Tom Kacich: Push begins locally for independent redistricting campaign
A campaign to take state legislative redistricting out of the hands of state legislators is finally getting off the ground in East Central Illinois.
The Yes! for Independent Maps campaign — which has been missing in inaction locally since its statewide debut last spring, losing the best months for petition-passing — is finally visible.
Both the League of Women Voters of Champaign County and state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, have begun to push the issue and to organize petition-passing. Other local groups and individuals are expected to join the effort.
Rose said his goal is to turn in 5,000 signatures (out of a statewide goal of 500,000) to get the proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2014 election ballot.
In short, the amendment would shift map-drawing duties away from the politicians in Springfield to an 11-member commission made up of people who are not politicians nor are politically connected. (To view the wording for the proposed amendment, go to http://independentmaps.org/).
"If you're fed up with the way things are, I have become completely convinced this is the only way to get our state back," said Rose, whose state Senate district is so overwhelmingly Republican that he didn't have a general election opponent last year. Neither did virtually all the other senators — Jason Barickman, Bill Brady or Dale Righter — representing districts in East Central Illinois. Only Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, had a somewhat competitive district, although it was made less so in the 2011 redistricting when Republican St. Joseph and Ogden were drawn out.
"When one chamber of the Legislature (the Senate) is 40-19 with a supermajority like that, it's not healthy," Rose said. "And that goes for either party."
Rose said he and groups of supporters of the independent map-making idea passed petitions last weekend in Mahomet, St. Joseph, Paris and Tuscola, and will do it again next weekend in Shelbyville and outside Memorial Stadium before the Illinois-Ohio State football game.
League of Women Voters President Barbara Wysocki, past chair of the Champaign County Board and a Democrat, is helping distribute petitions locally. She can be reached at 367-5014 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Statewide, the petition-passing effort has some hot spots — Peoria and the Quad Cities — and some cold ones — Champaign-Urbana and Danville, admitted Michael Kolenc, the Yes! for Independent Maps' campaign manager. He was in town last week to meet with supporters and to collect completed petition forms.
"We have some real energetic volunteers that are really essentially doing this as a full-time job," Kolenc said. "In Peoria we have a few people who have essentially dedicated 40 hours a week to organizing. It's simply about the people we have on the ground there."
The campaign needs the signatures of at least 298,000 Illinois voters on petitions by May 4 in order to get the proposed amendment on the ballot, but is shooting for 500,000 — a tall order considering that that's about 13.4 percent of all the votes cast for governor in the 2010 election.
"We need about 300,000 to get on the ballot but that's 300,000 valid signs so of course we're going to aim higher to make sure we have a cushion," Kolenc said. "We are very well on pace to reaching our goal."
Next up for Kolenc: recruiting people who will be paid to pass petitions.
"We're doing a paid program because Illinois is not used to this large, this robust a petition campaign, so we'll definitely need to have an army of canvassers that are traveling around the state. It's going to start any day now," he said.
Kolenc said that paying canvassers is not an indication that the campaign is behind schedule.
"This has always been part of the plan. We would love to be able to collect 450,000 or half a million signatures via a volunteer program. Illinois is not ready for that. This is not like California where there is the infrastructure within the state to really turn that number of signatures around. That, plus we have a pretty cold winter coming up so that usually inhibits the ability for volunteers to get out and go."
In 2010 a similar redistricting effort — the Fair Map Amendment — fell far short of the number of signatures needed, and didn't get on the ballot. That effort, led largely by the state League of Women Voters, did not pay canvassers.
"I think that if we had been able to raise enough money that we probably would have done something sort of hybrid so that we would have many, many volunteers passing petitions but in those areas of the state where it would be hard to find volunteers to do that ... we would have contracted with a firm that does that," said Mary Schaafsma, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Illinois.
Duane Noland, a former state lawmaker who campaigned for the Fair Map Amendment three years ago, said he didn't mind that people would be paid to pass petitions this time.
"My thought is that having individuals paid to circulate petitions may be a little less pure but it still doesn't take away the fact that as people understand the issue and they want to sign, it still helps the process," said the Blue Mound farmer and president and CEO of the Association of Illinois Electric Co-ops.
Noland added that although he isn't "engaged" in the new effort, he supports it.
"I still believe in the concept and that if we are tired of partisan politics and we feel like these districts have gotten too extreme, the real answer is to take this out of the hands of the elected officials. I think it's a key to getting control of the process again."
Yes! for Independent Maps raised a respectable $99,150 in the July through September quarter, according to the State Board of Elections, but it also spent $75,873, leaving it with $40,756 on hand.
All but $8,700 of the $99,150 in itemized contributions came from donors in the Chicago area, indicating a Chicago-centric push thus far. One $200 contribution came from Stuart McKneight of Pekin, and an $8,500 check came from the B4.5. political action committee in Washington, D.C.
Since Sept. 30 the group has raised at least another $54,500, including $25,000 from wealthy Chicago businessman Lester Crown, and $2,500 from state Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago.
"It was an OK quarter," Kolenc said. "I'm not sure there is any campaign that wouldn't say they had wished they had more money. But we see that the donors are coming in and we'll have the resources we need to collect the signatures.
"The only way we get this on the ballot is if we have people volunteering their time to gather signatures and if people invest in this campaign. We are getting close to the deadline, winter is a hard time in Illinois and it is going to be a hard process to get these signatures. It is doable but it is doable with manhours and with signatures. For people who want to see change in Springfield they need to invest some time and some money in this campaign."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. H can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.