For months, Illinoisans have been battered by a barrage of political babbling. Even as candidates spend millions trying to convince Illinoisans to vote for them, government in this state still produces a kind of nihilism in the mind of an average resident: “What’s the point?”
Ask Bob Anderson.
Bob is not a typical politician. He is not a lobbyist. He is a barber. But he’s making real change in the community he loves.
Since 1962, Anderson’s been cutting hair in his small barbershop in the small McHenry County village of Wonder Lake, where his family moved when he was a child. Over the course of those barbershop conversations, he started noticing a concerning trend: High property taxes were forcing people out of town.
“When I started, there were a lot of German immigrants who were buying small summer homes here. And this is where they retired,” Anderson said. “Now, those same people come into the shop and all they talk about is their property tax bill. They can’t afford it anymore.”
Government data show property taxes grew more than six times faster than incomes in Illinois from 2008-2015. But that statistic is not as important as its results. Across the state, communities like Anderson’s are being bruised as middle-class residents search for greener pastures.
Anderson began researching how to make a difference. The first thing that took him aback was Illinois’ nearly 7,000 units of local government, the highest count in the nation. He started researching consolidation. He started writing letters to the editor. He put up a few signs to “abolish townships,” that antiquated and often-unnecessary layer of local government blanketing the state. In the 1990s, he even spearheaded a referendum to eliminate all townships in McHenry County, and then a referendum to eliminate just McHenry Township. They both failed. But the seed was planted in voters’ minds. And Anderson kept watering.
In 2017, Anderson banded together some like-minded acquaintances to run for the local township board on a consolidation platform. Nearly all of them won, with Anderson enjoying the highest vote total of any candidate.
But amidst that election and in the months that followed, Anderson faced serious intimidation. On two separate occasions, once at home and once at the barbershop, Anderson found nails scattered behind his car.
He was a threat to the same status quo that discourages Illinoisans from even heading to the polls in the first place.
“I think it’s pretty cowardly that somebody does not agree with my position that they at least can’t come and talk to (me) about it,” Anderson said at the time, “but nonetheless that’s the way things are.”
He wasn’t hysterical and he didn’t fire back with vitriol. Anderson moved right along. His initial goal? Consolidation of the local road district.
The first time he tried to get his board to put that consolidation question on November ballots, he failed. A vocal group including local government employees showed up to share their dissent at that January board meeting, and it appeared at least a couple board members didn’t have the stomach for it. The motion didn’t carry.
But Anderson tried again in February. And he succeeded.
Anderson’s community will have a voice in November on whether to consolidate the road district — a small victory in a long battle that Anderson hopes will culminate in consolidating the very unit of government he was elected to serve.
Not everyone can run for local office. Not everyone has time to study the intricacies of state and local policy. And not everyone can weather so many setbacks. But Bob’s example teaches Illinoisans three valuable lessons:
1) Get angry, but get educated. 2) Illinois is worth saving. 3) Changing government is possible – if you want it badly enough.
Austin Berg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Chicago-based writer with the Illinois Policy Institute and the writer of the documentary film “Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics.” A version of this Op-Ed appeared on watchdog.org.
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