DANVILLE — Driving along Illinois Route 1, south of Danville, I approach a dividing line between the 2nd and 15th congressional districts. On one side, there are cornfields. That’s the 15th. On the other, residential homes. That’s the 2nd.
In the car with me is Germaine Light. She’s the Vice-Chair of the Vermilion County Democratic Party and a former public school science teacher.
Light lives in the 15th, which is represented by Donald Trump-backed Republican Mary Miller.
“She’s (Mary Miller) a fascist. She’s a Trump supporter. She rubber stamps anything Trump says pretty much,” Light said.
But unlike past years, Light doesn’t have to go far to find a blue district.
“It is difficult to be a Democrat in a huge red district, where you really feel outnumbered and you don’t get heard,” Light told me at Cafe 13 in downtown Danville. “It’s really rough. But I’m happy for the rest of Vermilion County and happy for Danville…because a lot of our activists in our party live in Danville or north of that line.”
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When Democratic state lawmakers redrew the maps in 2021, after losing a congressional seat, much of the Danville area was placed in the 2nd district.
The new boundaries add the Danville area to a district that stretches over a hundred miles to the South Side of Chicago; it’s heavily Democratic and 57% African American.
“Immigrants came here in the early 1900s,” Light said of the Danville area. “And maybe before that, from Lithuania, and from Italy and from Belgium. My own husband (who grew up in the Danville area) was half Flemish. And they came here to mine in the coal mines.”
While gerrymandering is the process by which a party manipulates an electoral map for political gain, Light believes underrepresented communities in Danville will now have a voice because of it.
“Because Danville is a lot more progressive than the surrounding county…it connects those areas with other areas that might not be real close by, but it connects them together with other areas that have a similar way of thinking,” said Light. “So it gives them a voice.”
Sheldon Jacobson, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, sees gerrymandering as diluting the power of certain voters.
“So what you did is you sucked up all of that rural sparsely populated area, mostly very Republican leaning, and basically diluted them,” said Jacobson, who’s also director of the Institute for Computational Redistricting at the U of I, a non-partisan group that researches the creation of more balanced congressional maps. “So this is an example of where we have packing before, now we have cracking. We’re cracking all these Republican leaning voters in the rural area, and they’re going to be represented by someone who is basically going to serve the interests of the South Side of Chicago.”
For Jacobson, these changes aren’t positive.
“People want to retain or gain power,” Jacobson continued. “Usually, with gerrymandering, you’re trying to retain your power. And the best way to do it is instead of letting the voters elect their representatives, the representatives handpick the voters.”
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Matteson) is running to retain the 2nd district. Supporters, like Light, think Kelly is a strong leader and believe she’s made many downstate trips.
“Even though I’m half a mile south of CD2 (Congressional District 2), I’m delighted that we’re connected with some Chicago suburbs,” Light said. “I think that influence will be good. Now do some Chicago people not understand downstate problems? Yeah, I agree. But they can be educated, you know. And they would listen. I do believe that.”
Republican Illinois State Representative Mike Marron represents Danville. He said the downstate region and Chicago actually share some of the same concerns.
“As far as economic development challenges, funding for things like public education, you know, some housing issues, a lot of times, there are some very similar challenges inside the city with the rural areas of the state,” Marron said over the phone.
Marron supports 2nd district challenger, Thomas Lynch, a little known Republican from Cissna Park. But Marron is open to working with Congresswoman Kelly.
“It’s gonna be work for us, I think, to develop a new relationship with Congresswoman Kelly,” Marron said, “assuming that she comes through the election and she represents us…but it’s something that we will do, and you know, (we’ll) make sure that she’s aware of the issues that voters in Danville have, as well as, you know, people in the rural areas.”
Meanwhile, at a McDonald’s on the north end of Danville, I meet Dr. Wes Bieritz. He’s an 85-year-old, who has lived in Danville since 1965. For many years, he was a veterinarian in town.
Bieritz voted for Republicans in every presidential election, including in 2016 for Donald Trump, but in 2020, after Trump’s response to COVID-19, he voted for Joe Biden.
Before redistricting, he was represented by Mary Miller. He didn’t like that.
“She (Miller) represents Trump fully, and so I don’t. So that’s my difference right there,” Bieritz stated.
However, Dr. Bieritz is equally concerned about whether a politician from the Chicago-area can truly represent his community.
“Everybody knows that the area in the Chicago, or the megapolis area, you know, is a different cat compared to everybody downstate,” Bieritz said. “And that’s been well known. It’s very obvious in the voting records as well. So, you know, do we want to be represented by those people up there? Hmm, I don’t think I do.”
Dr. Bieritz hopes Congresswoman Kelly will recognize the problems facing Danville voters — like jobs and housing — because he remembers what it was like when he first moved to the area.
“It was a bustling town. I remember the insignia on the road coming in. There was a sign that said 42,600 people,” Bieritz reflected.
He said politicians have tried to invest in the city since General Motors closed its factory in the mid-1990s, but that it hasn’t been enough.
Dr. Bieritz doesn’t see a silver lining with gerrymandering.
“It turns out that the politicians pick the winners, and the people do not,” Bieritz said.
Time will tell if the 2nd district’s next congress person can represent the interests of people living among the cornfields of Vermilion County and the concrete of Chicago’s South Side.
Harrison Malkin is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow him @HarrisonMalkin