Jim Dey | Citizen letting his feet do the talking on reform in Springfield

Jim Dey | Citizen letting his feet do the talking on reform in Springfield

"Walking Jim" Coxworth, a businessman from the Chicago suburb of St. Charles, knows a good idea when he borrows one.

That's why he's closing in on the end of a 187-mile, 13-day, one-man walk to bring political change to Illinois.

He started hoofing it from his home on Oct. 11. By Thursday, he was ambling along Route 66 near Pontiac. If all goes as planned, he'll finish Tuesday in Springfield, wrapping up his expedition with a news conference at the Illinois Capitol Building in Springfield.

That's a place he hopes to disrupt by channeling public disgust with Springfield into positive political action.

"If you're going to make a change, you've got to do something," said Coxworth, who's sick of watching Illinois' steady decline.

But what?

Coxworth and the organization he formed — Illinois Citizen Uprising — want to revise the structure of state politics by implementing term limits on professional politicians and eliminating the current process by which the majority political party draws state House and Senate district boundary lines to benefit itself.

After deciding what he wanted to do, Coxworth focused on the how — starting with the necessity of generating public attention.

"ARE YOU MAD AS HELL? HELP US DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT," asks his website, illinoiscitizenuprising.com.

Coxworth borrowed the idea for his walk from Illinois Gov. Dan "Walking Dan" Walker.

In 1972, Walker walked the state to draw attention to the Democrat's ultimately successful campaign for governor.

"I remember thinking, "Man, is that guy getting a lot of publicity?' So why not do that?" said Coxworth.

The 64-year-old mostly retired businessman isn't the first to emulate Walker's gimmick.

At least two other aspiring politicians, "Walking Joe" Teasdale of Missouri and "Walking Lawton" Chiles of Florida (detect any pattern in the media nicknames?) built winning movements on the strength of the attention they generated by walking their states.

The funny thing about Coxworth is that, while he's a physical-fitness buff, he's never been much for walking. On Day 8 of his sojourn — the day Coxworth spoke to The News-Gazette — he complained about his sore feet and too-long search for just the right pair of shoes to wear.

"(My feet) feel fine at 4 miles, but it's a different story at 15 miles,' he said. "When you walk on blisters, they start bleeding."

Nonetheless, Coxworth said he's willing to pay the price if that's what is required to organize a bipartisan effort for change.

In addition to his proposed constitutional amendments on term limits and legislative redistricting, Coxworth said it's past time for Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan to go.

There's no minimizing the difficulty of removing Madigan. Indeed, with that as one of his goals, it's as if Coxworth is walking straight uphill.

Despite the challenge and long odds, Coxworth said he feels compelled to try to persuade others to join his effort.

Married with four children (two grown and two at home), Coxworth is a 1976 graduate of the University of Illinois, a school he remembers with fondness. He majored in political science but went into business after graduation.

"It was a great school. It worked out for me," he said. "I loved the education I got there."

Although Coxworth described his organization as bipartisan, it has a GOP tilt to it.

That's not surprising since his organization's target is the state's No. 1 Democrat. Madigan is not only speaker of the House but also chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party.

Coxworth described himself as a "moderate Republican" who is socially conscious but horrified at how poorly elected officials have managed the state's finances.

"I'm a balance-the-budget kind of guy," he said.

So far, Coxworth's effort has drawn considerable media attention. He's also received favorable comments from strangers he's met during his walk.

But Coxworth's timing isn't great.

If the polls are correct, voters will return Illinois to complete Democratic Party control in two weeks. That means Madigan will have even more power then than he already has now.

But Coxworth noted that opinion polls show that term limits and redistricting reform are popular with the public and, at the same time, that Madigan is deeply unpopular.

That's why he's in this fight for the long term.

Coxworth said he's "never been involved" in politics and is "not running for anything." He said he decided he doesn't want to leave the state and can't ignore what's happening here.

"When the state has been as good as it has been to me and has so many (good) things going on, I'm not going to flee at the first sign of trouble," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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