This is part two of our Taking the pulse series. Part one can be found here.
Across the country, political engagement is at a high-water mark that hasn’t been seen since the 1960’s.
In the 2018 midterm elections, 50.1 percent of registered voters cast ballots according to the United States Elections Project. That was the highest midterm voter turnout number since 1914, according to Vox.
A lot of that participation can be credited to the presidency of Donald Trump, who has motivated a relatively vast amount of the U.S. populous to engage in American civic activity to a level that has rarely been seen in recent history.
Dana Fisher, a University of Maryland Sociologist, told NPR in 2017 that the election of Trump lead to a level of progressive activism that the country has never seen.
On the other side of the aisle, Trump’s candidacy motivated traditionally dormant voters to make an appearance at the polls and check the box next to his name, leading to conversations about the silent majority and the importance of rural voters.
In a moment in history where voting and politics ranks near the top of the American conscious, what does that mean for Tazewell County?
To find out, the Daily Times conducted interviews with the two chairpeople of the local branches of both political parties: Brittany Miller of the Tazewell County Democrats and Jim Rule of the Tazewell County Republicans.
Both Miller and Rule agreed on a few things — the national discourse is affecting politics at a local level, and that discourse can often be toxic — but had varying opinions on what the important issues are to their respective voters in the county.
Part two of this series features Jim Rule in discussion with reporter Montana Samuels. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MS: Tazewell County historically is a Republican county, do you see any avenue for that to change anytime soon?
JR: Well it is, right now. We see, especially in the Washington area, there’s a concentration of Democrats who are working the neighborhoods very hard, and we can’t take that for granted. We’ve always enjoyed a solid foundation here in Tazewell County, but that could slip away very easily if you take it for granted. So it’s important for our people to get out there and knock on doors and meet people and get to know your neighbors.
There’s this old saying that you never talk about religion and politics, we’ve got to start talking about religion and politics, and sharing our views, regardless of whether the person we’re talking to agrees with us or not, we still need to have those conversations. The more we do that I think the better off we’re going to be.
MS: It’s interesting to hear you say that in a county that’s so red you are concerned about the notion that people are on the ground working and the county could change. Does that say anything about the idea of local politics being more about interaction as opposed to national politics which is more ideology focused?
JR: That’s really what it comes down to, local politics relies heavily on interaction. That’s why we spend so much time at the festivals. We set up a booth, we talk to people, we encourage them to take our literature and we engage them. One of the things we do is engage our youth and try to have conversations, not so much about how to be a Republican or why not to be a Democrat, but how to understand both sides. Unless we do that we will lose that foothold.
The Democrats have a very good strategy, they always have, it’s been better than ours in terms of their ground strategy and how they recruit votes, but we’re getting better.
MS: There are always ideas and themes generated around each election cycle and one of them around 2016 was the conversation around civility. Do you think on a local level there’s a level of civility, and does the national conversation have impact on the local voters?
JR: I think the national conversation has a huge impact on local politics because people see that and they think ‘okay, that’s the way we’re supposed to act’. It’s not. We need to set the pace here locally, we need to start setting the example. One of the things that we try not to do is to belittle, is to call names. Rather, let’s talk about the issues. If you don’t agree with my issue or I don’t agree with yours then let’s talk about that. I want to understand your point of view, you should understand mine and if we can even come to compromise, let’s do that.
The name calling, Trump does that a lot, and people get a little frustrated with that. We love Trump, we support him 100 percent, but sometimes he might have a tendency to go a little too far in some of his rhetoric. In a day when we really need to draw people together, we have to work harder, especially at the local level to do that. Does it exist at the local level? Yeah, we have people that go off on calling each other names, and we’ve got to stop that.
MS: In regards to President Trump, have you heard any of your constituents in Tazewell County say ‘you know what, this is a little much for me’?
JR: There have been a couple of people that have said that, yeah, absolutely.
MS: And has that caused them to shift their ideology at all?
JR: It hasn’t caused them so much to shift their ideology as it has for them to totally back out of Republican politics for the time being. They’ve become, I think the term is never Trumpers. There are two people that I can think of off the top of my head that have said ‘you know what, until he’s out of office I’m done with politics.’ And I understand that, I get it, they’re people of deep faith and I understand that and I respect it. I think many people feel that way to a degree, not everybody but a lot of people.
(Trump) is definitely not presidential, he definitely marches to the beat of his own drum, but in the same sense, he’s getting policy implemented, he’s getting things done, and I think people are willing to take a little bit of the bad with all the good that we’re seeing.
