American crossroads Galesburg disconnects conflicting Congress
GALESBURG – Pickup trucks and cars drive north on the tracks from East Main Street to Galesburg, Ill., Past the red brick Lindstrom building that has occupied the same corner for many decades.
A building from more prosperous days, the Orpheum Theater near the renovated Amtrak station anchors one end of a downtown area lined with banks, antique stores, restaurants, and empty storefronts. The bronze likeness of Galesburg’s most famous native, poet Carl Sandburg, stands guard at the other end. A plaque commemorates the spot where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas drew thousands during their campaign debate in the United States Senate in 1858.
In this city in the heart of the Midwest, the fighting in Washington seems distant. On cable TV, Democrats and Republicans are feuding over things like breaking down Senate filibustering, creating a commission to investigate the Jan.6 assault on Capitol Hill, or whether Democrats should use a complicated budget process to move President Joe Biden’s agenda forward.
But in interviews with nearly 30 people over three days in Galesburg, the conversations are dominated by issues much closer to home, such as the increase in local crime, racial conflicts and whether life can come back to life. approximation of normal after a deadly pandemic.
And their votes matter because it’s places like Galesburg, among a few dozen swing congressional districts across the country, that will have outsized votes in next year’s midterm elections, with congressional control and the fate of. President Joe Biden’s agenda hangs in the balance. In 2020, voters here have favored President Donald Trump but also their outgoing Democratic MP, Cheri Bustos.
“If Trump could win and the Democrat won, you are looking at the top tier of competitive places,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster. âAnywhere you see independents playing an overwhelming role, these are the districts to watch.
Both parties will try to persuade a restless and anxious electorate.
Outside a popular cafe, Margaret Tolley lamented the spate of shootings, not in Chicago 200 miles (320 kilometers), but a few blocks from her hometown.
âGalesburg has had so many shootings this year,â said Tolley, a 70-year-old retired 4th grade teacher and longtime resident. “I mean, where did it come from?” It drives me crazy. I hate that. I mean, it’s Galesburg!
Galesburg, a city of just under 30,000 residents in western Illinois, is beginning to emerge from the fog of the COVID-19 pandemic and deal with the longstanding conflicts of the Trump era.
âPeople are trying to figure out how to be good with each other,â said Kim Thierry, a 59-year-old retired government employee. “Can we be friends?”
Halfway between Rock Island on the Mississippi River and Peoria 100 miles southeast, Galesburg is represented by Bustos, a moderate Democrat who is not seeking re-election. The district is one of only seven in the country to choose Trump for president and a Democrat for Congress.
Once a Democratic stronghold fueled by organized labor, Galesburg became more Republican as union jobs dwindled.
A crime epidemic has stirred up emotions here, and Democrats are wary of Republican accusations that their policies are to blame.
In early February, Knox County State Attorney Jeremy Karlin, a Democrat elected in November, was juggling three fatal shootings.
“Here it’s methamphetamine,” said Karlin, 52. “Methamphetamine affects half of the cases that I have. And it’s not the methamphetamine that you make in your house. It’s the methamphetamine that crosses the border in 90 to 100% pure form.”
Even a 42-year-old alderman was in court after police said they found methamphetamine in a packet of cigarettes inside her car during a traffic stop, according to The Register Mail in Galesburg.
Methamphetamine is a more recent and pernicious problem here, and people would rather remember the city’s more upbeat beginnings.
Settled over 180 years ago, Galesburg was built around Knox College, founded by Presbyterians in search of a Christian school on the Western Frontier. The city quickly became home to Illinois’ first anti-slavery society.
Today, the liberal arts college just outside the city center with its Gothic Tudor campus shaded by towering elm trees, accommodates around 1,100 people. Notable alumni include newspaper chain pioneer Ellen Browning Scripps and John Podesta, a top advisor to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
The largest local employer is BNSF Railway, with 1,300 workers for the country’s largest freight carrier. But it’s a lonely holdover from Galesburg’s blue collar past.
A Maytag factory closed 16 years ago, part of a wave of thousands of unionized manufacturing jobs lost over the past 40 years.
While Biden talks about a massive infrastructure plan as a potential boon to unions, some union representatives here say he can’t cure Galesburg’s ailments. Some prefer the more modest bipartisan package at stake in Washington.
The compromise bill could “put people to work and get people to move to this community,” said Jeremy Schultz, 44, organizer of the electricity workers union. “I would love to see everything, but I don’t think it’s realistic.”
Schultz said Trump was effective in stoking economic anxiety and appealing to cultural issues like gun rights. âA lot of them fill their heads with pretty biased stuff,â Schultz said of Trump supporters.
Not all economic signs are gloomy. Thai and Korean restaurants have moved into old pharmacies and dime stores downtown. A mid-week noon music and food fair and in-person orientation at Knox College drew families to nearby spas and breweries, spreading a sense of post-pandemic revival throughout the downtown area.
Still, the restaurants that have helped the downtown survive are struggling to add staff and maintain hours. Brad Clark, chairman of Tompkins State Bank, says he’s also struggled to fill cashier positions, a common theme among local businesses.
Like other more conservative voters in Galesburg, Clark accuses extended federal unemployment benefits of encouraging workers to stay inactive and fears they may push inflation up.
âEmployers have to pay more to get people back to work,â said Clark, 59. “So what’s going to do with inflation and the economy as a whole?”
Although the pandemic has killed more than 150 people here, the vaccination rate of 42% in June was well below the Illinois state average of 53%. Overall, concerns about the coronavirus appear to be fading.
But not the hangover of the 2020 election. Debra Florio, 70, a retired nurse, believes Trump’s false claims that he actually won. On the other side, John Bento, 54, an electrical engineer, remains exasperated by the U.S. Capitol uprising of January 6.
The disconnection of their views is likely to form the lines of the upcoming congressional elections. The cultural fault lines on race are also evident.
After:Black Voices of Galesburg: Read the whole series
Last summer, Mayor John Pritchard fought a resolution called for by the NAACP to recognize “institutionalized racism” in policing, hiring and public health. Pritchard, 66, white, dismissed the idea that racism is at the heart of disparities today.
Brittany Grimes, president of the local NAACP, challenged him with a report that most of the 14% of Galesburg’s black population – thousands of citizens – lived in poverty.
The confrontation revealed a long-simmering tension that became much more personal.
Mark Kleine, business owner and philanthropist, blamed the NAACP’s request on pressure from national forces to “dig up stuff about systemic racism.”
“All of these people think a city like ours has to jump on the bandwagon,” said Kleine, 63. “We really don’t, because we don’t have these issues.”
School board member Tiana Cervantez, 44, wiped a tear from her eyes as she recalled the furious opposition to the “people I had known all my life” resolution.
Pritchard was defeated for a third term in April by 53-year-old Knox College professor Peter Schwartzman, who backed the resolution.
In the race to occupy the siege of Bustos, the battle has yet to begin.