the slogan: “Chains are for football fields, not dogs.” I stop to talk with them and am met by a much more grown-up version of my three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg, who raises his hands to his chest and flashes two “W” gang signs at me, the universal banger shorthand for “west side.” In this context I do not know what “west side” means, but the gesture — ring and middle finger together, index and pinky extended — is the semiotic inverse of the Vulcan gesture that goes along with the salutation “Live long and prosper.” I do not share this observation with my interlocutor.

In search of commerce, I swing over to the Casino Queen hotel, nightclub, and RV park, “Home of the Loosest Slots,” where the action is slow. Despite the ample free parking and the shuttle service to Cardinals games across the river, revenue is down 15.2 percent compared with this time last year. Riverboat gambling has been legal in Illinois since 1990, and video poker was legalized in 2011 — expressly as a measure to pay for Governor Quinn’s $31 billion public-works program. (The original video-gambling bill was passed in 2009, but was held up by court challenges until 2011.) The riverboats put up a fuss that these new, even-lower-rent operators would bite into their business, and they seem to have been correct. I chat for a moment with an older guy playing video slots, and he says that he comes here because there’s nothing better to do. This being Illinois, he is of course a retired state employee, whiling away his pension in front of the blinky lights and zoinky sound effects. But he’s contributing to another pension: This casino was sold by its operators to its employees a few years ago, and its stock is owned by their retirement fund — which means that those declining revenues must be inspiring some acute financial puckering among the pit bosses and desultory cleaning crews.

East St. Louis gets plenty of the downside of the casino business, but if it’s getting any of the upside, it’s hard to spot it. In this 98 percent–African-American city, the only people I see doing anything like legitimate and productive semi-private-sector work are white guys in pickup trucks, namely the Lowry Electric crews who are out working on streetlights. Half of the working-age adults in East St. Louis do not work, about half of the city’s residents receive a welfare payment of some sort, 60 percent of households earn less than $25,000 a year — and 30 percent earn less than $10,000 a year. Jennifer F. Hamer, a scholar of low-income urban life, reports that there are at least 100 toxic-waste sites in the city.

The place may be dismal, but the place-names are inspirational: Jackie Joyner-Kersee Park, Miles Davis Elementary School, the Katherine Dunham Museum. I take a turn down Barack Obama Avenue, which looks exactly as it should, and head out of town. I pass a black Chevy S-10 pickup truck that is carefully navigating the urban jungle and the rubble, its vanity license plate reading: “So be it.”

The proverb among Pennsylvania politicians is that their state is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh separated by Kentucky. The problem with Illinois is that it is unipolar: There’s Chicago, and then there’s everything else. Half the people I speak with have never heard of Pat Quinn. Certainly not the two weathered-looking women I meet at the Dairy Queen in Troy. They tell me that they are in the furniture-restoration business; judging by the contents of their pickup truck, they are in the furniture-restoration business in roughly the same sense that Fred Sanford and his son, Lamont, were antiques dealers. (They are on my mind; earlier in the week, I passed a building with its roof bearing the inexplicable graffiti: “We’re sorry Redd Foxx!”) Repeating a story I’ve heard maybe two dozen times in small-town news reports over the last couple of years, they had been fixing up old furniture and other finds and then selling them periodically from their home — when the local functionaries of the license raj informed them that they were having too many garage sales and would henceforth need a special permit. When they tried to explain their situation — this is how they pay the grocery bill and make rent — things got worse. If you buy something with the intent of reselling it, then the regulation says you no longer are engaged in a garage sale, but are operating a retail enterprise, requiring business permits, tax stamps, storefront, etc. I ask them what they’re going to do, and the solution they seem to be leaning toward is: move. They will not be alone: As Benjamin VanMetre of the Illinois Policy Institute makes the numbers, Illinois loses one native-born resident every ten minutes, with annual domestic out-migration running from 30,000 to 50,000 in a typical year. If not for international immigration, the state’s anemic population-growth rate would be negative. People continue to move to Chicago, but places such as rural Boone County, near Rockford, are losing population.

