Springfield indulges its inner xenophobe
November 11, 1977
The reorganization of Springfield city government occasioned by the federal voting rights suit in the 1980s exposed social antagonisms that had long bubbled away under the surface. Not those of white v. black, but those of Native v. Outsider. The bigotry that lurked in the shadows of so many public pronouncements was that of the xenophobe, not the racist—an old story in Illinois's smaller places.
The first blows have been struck. The battle to change Springfield’s government from the commission to an aldermanic council-manager form is underway in earnest. In their regular executive session of Monday, November 7, four members of Springfield’s city council spoke out on the matter for the first time publicly. The issue on the table was a resolution authored by Mr. [James] Dunham urging the Citizens for Representative Government (CRG) to hold their referendum at the general election in November 1978, rather than at that year’s March primary, as CRG proposes. Dunham, [Frank] Madonia, [William] Telford, [Pat]Ward—all were against it. “I feel it is good to hear from people who live in the city and have been here for some time,” Madonia commented, leaving no doubt that he was not interested in hearing from anybody who doesn’t or hasn’t.
It was a common theme. It is significant, though hardly surprising to most veteran observers of the local scene, that the potshots fired by the commissioners at the CRG were not aimed at the merits of the aldermanic form of government, nor at the proposal to set the number of aldermen at ten, nor even at the arguments advanced in favor of a change, specifically that the commission form of government is by its "nature unrepresentative, unresponsive and inefficient." Those shots were aimed instead at the fact that several of the CRG’s founders have either lived in Springfield only a relatively short time or do not live in the city at all.
A CRG spokesman huffily defended the group against the charge (“time-wasting,” he said) and argued that such issues are extraneous to the question of what kind of government is best for Springfield. He was right, too, of course. But the commissioners have a better sense of the issues. What kind of government is best for Springfield isn’t the only question that will be settled by the CRG referendum. It isn’t even the most important one.
Extraneous or not, the contention that the CRG is (borrowing a term used, I think, by Mr. Madonia) the work of “outsiders” may be the central issue in the campaign—even if it proves not to be the most conspicuous one. There is a deep but unfocused resentment of Madonia’s outsiders among Springfield’s native population. Madonia and Company, all of whom are natives in a profound sense, did not create it, they merely gave it voice. It would not take much for the CRG, given its makeup and the cause it expounds, to provide a focus of that resentment. Such a turn would impoverish debate about local government and work inevitably to the detriment of the CRG’s cause.
The split between Outsider and Native has complicated local politics for years. The Outsider (if readers will allow me a few generalizations) comes to Springfield from many places, typically a larger city or a smaller one next to a larger one. He comes in furtherance of a career, sometimes as a manager, a bureaucrat, a professional. He is hired by the state, one of the larger corporations, a university, a hospital. He is rarely found in or around any of Springfield's indigenous institutions but—a useful distinction too rarely made—in one of the state institutions that happens to be located in Springfield. He is in the city, in short, but only occasionally a part of it. The Outsider is often fundamentally out of sympathy with the local culture. The Outsider, for example often is an activist; the Native is slow to change, conservative in a cultural sense. The Outsider sees a wrong and seeks to right it; the Native prefers to ignore it; things have always been that way. The Outsider views government as an agent of change, a curb on private excesses, a reconstructing influence; the Native prefers private excesses to public ones, among other reasons because they are usually less expensive. The Outsider views the federal government in particular as a protector, appealing often to its laws and seeking from its agencies what local government has not the wit or will to provide; the Native, except when he or she profits directly from it, regards it as a meddler and a money-waster.
Outsiders constitute a sizable chunk of the population in cities like Springfield. Their ranks are bolstered by allies among the native population who share, through accidents of education or upbringing, their broader cultural orientation. Indeed, it is misleading to speak of “outsider” as a geographical term, at least in the context of the evolving change-of-government debate; it signifies an attitude more than an address. There are natives of the city who share a disaffinity with the city as deep as any newcomer’s and who come to regard it with a bitterness that no newcomer can appreciate who has not been wounded by constant friction with a culture to which he feels alien.
It is this segment of local opinion that is mobilized when outsiders, themselves outraged at some political or social affront, are able to tap the latent outrage within them and give it political focus. The pattern is a familiar one in Springfield history. The skirmishes fought by the outsiders and their allies since 1900—the commission reform of 1911, the city plan of 1924, the anti-gambling crusades of the '40s, the attempted governmental reform in the '50s, the civic uplift campaign of the '60s, the school integration battle of the '70s—all hewed closely to it.
In earlier eras, the forces of Outsider and Native and their various alliances were kept in rough balance. But Springfield has changed. Today natives feel themselves threatened, an endangered species, victim of a social change of climate to which they are ill-adapted. The institutions through which the natives once shaped their city’s economic, social, and political life—the insurance companies, the meter factory, the banks, the big department stores, the country clubs and schools and churches—all either belong to outsiders, are controlled by outsiders or find themselves reduced by time and change to anachronisms. The universe of the old Springfield has shrunk to the dimensions of the two blocks on which sit the municipal and county buildings. These citadels, along with scattered outposts like the school board, are all that’s left. They will fight hard to preserve it.
The CRG should not mistake the natives’ opposition as approval of the commission form or even as disapproval of their proposed alternative. “1 know I don't want somebody from New Jersey running the city of Springfield,” Pat Ward said. He might have said Chicago or Ann Arbor, or for that matter Woodside Township. There is a different fight going on here, with more at stake than the shape of the organization chart at city hall. ●