The View From Thomson, Ill. And Its Maximum Security Prison
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, I am, Steve, at a bookstore called I Know You Like a Book. It's really this great place. We have an audience here. It's along this strip of independent businesses in Peoria. And we're here because we're starting a series that you and I are both going to be very involved in called The View From Here. We're listening to voters in different parts of the country, asking how where you live defines what you need from your government. And we have an audience. We also have David Yepsen next to me. He's director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. David, it's always great to see you.
DAVID YEPSEN: Good to be here.
GREENE: So we're starting in Illinois because this NPR analysis that we did found overall, Illinois is the most representative state of the country in terms of race, income, religion - a lot of factors. Does that surprise you?
YEPSEN: No, that doesn't surprise me at all. I mean, this state is big and it's complex. It's almost four states or five, depending on how you carve it up. You've got the city of Chicago, an urban area with all those problems that those have. Then there's the ring of counties around Chicago that are called the collar counties. You've got, then - farther downstate, you've got a rural, Midwestern - the Prairie State. That's where that term comes from. And then down where I work, in far southern Illinois, you really are in the South. You're south of the Mason-Dixon line.
GREENE: It's a country in itself.
YEPSEN: It is. And that's why it doesn't surprise me that your analysis shows that it is a microcosm.
GREENE: Well, stay with me because one thing I've heard this week is something we're hearing from a lot of parts of the country during this election. It's a lot of anger. And I stopped in a community that's confronting really a question of whether the political system in the United States is broken. It's a community - it's a village called Thomson - 600 people, a few hours west of Chicago along a bend in the Mississippi River. And the mayor is Vicky Trager.
VICKY TRAGER: Years ago, Thomson was known for its world-famous watermelons and cantaloupes. Hundreds and hundreds of boxcars left this town every day in harvest season loaded with all kinds of melons.
TRAGER: Yeah. Pumpkins...
GREENE: What made the melons so good at Thomson?
TRAGER: The sand - the sandy soil made them extra sweet.
GREENE: You're making me hungry this morning. Well, you know, something else beyond melons was - had grown on the land in Thomson, and that was a sprawling maximum-security prison right beneath a water tower that proudly says Thomson. But, you know, few people are proud of it because the prison has, for most of the time, just sat there, vacant. The state of Illinois laid out money to build this prison but failed to provide a budget to actually operate it. It's been sitting there vacant for years. The federal government recently bought this place - maybe, some believe, to house detainees from Guantanamo Bay, if they're ever moved to the United States. But to Lisa Karl, this whole thing has been a big symbol of dysfunction.
LISA KARL: Of course, everybody has their personal issues about, you know, oh, they're going to bring terrorists and, you know, a fight about who wants the prison open and who doesn't. But obviously, it's a glaring example of waste.
GREENE: Now, she owns a bike shop in Thomson with her husband, Matt, who is also really ticked off. He thinks that all of this means it is time to seriously shake things up in this country.
MARK KARL: Whether we get involved or not, this is happening. The revolution is happening. It was a quiet revolution. It started out - that's why there was no big bang. It just happened, and it's growing, and it's not going to be stopped because too many people are waking up. And when they get into these extended discussions, they're able to piece it together.
GREENE: Let me just ask the audience here - talking about a quiet revolution, anyone know who he's supporting for president?
GREENE: Someone is saying Bernie. That's right - Bernie Sanders. So the mayor who we met earlier, who you heard from, Vicki Trager, she's really upset about this prison too. I mean, think about what her village has been through. They took out loans worth millions of dollars to expand water and sewage infrastructure for this prison, but they're not getting that money back because a vacant prison doesn't contribute much.
They've left you with this empty prison.
TRAGER: Yes - 16 years.
GREENE: Is that weird?
TRAGER: Sure, it's weird. I mean, why wouldn't it be weird? It - we kind of feel like the dog that keeps getting kicked, and yet we keep wagging our tail, hoping somebody will adopt us and love us. You know, it's just been one thing after another. There's times when you think, how can you be cheerful and optimistic? But what choice do you have?
GREENE: But despite all of this, Mayor Trager is not clamoring for some radical change this election year.
TRAGER: Just because the system is dysfunctional, doesn't mean that you punish everyone by putting someone in there that's going to blow it up. Isn't that what the Bolsheviks tried to do in Russia? I mean, look what happened. I mean, why is blowing up an existing system better than working together to try to fix it? I don't get that.
GREENE: That's Mayor Vicky Trager from Thomson, Ill., who we should say is supporting Republican John Kasich in this election. So show of hands from our audience here in Peoria - who thinks it is time for some kind of revolution in the country? All right, I would say about half. Political commentator David Yepsen still next to me - David, is the crux of this election whether it's time for some sort of political revolution or whether it's time to be patient?
YEPSEN: Well, no, I think that's a big part of it. You're right in saying that there's a lot of anger in the electorate. And in our polling, I think you can also see a lot of fear. You know, people are angry at loss of jobs. But if you're a 61-year-old worker in Chicago making Oreo cookies, and you just find out that your job is being moved to Mexico, you're afraid.
GREENE: That happened?
YEPSEN: Yeah, and I see it in our students. You know, they're afraid about the future. And that shows up in the polling data. You can see it - hear it in the voices of people themselves. So people are angry, and they're also afraid. And I think in both parties, you're having a real definition over what that party ought to stand for in this argument over revolution or a more evolutionary process.
GREENE: Well, we're in the state of Illinois. We said it's reflective of the country. Any lessons at all for people in politics for how to overcome this and soothe these fears you're talking about?
YEPSEN: Illinois has been hit by a perfect storm. You have the city of Chicago in political turmoil - racial tensions, police violence. Issues have a lot of people afraid. You have - the rest of the state doesn't have a budget. We're the only state in the country in which the state doesn't have a state budget. People - universities are talking about closing human services. Workers are being laid off.
GREENE: No budget because policymakers can't agree on anything.
YEPSEN: Yeah, you can't. And so this gridlock, that contributes to fear. What people who lose their jobs - will I have a future here? Real concern about people leaving, and after a while, this really starts to become, I think, a perfect storm.
GREENE: All right, we'll be hearing much more from the state of Illinois this morning - as we say, a state that really reflects the country in many ways, including in some of the gridlock you're talking about and in terms of some of the fear that people are feeling this election year. David Yepsen is director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. We're going to be hearing much more from Peoria, Ill., this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.