There is an enormous downside to Chicago’s political domination for the rest of Illinois. I stop by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce office down the street from the capitol in Springfield, past the inevitable sad row of video-gambling establishments — the Tin Can Pub, D. H. Brown with its banner announcing a sale on frozen vodka lemonade and its “Get your game on!” motto — and find the place abandoned, the senior staff off in Chicago, interviewing gubernatorial candidates. I wonder what they’re asking Pat Quinn, and what he’s telling them.

Chicago’s homicide problem has made national headlines, including one over a long essay in this magazine (“Gangsterville,” February 15, 2013). Embarrassed by the city’s increasingly lawless reputation, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised everything short of martial law to get a handle on the situation, and the Chicago-centric governor threatened to send out the state police when 82 people were shot over the Independence Day weekend. But bad as Chicago is, poor little East St. Louis, with 1 percent of Chicago’s population, has a violent-crime rate that is five times higher. Your chances of being the victim of a violent crime in Chicago are 1 in 99 annually; your chances of being the victim of a violent crime in East St. Louis over the same period are 1 in 20 — that’s one unlucky cast of the icosahedral Dungeons & Dragons die. Other Illinois communities also have higher violent-crime rates than Chicago’s.

Governor Quinn, as unthinking and conventional a Democrat as one could hope for, in the wake of that Chicago carnage demanded legislation to ban assault weapons, limit magazine capacity, and expand background checks — in a state in which practically none of the homicides are committed with so-called assault weapons, involve high-capacity magazines, or are the deeds of people who submit themselves to background checks by purchasing their firearms in licensed dealerships. The great majority of those charged with shootings in Chicago have prior criminal records and would never pass even the most rudimentary background check, and while the Chicago police seize a great many illegally possessed firearms, the state has a positively negligent record when it comes to prosecuting people for those gun crimes: Most of those caught with illegal guns are not charged under the relevant statute, and among those who are convicted, only 12 percent ever receive a jail sentence — and most of those sentences are for one year or less. In 2013 alone, nearly 100 Chicago-area offenders who had been dispatched to jail for a few months on gun charges were subsequently arrested for shootings and murders.

Pat Quinn might look okay from the vantage point of Hinsdale. But then, everything looks pretty good when you’re rich and safe. Most of Illinois does not live in Pat Quinn’s gilded hometown. In 2012, the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling opinion-research firm rated him the country’s least popular governor. That same year, the loopy-Left Daily Kos reported that he was booed offstage at his own Governor’s Day rally at the Illinois state fair — and that U.S. Representative Danny Davis was drowned out by a chorus of derision when he tried to speak up for the governor. Former Chicago mayor Harold Washington, who hired Pat Quinn as the city’s revenue director and fired him less than a year later, said that hiring the man who would go on to become governor was his “greatest mistake,” calling Quinn a “totally and completely undisciplined individual who thinks this government is nothing but a large easel on which he can do his PR work.”

But he’s not even that good at the PR work. When Hermene Hartman, the publisher of an African-American magazine, praised Quinn’s Republican rival, Bruce Rauner, the Chicago race-grievance industry went into overdrive, with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Neil Steinberg comparing her to Jews who “collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, helping them to round up their own people in the hopes they’d be the last to go.” The Quinn campaign merrily tweeted out the story, only to delete the tweets and apologize after enduring withering criticism to the effect that maybe a bunch of white guys shouldn’t be calling a black woman a race traitor. Orlando Watson, who runs African-American outreach for the RNC, was unsparing: “The only traitor here is Quinn, who, after winning support from black voters in 2010, has failed to create real job opportunities for those who need it most and continues to block children from access to quality schools.”

Illinois hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since 1988, and the last time it elected a Republican governor, it got a crook: George Ryan did five federal years on corruption charges, and his disgraced exit brought to power Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who got 14 years for corruption. Illinois is not exactly tea-party country, but as of late July the reform-minded Rauner was leading by almost three points in the poll average on a growth and tax-reform platform.

