Illinois’ 15th congressional district is one of two in the state where no incumbent is running. But this article is about the district itself, not candidates.
All congressional districts are required to have roughly the same population, but there are no limits on territory. Illinois’ 15th District covers 14,696 square miles, or more land than Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and Hawaii combined. The territory stretches from southern Ford County down through the southernmost part of southeast Illinois. Another part of the district juts out west, taking a part of the Metro East suburbs of St. Louis.
The 15th District includes the campuses of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, and industry such as the Marathon oil refinery in Robinson. But urban areas are small in the 15th District, and the population of Danville, its largest city, is around 33,000. The district also includes the eastern portion of the Shawnee National Forest, but most rural areas in the district are devoted to farming.
Farmers’ Voices In The 15th
Right now, it is harvest time for farmers in the 15th District, and one farmer, Alan Chesnut, spoke for this story from out in the field, in the cab of his combine.
“I farm down in the Ridge Farm, Illinois area,” Chesnut told me, in a phone call occasionally punctuated by beeps from a 2-way radio. “We are mainly corn and soybean farmers. And I work with the boys, we have just a handful of pigs that we feed out each year.”
Chesnut is active in the Vermilion County Farm Bureau, serving on their legislative committee. His main concerns are taxes and burdensome regulations, especially those proposed by lawmakers who don’t understand farming. Chesnut says that’s why having a representative in Congress with a farming background is his top priority.
“It doesn’t matter which party a lot of the time,” said Chesnut. “There’s time that either party, the person with the farming background can be a better suit for what farmers are going for. So, the farming background for me, personally, is more important than party.”
This year, the candidate with the farming background is Republican Mary Miller, running against Democrat Erika Weaver, a public defender from Mattoon. Agriculture is the 15th District’s dominant business, but not all of it is raising crops and livestock, according to farmer and Vermilion County Farm Bureau board president Dennis Smith.
“Agriculture through Illinois rural society has a lot of support businesses,” said Smith. “The seed industry, the fertilizer, crop protection products that are provided, the farm machinery, the tires on the farm machinery. The reaches of agriculture provide a lot of jobs in that respect.”
Smith took part in a meeting of Farm Bureau representatives for its political arm, ACTIVATOR during the primary season. The representatives voted to endorse Mary Miller over three other candidates in the GOP primary election. Smith had supported Vermilion County Treasurer Darren Duncan, who also has a farming background. But he says Miller looks like a promising candidate.
“She’s very energetic and made a good impression on several of those that were there,” said Smith about Miller. The Illinois Farm Bureau is endorsing Miller in the general election.
Rural Internet Needed
The farmers interviewed for this story all spoke of the need for better infrastructure, from rural roads and bridges, to the lock and dam system on Illinois’ navigable rivers. Then, there was the matter of Internet access, which was generally considered to be improving but still spotty in rural areas.
Norma Lansing with the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce says the need for better rural Internet service became evident as reliance on the internet increased during the COVID-19 outbreak. She notes that the Chamber opened a shared workspace in downtown Effingham last fall, which became very busy after the coronavirus took hold of the country.
“And we actually had people who just live out in the country who were coming in, paying monthly fees to access the shared workspace, so they could have the Internet access that they needed,” said Lansing, “because they didn’t have it at home.”
Steve Fourez says Internet service has become a vital infrastructure need for him. Fourez, who farms near Jamaica and serves on the Vermilion County Farm Bureau board, says being involved in several activities makes him mindful of the limits of his Internet service.
“Now that I’ve gotten dependent on it for different things, for meetings, shopping, doing business, when we hit that wall, it says okay, for the rest of the month we’re going to slow down your connection,” said Fourez. “And if you’re not in the right place, geographically or topography-wise, you can have a hard time getting a good, solid signal.”
Fourez says he’s seen the emphasis in recent years on improving rural Internet service, and hopes it will continue.
Bill Teichmiller wants the next congressional representative to understand that rural Internet means more than providing a basic service, but also holds the potential of expanding the 15th District’s economy.