MS: Do you have any concern that his presidency will affect turnout for local elections?
JR: I think it will affect it, I think it will increase it, I really do. I think it will increase turnout, and we saw that in the 2016 elections. This is Jim Rule talking, but I think it’s going to be a landslide next year because the Democrats haven’t put forth anybody that’s solid. It’s that silent majority that rose up during the 2016 election, and I think we’ll see it again.
MS: What are the issues in Tazewell County that your constituents are most concerned with?
JR: Most of it is taxes, and it’s at the state level. The Pritzker-Madigan regime is taking a toll on the Illinois economy. Everytime I get together with my Republican constituents or I talk with our congressman and senators, I’ll ask the question: ‘who’s working on the clause in the constitution that protects pension?’ And nobody is. Until we address that issue, this tax and spend process that we have right now is going to continue us down the road to what I think is going to be certain insolvency.
MS: Are there any other issues that constituents view as important, aside from taxes?
JR: A lot of people are upset with a lot of social things. By social things I mean, like, marijuana, and this becoming a sanctuary state. They’re worried about that. Abortion is huge amongst the consitituents down here. I think that was the beginning of the end for Rauner, when he passed that abortion bill, that wasn’t consistant with the Republican ideals and what the Republican platform was, and I think it was the beginning of the end for him. People are concerned about that here in the Midwest, especially down-state Illinois.
MS: Do you have any comment on the job Rep. Darin LaHood is doing, are there any things you’d like to see him do?
JR: You know I’ve gotten to know Darin very well, and I’m really happy with how he listens to people. I really haven’t come across a whole lot that I disagree with him on. I think he’s doing a phenomenal job. I don’t know his dad, Ray, that well. I know a lot of people hold it against Ray LaHood that he worked for Obama, and I don’t think that’s right. I mean, he had an opportunity to serve our president and whether we agree with our president or not he was still in there doing the job and serving the country. But for some reason people hold that against Ray LaHood and because of that they hold that against Darin.
MS: They sort of slight him because of his familial ties?
JR: They do, but I think Darin’s doing a good job, I really do. I truly don’t have a lot of things that I can say negatively about Darin. He’s out there beating the bushes talking to people, meeting with people, meeting with businesses, meeting with schools and understanding the problems that they have to deal with.
MS: What do you think is the future of the Republican party in Tazewell County, and how do you lead it in that direction?
JR: That is one of the reasons I ran for this seat as chairman. There’s an old guard and there’s a new guard, and the old guard have a way of doing things, they’ve ran this party one way and they’re not really looking to change. But we have a whole generation of people coming up behind us, our youth, and we at some point have to hand that off to them otherwise we’re going to lose it, completely. We’ll lose everything that our founding fathers fought for and established, and I truly believe that — I know it sounds hokey — but I really believe that. Unless we engage our youth today we’re not going to have a party in the future.
We’ve got to engage more people, one of the problems we’ve run up against is people are just fed up. They’re fed up with all the rotten politics that are going on, the name calling and they just say ‘you know what, I don’t want anything to do with it anymore’ and they don’t even go to vote, and that’s what hurts.
MS: How do you go about attracting young voters or new voters to the party? Is it policy, is it merely interaction?
JR: It’s interaction because through interaction then you can create debate and conversation, and once you have that going, then you can start talking about policy. But until you get people to open up and understand that, ‘hey, we’re not racist,’ we’re not here to hamper anybody, we want to talk about these things. Until we get to that point with kids and the old ladies at home that aren’t voting or the moms and dads that are just fed up, then we’re not going to get anywhere. We need to keep moving in that direction, sometimes it’s one person at a time.
MS: You brought up race, is that something people have brought up as an obstacle for them when you try to have that dialogue?
JR: It is because right, wrong or indifferent, race to a lot of the older generation is… it was just part of their life. They grew up having to deal with segregation, they grew up having to go through the civil rights era.
MS: And Pekin was no different, it has troubled history too.
JR: Exactly, Pekin has a troubled history so we see it right here especially with the old guard that are still here. That perception exists, and we have to get people to say, ‘you know what, we don’t subscribe to that.’
MS: And how do you go about bridging the gap between the old guard and the new guard? Because the things that matter to young and old voters are different.
JR: That’s the $64,000 question. We wrestle with that very question all the time, when we had our last executive committee meeting here, we talked about, how do we gain more youth onto our ranks, what is it that appeals to them? One of the things that we’re starting to do is work with organizations that work with kids to learn more. We’re in the learning stage. We’re figuring out what it is that kids want.