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Students learn about redistricting issue

Barry McNamara
03/03/2010
The 17th Congressional District map shows the shows polar opposite of square voting districts.
One of Monmouth College’s most recent guest lecturers provided firsthand insight into a hot issue in the state of Illinois.

Brad McMillan, director of the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Studies at Bradley University, spoke to students in lecturer Robin Johnson’s “American Politics” class last week.

While bipartisan politics was McMillan’s general topic, his specific one was the Illinois Fair Map Amendment. McMillan is part of a group that is collecting petitions to place the amendment proposal on the November election ballot. If approved by the voters, it will require that redistricting for the Illinois General Assembly be conducted by an independent commission, not the legislators themselves, as occurs now.

When legislators are involved, said McMillan, the results are the 15th and 17th Congressional districts, which appear to meander haphazardly throughout large portions of the state. There is a method to the legislators’ madness, he explained.
“If nothing changes, politicians get in a closed room in secret and create safe Republican and Democratic districts,” he said. “In Illinois, 98 percent of the incumbents win their elections. We are the laughingstock of the country, not only because of Blagojevich, but because we do things in a crazy way in Illinois.”

For example, McMillan pointed to one geographic tail on a district and said it had been added to include the residence of the incumbent’s fiancée. He also revealed that if no agreement can be reached over a redrawn district, “the names of the competing candidates are put in a hat – they used Abraham Lincoln’s hat one year – and that party gets to control the map.”

On Iowa’s district maps there are squares and rectangles which leads to accountability, McMillan said, adding that Illinois’ process of creating “safe” areas actually dissuades qualified people from entering public service. “Fair map” redistricting would create more competition, with areas “not so skewed one way or the other” in favor of a particular party.

McMillan showed the students that Monmouth is in the 17th District, which includes Sterling in the north and winds down a narrow section by the Mississippi River north of St. Louis before cutting sharply across half the state to Decatur. The polar opposite of “square,” it represents everything the Illinois Fair Map group is trying to correct.

“We’re trying to get a Constitutional amendment, and we need 282,000 registered voters to sign our petitions,” McMillan said. “We’re trying to get word out around the state. If it’s approved in November, a nine-member commission will draw the lines with full transparency. They would not be allowed to look at voter history, as they are now.”

McMillan told the students he agrees with David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, who declared, “Redistricting is the most imperative issue in Illinois.”

During the rest of his guest lecture, McMillan told the students that a non-partisan approach has led to some of the high points of Illinois politics. He stressed how Peoria-area politicians such as Everett Dirksen, Bob Michel and Ray LaHood have played prominent roles.

Michel served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1956 to 1995, including 14 years as minority leader. Dirksen, a U.S. senator from 1951 to 1969 who was also a minority leader, was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. LaHood, who spoke at Monmouth College’s commencement last spring, is the Secretary of Transportation and one of just two Republicans on President Obama’s cabinet. When LaHood was a Peoria congressman, McMillan served as his chief of staff for 10 years.

McMillan was based in Washington, D.C., for several years, and he told of being invited by Michel to dinners with Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill at the famous Bullfeathers of Capitol Hill.

“They actually had a friendship,” he said. “They treated each other with respect, and they found common ground where they could.”

He said that differs from the common approach of “throwing hand grenades” at the other party.

“We have a rich history of leaders in our area who knew how to work across party lines for the good of the country, without all the fighting,” McMillan said. “I hold out hope that we can turn the clock back to a more reasonable and civil situation.”

More information on the redistricting issues that McMillan discussed is available at ilfairmap.com.