Redistricting no mystery to General Assembly scientist

When Republicans decided to challenge the Democrats' redistricting map, they relied heavily on state Rep. Mike Fortner (R-West Chicago) for guidance.

July 29, 2011

Kristen McQueary

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(AP/Seth Perlman)
Illinois Rep. Mike Fortner, R-West Chicago, speaks with reporters on the House floor during session.

Illinois Republicans are fighting in court against a new map of state legislative districts. And they've been relying on a physics professor for expertise in crunching the numbers. It helps that Professor Mike Fortner  is also a colleague--a fellow lawmaker in the Illinois General Assembly.

If you close your eyes and imagine what a physics professor looks like, you might picture Mike Fortner.

It’s a sweltering afternoon at Northern Illinois University, and  Professor Fortner, in a wrinkled shirt and glasses, is talking physics. Even his students wouldn’t guess he’s also a politician.

"He just seems like the straight-laced professor," one student said.

Fortner is one of 54 Republicans in the Illinois House. He’s the only scientist -- a numbers junkie surrounded by attorneys and business owners.       

His colleagues have depended on him more than usual this year – not because he’s an expert on particle collision, which he is – but because he’s an expert on redistricting.

"Mike is our party’s go to person in the caucus. He has a mind that thrives on mathematics and he enjoys that type of challenge, and I think that shows in the redistricting process," said state Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst), one of Fornter's colleagues and a friend.

Their party filed a lawsuit recently challenging the new General Assembly map. They filed a separate lawsuit Wednesday against the congressional map. District boundaries change every 10 years based on population shifts.  The party in control, in this case the Democrats, gets to decide where the new lines are drawn.

For Fortner, redistricting is where his worlds of politics and science converge.

"Obviously, it involves a lot of numbers. A lot of numeric data and being able to manipulate large volumes of numbers is something I do in my research and working as a physicist as well," Fortner said.

He showed that systematic approach during hearings this spring, quizzing Democratic Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie  for hours about her party’s map proposal.

"He was using the playbook he was given, and that’s fair," Currie said. "I don’t think he laid a glove on our expert witness but I certainly understand why he was anxious to try to do so."

Fortner first got involved in politics in his home town of West Chicago.More than 20 years ago, he and his wife bought a house built in the 1800s. Fortner volunteered to serve on the town’s historic preservation committee. From there, he followed the path many politicians do: He served on a school board, followed by the city council and then in 2001, he was elected mayor of West Chicago. Six years into that job, he ran for state representative.

One thing he’s heard over the years is that he doesn’t seem like a politician.

"I’ve had a lot of people mention that," he said. "I think they’re not used to scientists and physicist in particular being active in politics. They still don’t expect it. I think they picture all politicians are lawyers."

Lots of politicians are lawyers, but in the General Assembly they’re also farmers, teachers – even an embalmer.

When he’s not in Springfield or at the university, Fortner might be in Batavia at Fermilab hovering over a microscope.

"We were in my office one day after many of these hearings and I said  what do you do for a hobby? And he looked at me and said that redistricting was actually a hobby for him," Reboletti said.

A couple years ago, Fortner entered a contest organized by good government groups in Ohio to redraw districts there.

He spent his weekends working on it. He won

"I got a nice certificate from Secretary of State Brunner," Fortner said.

The map he helped Illinois Republicans draw this year is part of the state redistricting lawsuit now making its way through court. His map also was in bill form this spring. It was sent straight to the Rules Committee, where House Speaker Michael Madigan is in charge.

There, it promptly died.