Back to the Future: There's No Place like Home (Rule) - Part 1

The post today is written with a specific audience in mind, so if you’re not part of that group you can just go take a walk or something, ok? Log off for a bit, get some fresh air, next time the sweet content will be more inclusive. But in the next two posts over the next two days I want to talk for a bit to a specific group of people – my fellow Rockford residents who were born in or after 1983. If you are even a DAY older than that and read beyond this paragraph, so help me…

That's me, circa 1984. 

This March I’ll turn 35, which means that I myself was born in 1983. It feels substantial to me personally – there’s no way to deny I’m in my mid-30s (old lady status), and it’s a significant biological mile-marker after which if I choose to get pregnant I’ll be considered “geriatric” – but it’s been made more momentous by its correspondence with a primary election. And not just any primary election! This March, Rockfordians will have the opportunity to change a local reality that has been in existence for, you guessed it, 35 years.

Some brief historical context: in 1970, Illinois enacted a new constitution. The constitution included provisions for municipalities larger than 25,000 people called Home Rule powers. This allowed Home Rule communities to exercise any local power not expressly denied by the constitution. These local powers could include the ability to raise revenue (through taxes, fees, licensing), and address various local issues related to economic development and quality of life through local ordinance. The constitution also included the provision that municipalities smaller than 25,000 could gain Home Rule powers through a balloted referendum, and that the reverse could also occur.

In 1983 a group of Rockford residents collected the 10,000 signatures necessary to put Home Rule powers on the ballot. These residents were spurred by two main reasons: to remove the local powers that Home Rule provided and return control to state leadership, and to return local property tax rates to non-home rule levels and avoid potential future local property tax rate hikes. On April 12, 1983, 54% of voters cast their ballots in line with these arguments and Home Rule powers were rescinded.

And for the next 35 years, Rockford grew in wealth and stature and every resident lived happily ever after.

Looking east from State and Wyman. 

Ok, it’s really not fair for me to devolve into snark. As with most issues, neither choice will result in complete destruction nor complete glory. And while I don’t find it practical to get into arguments with anyone about what something was or wasn’t like over 35 years ago – WAY too much has changed since that time to think the same action would automatically have the same result – it is important that we have some sense of the context that led to Rockford being one of only four cities in the state that has voted away its Home Rule powers.

Those of us who were born in or after 1983 will never know what it was really like living in Rockford then. To catch a glimpse of the challenges the city faced in post-recession (yes, my young peers, we were post-recession in 1983 as well), as hopes for a return to the days of manufacturing glory dwindled away, you may wish to read this Washington Post feature on the city of Rockford from June 1983. Titled “Rockford Lowers its Sights” it paints a grim picture of the then second-largest city in Illinois, where 87 people competed for every available job and 4- and 5-year-olds were dropped from the WIC food program in order to stretch dollars for more, younger children. In the words of Chad Brooks, then editorial page editor of the Rockford Register Star:

"This was a community that celebrated the Reagan election enthusiastically, a community that really thought all it had to do to solve all our problems was elect Ronald Reagan and everything would be wonderful. And when it didn't happen, when it resulted in the recession with Rockford all of a sudden having the highest unemployment of any community in the country, a lot of faith and confidence was shattered. That hasn't led to a lot of bitterness about Reagan. It has led to frustrations of being unsure where the answers are."

As I read further into the article I continued to be struck by a gnawing sense of déjà vu, for instance when it stated: “The problem for Rockford, and perhaps the country, goes far beyond a recognition that present economic problems are not going to be solved easily. The tension comes from clashes between basic American values that are so typical of this city--between a desire to have more and a willingness to settle for less, between gratifying immediate needs today and accepting necessary changes tomorrow.

These conflicts are visible everywhere: in debate over improving public schools and in reluctance to pay for them; in the vote to strip home rule powers from the city and in the recognition that better city services are necessary for citizens' basic needs.

Is your heart in your throat like mine? Does it make you feel crazy, crazy sad, that we as a people haven’t settled these “conflicts” yet?

To be continued… tune in tomorrow and learn more about why the heck I’m even writing about this subject, and what it means for you.

**If you need to register to vote or to change the address at which you are registered, visit the Board of Elections at 301 S. 6th Street. Their phone is 815-987-5750 and you can also find them at VoteRockford.com, where you can also find your polling place.