There is a great deal of room for reform. In 2011, Governor Quinn signed into law an enormous state-income-tax increase — a “temporary” measure that was intended to be used to settle the spendthrift state’s outstanding accounts. In 2014, he proposed making that temporary measure permanent. The tax hike had been sold to voters as an ad hoc expedient necessary to pay unpaid bills and to stabilize the state’s dysfunctional public-employee pension plans. But that didn’t happen: Tens of billions in new revenue were collected, but the outstanding bills in fact increased by $500 million in the two years after the tax hike. The pension system is as underfunded as ever: Governor Quinn’s sole solitary move in the right direction — to reduce the state’s burden for future retiree health benefits — was so clumsily constructed that Republican and Democratic justices on the state’s highest court came together to throw it out. The unfunded pension liabilities are growing at $21 million a day.

Steve Reick, a Harvard, Ill., tax lawyer who talks wistfully of the days when the state had no income tax, says that the state’s problems are systemic, and that solving them will take more than overcoming “the ineptitude of Pat Quinn.” He’s running for a seat in the state house against a longtime Democratic incumbent and hoping for a miracle. “Without a complete overhaul in Springfield, Illinois will continue to lurch its way toward total collapse,” he says.

Pat Quinn’s appeal — such as it is — has always been honesty, if not capability. In a state full of Blagojeviches — according to the Associated Press, some 1,531 officeholders were convicted on corruption charges between 1976 and 2010 in the Chicago area alone — he has long been seen as relatively clean. But the conversion of his anti-violence program into a slush fund for vote-hustling ward-heelers has taken some of the shine off of that, and Rauner’s relentless characterization of Quinn’s governorship as an era of broken promises is not without some bite: It’s increasingly looking like Quinn never seriously thought the tax increase would be temporary and intentionally misled the voters. It was supposed to be used to straighten out the state’s finances, but it was spent on the usual Illinois shenanigans. It was supposed to be combined with an increase in the personal exemption so that the typical family of four would not pay higher taxes, but the exemption never came, and the typical family of four is now paying much higher taxes. Governor Quinn said that the tax hike was necessary to keep education spending sacrosanct, but the state board of education protests that in several areas — school busing, foreign-language instruction, truancy programs, and more — funding has been substantially reduced. Programs for the blind and the dyslexic have been cut by a third.

The details of those complaints may be arguable. But what is not arguable is that Pat Quinn, like most liberal Democrats, has cast himself as the champion of the poor, of the marginalized, and, particularly, of African Americans. At a recent event in Chicago at which he received the political blessing of the black clergy, he stood mutely by as the Reverend Walter “Slim” Coleman compared Bruce Rauner and his supporters to the Ku Klux Klan and fringe militiamen. Making sure that his message did not go unheard, Coleman called Rauner “evil.” Quinn just ducked out the back door after the brimstone was hurled, and the Reverend Coleman later tried to walk back his remarks, as if there were some plausible way to do so.

But what if the reverend is right, on some level? What if there is a malevolent force at work in Illinois looking to put some sort of horrific racial agenda into action? If you were trying to destroy the black population of the Land of Lincoln, what would you do differently from Pat Quinn? African-American families consistently back school-choice programs, and Governor Quinn stands in the schoolhouse door, blocking their way on behalf of the public-sector unions and other entrenched interests. There are few more dangerous places in this country for a young black man to be than in Pat Quinn’s Illinois, whether in Chiraq or in East St. Louis, and his administration has done nothing about it. Poverty in Illinois is disproportionately concentrated among blacks, and Governor Quinn’s ineptitude stands between them and the growth and jobs that are necessary to turn their communities around. Pat Quinn and other Democrats are forever playing the po-faced saints making promises of services, infrastructure, and help for the poor, for the black and brown, for the single mothers, for the fatherless children, and for those who cannot manage to get a firm grip on the economic ladder. But where in Illinois is the evidence that they have done anything other than recycle whatever money they can get their eager, grasping hands on into the pockets of their political allies and — attn: Rod Blagojevich et al. — their own pockets, too? Driving though East St. Louis, you’ll see a dozen signs reading: “Casino — this way!” But you won’t see any pointing the way to jobs, prosperity, basic physical safety, or hope. Nor will you see them in Joliet, Carbondale, Rockford . . .

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