Illinois 12th District
Their waters roiling together, the nation’s two mightiest rivers, the Mississippi and Missouri, join just a few miles below Alton, Ill. Its 19th-century buildings recall its turbulent history, when it was the home of the antislavery agitator Elijah Lovejoy, who was murdered by a mob. More recently, it was the longtime home of conservative crusader and columnist Phyllis Schlafly. Nearby in Hartford, Lewis and Clark spent five months preparing their team and collecting supplies for their journey westward. Farther south along the Mississippi is East St. Louis, situated on the Illinois side of the river, with a view of the Gateway Arch in the city of St. Louis on the Missouri side. It is a terminus for dozens of rail lines and highways that funnel into bridges over the river. Once a rail and stockyard center second only to Chicago, East St. Louis is now one of America’s poorest and most troubled cities, a half-abandoned slum with one of the nation’s highest crime rates and a rapidly declining tax base. It is dependent on a riverboat casino and an adjacent waterfront hotel for local revenue, but casino taxes have increased and revenues have dipped, leaving the future of gambling in Illinois in question. After peaking at 82,000 in 1960, its population is now less than 29,000 and almost entirely African-American. East St. Louis is in St. Clair County, long heavily Democratic. Alton is in Madison County, which is politically more marginal.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
South of East St. Louis and the industrial area around Belleville, the river counties are lightly inhabited. This was the site of the French Kaskaskia settlement that became Illinois’s first capital in 1818, but repeated flooding turned it into an island and reduced its population to nine people and many more egrets. Farther south, the river abuts coal country and is not far from Carbondale, once a coal center but now, as the home of Southern Illinois University, bustling with students from downstate Illinois and Chicago. In 2006, Maytag shut its plant and eliminated 1,000 jobs in nearby Herrin. The land here is sometimes known as Little Egypt, the southern end of Illinois where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi: flat, fertile farmland, protected by giant constructed levees because it is susceptible to yearly floods. The marshy landscape has created the Sinkhole Plain, with more than 10,000 sinkholes. There is more than a touch of Dixie here: The unofficial capital of Little Egypt, Cairo (pronounced KAY-roh), is a declining town closer to Memphis than to Chicago. In his 1842 work American Notes, Charles Dickens described the town in these unflattering terms: “a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulchre, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo.” A more enticing locale not far from Cairo is the Shawnee National Forest, which has preserved Native American sites that are 10,000 years old. The Cherokee Nation left here in the 1830s on its devastating forced march to Oklahoma, which became known as the Trail of Tears.
The 12th District of Illinois covers all of this Mississippi riverfront from Alton south to Cairo, with some inland territory as well. Most of its population is in the Metro East area in St. Clair and Madison counties. The largest employer in Southern Illinois is Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, home of the 932nd Airlift Wing, medical transport planes, and refueling tankers. George W. Bush lost this district twice. John McCain lost it to Barack Obama, 56%-43% in 2008.