Politicians not working the State Fair like they used to

August 18, 2011

U.S. presidents once made a point of visiting the Illinois State Fair, where dusty tractors rambled past carnival rides and livestock farmers showcased prized cattle.

On Wednesday, as the state’s Democrats held their annual Democrat Day at the Springfield fairgrounds, the head of the state party did not show, only one congressman appeared and the governor left the main event after a few minutes.

The poor turnout reflected the fair’s diminished value for politicians. Once a celebrated affair that connected Chicago politicians to downstate voters, the state fair seems to be losing its political capital.

Elected officials of both parties now tend to visit the fair only briefly for staged, hour-long rallies at a shaded lawn on the fairground’s northwest corner. Then they slip into air-conditioned vehicles or hop on golf carts and head to fundraisers.

“You don’t see them anymore,” said fair historian Pam Gray. “They used to be out there walking the streets. But now, why would you come out here and get all sweaty when you can shoot a blog across the Internet? The way we communicate is the big difference.”

During the administrations of Republican governors Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar, hundreds of state workers would abandon their desks for free beer and pork sandwiches at the fair. But a gradual reduction in the state workforce and a crackdown on patronage fizzled their attendance.

Crowds also were down because this is not an election year, said state Sen. Terry Link (D-Waukegan). Next year, when politicians need to court votes, “you won’t be able to get through the gate,” he said.

And President Barack Obama’s appearances in Western Illinois, roughly two hours away from the fairgrounds, also siphoned attention Wednesday.

“Had the president not been in the neighborhood, you would have seen more attendance, more excitement,” Link said.

Gov. Pat Quinn was among the leading Democrats who left the fair for Obama’s events, missing his own 3 p.m. barbecue to be with the president. Other politicians made similarly brief appearances or skipped the fair entirely. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the chair of the state Democratic party, did not show, even though he was listed as a speaker during a morning meeting of more than 1,000 Democratic county chairmen. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who lives in Springfield, was reportedly out of town, and Attorney General Lisa Madigan spoke at a breakfast of Democratic officials but passed on the traditional Director’s Lawn lunch. U.S. Rep. Danny Davis of Chicago was the only congressman to appear. But he, too, ducked out to join Obama.

Republican Day today is also expected to be sparsely attended as many of the party’s foot soldiers are in Iowa helping presidential primary campaigns.

It is a far cry from the fair’s halcyon political days, when President Eisenhower and President Nixon spent entire days shaking voters’ hands. Former governors Thompson and Edgar also spent considerable time at the fair, sweating under wide tents to greet voters who stood in long lines to meet them.

The last governor to inspire big turnout, Gray said, was Rod Blagojevich when he first ran in 2002. The fairgrounds “seemed like a cemetery” after the Democrats left that year, she said.

Quinn visited the fairgrounds several times this week, though he was met with organized protests from state employee unions that are fighting him in court over pay raises.

The fair’s Democrat and Republican days take place every August. They are a chance for legislators to meet up while the the General Assembly is adjourned and Congress is in recess and for each party to fire up precinct captains, introduce new candidates and jostle for news media attention.

But the political days have become increasingly staged events, with elected officials rallying their base in a fenced-off area without spending time among other fairgoers.

Dan Shomon, a political consultant who worked on Obama’s U.S Senate campaign, disagreed that the fair has lost its value for politicians and said it offers a platform for grass-roots supporters to see their representatives up close.

“The new guys are noticed there,” he said. “That’s where they get recruited and recognized, and you build strong relationships that last a lifetime. People wait all year for this.”

Obama “would never consider missing a Democrat Day” when he was in the state Senate, Shomon said.

Most fairgoers Wednesday seemed more interested in the harness racing and dairy shows than in the unfolding political rally.

Dusty Rincker stood in a barn just outside the Democratic rally, readying his sheep for judging.

“I think politicians need to see what’s going on in these barns,” he said, smoothing the white wool of his next competitor. “This is what made the state of Illinois—agriculture. People forget that.”

Kristen McQueary covers state government as part of a partnership between WBEZ and the Chicago News Cooperative.