Across the great divide

Sen. Dick Durbin shames politicians and media that sow divisions in Illinois

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By Ted Cox

As someone with his own distinct political views, but who represents a diverse state, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has no tolerance for those who would carve it up for political gain.

"There are two things that just anger me so much," Durbin said in a recent interview at his downtown Chicago office. "The first is someone who is an elected official in this state who uses their position to divide us rather than unite us.

"And the second," he added, "is I'm sick and tired of our newspapers — and you can think of the one I'm talking about — as well as politicians who talk about what a miserable state this is and how terrible the city is and why somebody might've moved away. Shame on them. This is the No. 1 destination for graduates of Big Ten universities in the United States of America. And the Big Ten sweeps right across not just the Midwest, but the Northeast as well. They're headed to Chicago. If this was some godforsaken city, why are they coming?

"They're coming because this is a great city with great opportunities," Durbin said. "And we do have problems that we need to solve. But for people who are down on the city and down on the state and want to find somebody who left in a grouchy mood, well, they'll always have a story to tell, but from where I'm standing that isn't what the city represents or the state represents."

In some ways, he granted, it's only natural. Chicago is a behemoth that lords over the state, and some areas of Illinois are vastly different and glad to be that way. "It's been there throughout the history of this state, and it's not uncommon," Durbin said. "You have parts of California that want to split off into a separate state. You have a fight between New York City and the rest of the state. It's kind of a natural tension that may have been created for any number of reasons," from significant economic and cultural differences to divided allegiances over sports teams.

"But shame on the politicians who try to exploit it," Durbin said. "That to me is over the line. Our job is to try to find commonality and unity and opportunities for us to work together.

"This is a great state," he added. "If you go from Chicago or even farther north, Waukegan or Zion, and head on down to Cairo, you've just taken in a big swatch of America. You've gone from a great metropolis up here to cotton growing in Alexander County and southern Illinois. We've got it all. We've got a microcosm of the United States here, and I think we can make this state work if we have leaders who are dedicated to that purpose."

The key, Durbin insisted, is that, in spite of the surface differences, people across the state are very much the same and have similar concerns and aspirations.

"I was born hundreds of miles from Chicago," said the East St. Louis native, who now resides in Springfield, "but when I go down to deep southern Illinois ... I tell them Chicago is a great city and I'm honored to represent it. And when I sit down with parents in the City of Chicago and talk about good schools, I hear the same things I hear in East St. Louis and Cairo, exactly the same things about what they want for their kids. We've got many things in common and very few things that divide us, and the politicians that play on those divisions make me sick."

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"We've got many things in common and very few things that divide us, and the politicians that play on those divisions make me sick."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Durbin made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, founder of One Illinois. Snippets of the 30-minute interview are forthcoming, and a podcast of the entire interview is in preparation.

Durbin reminded his constituents, however, that it's not just one side of the political spectrum being divisive, and that it takes concessions on both sides to come together. He warned of those on the left growing as hardened and as intransigent as those on the right.

"I've got a lot of my friends who spend a few minutes each day cursing Fox News and can't go to sleep at night until they hear Rachel Maddow's voice on MSNBC before they can put their head on the pillow," Durbin said. "And I told most of them, 'Will you stop watching this stuff?' You know, I think it just has divided us on both sides, right and left. Get engaged in your community. Get out and do something.

"You know, there are so many good causes out there that need people to step up. You find yourself rubbing elbows with folks who may have different political opinions, but it's time for both sides to listen to one another. I'm not asking for people to compromise their values and core beliefs, but to be tolerant of someone who disagrees with you. That's part of what made this great democracy, and we've got to return to that point in history."