A substantial majority of people in the Chicago “megacity” – the region stretching from the Milwaukee area, across metropolitan Chicago, and into northwest Indiana – want to see their political leaders make a priority of action that benefits the region as a whole, and not just actions focused on the needs of their own area.
But what does that mean when you get into details? How does that translate into reality?
That main finding of broad support for regional cooperation and those two questions shaped a groundbreaking conference at Marquette Law School on Tuesday. “Public Attitudes in the Chicago Megacity: Who are we and what are the possibilities?” focused on the results of what is believed to be the first extensive poll of residents of the sections of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana that are part of the “megacity.” The conference was sponsored by the Law School and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Describing the broad conclusions, Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll and the Law School’s professor of law and public policy, said, “What we see is a substantial majority, over 70% in Illinois and Indiana, and 61% in Wisconsin, who say they would rather see cooperation among the governors and the elected officials,” than for political leaders to focus only on their own states’ concerns.
Translating that into specific policy areas, Franklin said, the poll found strong support for regional approaches to licensing of professionals in many occupations and to planning of transportation work. But there was less support for placing regional concerns about local concerns when it comes to efforts to attract businesses or promote tourism.
The conference was a follow-up to a 2012 conference at the Law School that focused on a report from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The OECD study said the Chicago region was one of the world’s major economic centers, but growth was slower than in many other regions in the world. The report advocated focusing on regional approaches to improving transportation, education, and economic development focused on “green” industries such as water.
At Tuesday’s conference, Franklin described the new poll results in a conversation with Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy. A detailed report by Franklin on the poll results was also released Tuesday.
Franklin said one important finding was that sentiment on a large number of questions didn’t vary much overall from one state to another in the region.
“You might have thought that Illinois and Indiana and Wisconsin would differ from one another on things that really matter, like the Packers versus Bears,” Franklin said at the conference.
”Of course, there are things that we are deeply divided on between our states. But what you will see throughout this report and throughout this presentation today is how modest those differences really are.”
He added, ”It’s less state-versus-state (when it comes to) dramatic differences. What it really is is the differences within all of the states.” Divisions over issues and whether to work on them regionally fall along lines that have definite partisan and economic components.
”Those political divisions are the things that make regional cooperation harder, but it’s not because Illinois and Wisconsin differ dramatically from each other,” Franklin said. “It’s that, within our states, we differ among ourselves on what we think the best courses of policy are.”
Franklin’s report described poll findings related to transportation, education, and other concerns. People gave opinions on how they chose the field of work they were in, how they were trained, how willing they were to consider entrepreneurial or career risks, their satisfaction with their neighborhoods, and other matters.
Franklin focused on findings that showed regional differences in people’s highest level of schooling, including the percentage of adults who have only a high school diploma or did not graduate high school. That figure was 50% in Indiana, 40% in Wisconsin, and 39% in Illinois.
He also pointed to results that showed that about a quarter of adults in Illinois and Indiana and a third in Wisconsin had received technical training beyond high school. That suggested that, when it comes to career development, technical training plays a bigger role than many people think.
Two panel discussions, one involving leaders in the private and non-profit sector and one involving mayors of three cities in the “megacity,” followed Franklin’s presentation.
Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Indiana, expressed skepticism about the level of support of regional cooperation shown in poll results.
“I thought people were being a little aspirational in their answers,” she said. “It is wholly inconsistent with what I have experienced as mayor.” For example, she said, both among residents of Gary and other parts of northwestern Indiana, she said that she had found resistance to thinking about what was good for the region, rather than just for an individual community, when it came to improving passenger rail services. Freeman-Wilson said she heard from many people who said things such as, “Why are you making decisions that don’t directly benefit Gary citizens?”
She said she saw differences in the poll results between what people said on broader questions and what they said when asked about specific issues, such as recruiting businesses.
John Dickert, mayor of Racine, has been a strong advocate for regional work on economic development and transportation. He said if progress is going to be made in regional cooperation, mayors will play a pivotal role. Why mayors?
“Because the reality is that nobody else is doing it. Washington definitely is not doing it, and our state level governments, we can’t even get three governors who are in the same aisle (politically) to agree,” Dickert said. “So we’re going to have to do it as mayors, because we’re really in essence the only people who are getting anything done.”
Dickert stressed the importance of working together as a region. He said, “I will tell you this. If we don’t start building regionally and if we don’t listen to the OECD, and if we don’t listen to logic, which is if you create a transportation system that is efficient and effective, you save money, cut taxes, and allow for opportunity, if we don’t start doing things like that, there is one thing I can guarantee and I don’t even have to be a mind reader. This region will fail. We will fail the world, we will fail our people, and, here’s my point, we will fail our children, and as a mayor I refuse to do that.”
He asked, “Are people really willing to go to the wall on things that are bigger than them?”
Tom Barrett, mayor of Milwaukee, said he wasn’t surprised and he wasn’t really bothered by the fact that people often put the interests of their own communities first when issues are important.
“They’re rooting for their home team first and foremost, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Barrett said. He said it’s human nature to feel that, if it’s not hurting me, it’s OK to go ahead with something such as regional planning. He said regional leaders should find areas where they can work together, given that fact, and he pointed to efforts to build economically on the availability of water as a subject with major potential.
The other panel discussion included Ellen Alberding, president of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation; Todd Battle, president of the Kenosha Area Business Alliance; Michelle Nettles, chief human resources officer for MillerCoors; and Carmel Ruffolo, Wisconsin operational chair for the Alliance for Regional Development and associate vice president for research and innovation at Marquette University.