Teichmiller is the CEO of EJ Water Cooperative, a not-for-profit co-op based in Effingham County that provides water services to a 14-county area, including contract services to many smaller water systems. Teichmiller says the COVID-19 outbreak has shown that many jobs can be performed from home, provided those homes have strong, reliable Internet service. And if that service is available in a rural area, it might attract residents with tech industry jobs who want to make their paycheck go further in a lower-cost part of the country.
The result, says Teichmiller, could be “a saving grace for the rural area, because it allows folks to live in a more rural format, yet compete with their urban counterparts.”
COVID-19 is on everybody’s minds, says Shane Rogers, a teacher at Lake Land College in Mattoon and a Democratic precinct committee members. In canvassing his precinct in Mattoon – mostly online or by phone — Rogers says the coronavirus is the top concern among people, no matter their politics.
“They’re all frustrated in one way or the other,” said Rogers, who noted the concern among his colleagues and students as well. “And some want to have their kids go back to school, get to work. But others want to wait and take a more temperate approach.”
Jim Picillo, a manufacturing manager at the Watchfire digital sign facility in Danville says he wants to see a stronger federal response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Because it’s basically been stand back and we’re going to let the states figure out what they’re going to do,” said Picillo. “And then there’s no kind of overriding strategy, that’s coordinating everything. So the states have been kind of left to their own devices. And I struggle with that as an appropriate way to deal with a national crisis.”
Democrats Seek A Path
As Democrats, Rogers and Picillo are in the minority in the 15th District, which is ranked the most Republican district in Illinois by the Cook Political Report. Democrats hold few important elected offices in the 15th District. Rogers remembers a time when the area was represented in Congress by moderate Democrats like David Phelps and Glenn Poshard, and thinks more moderates are needed in both parties.
“We’re in the same area, so we’re facing the same issues and the same problems,” said Rogers. “And if we can solve the problem, whether they have a Democrat or Republican congressperson, the answer’s got to come out of the middle. And we’ve had moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats that have represented this area just fine.”
A Departing Congressman’s View
The district’s Republican Congressman, John Shimkus, who’s retiring after 12 terms in office, has represented the area under three different congressional district maps. He says the current 15th District is the most conservative of the three, and that adhering to its largely conservative views is essential to winning an election.
“If someone wants to run as a Democrat in the 15th District and have a chance at defeating a Republican, They have to be pro-life. They have to support the 2nd Amendment,” said Shimkus.
A Former Candidate’s Hopes
Shimkus’ 2018 Democratic opponent was Kevin Gaither of Charleston, who received 29.1% of the vote in that election. (He finished 2nd to Erika Weaver in a four-person Democratic primary earlier this year.) Gaither says the reason Democrats haven’t won in the 15th District or its predecessor districts in recent decades, is because the party has largely given up trying to win there, and in other rural areas.
“The Democratic Party walked away from rural America, started back in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Gaither. “They just have stopped investing in candidates, and then in county parties. And you can see the evidence of that, because there is only one side that you can see in the newspaper.”
Gaither says rural areas like the 15th District are ready for the Democrats to reclaim them, but it will take time and resources.
“You can’t just expect people to listen to you, if you haven’t shown up election after election. You have to be there, and you have to listen to people, and you have to be consistent with your messaging.”
After the 2020 election, congressional district maps will be redrawn across the country. Illinois is expected to lose at least one of its 18 U.S. House seats, if the new Census figures match earlier estimates of population declines in the state. The declines are occurring across the state, but the Associated Press reports that those estimates show that the 15th District lost 14,000 people during the years 2013-2018. That would drop the district’s population to 690,000, below the roughly 710,000 residents that have been required for a House district’s population during the past decade.
The loss of a House seat would mean major revisions in the new congressional district map that Illinois uses in the 2022 election, and the end of the 15th District as it’s currently known. But wherever those congressional boundaries lie, the the problems and priorities of the old 15th District and its largely rural and small-town population will continue.
Follow Jim on Twitter @WILLJimMeadows.