Meet the people working to kick Chicago out of Illinois

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

Supporters behind the New Illinois movement say the Pledge of Allegiance prior to an informational meeting about the organization's plan to separate the state of Illinois from Cook County during a meeting at a hotel in Mount Vernon, Ill., on July 20, 2019.

It is midday and hot as a firecracker in the historic town of Mount Vernon, Ill.

The sun is nearly unbearable on the asphalt parking lot of the Fairfield Inn out by the highway as a stream of people makes its way inside the lobby; spry retirees in couples; middle-aged people carefully shepherding white-haired parents in their 80s; a few younger folks.

Inside, state Rep. Brad Halbrook, one of the event’s organizers, is on damage control, ricocheting between groups of men in wide suspenders and ladies in T-shirts and slacks. He shakes hands, apologizing, explaining to the crowd spilling through the lobby that they will have to wait for a second session of the meeting they have come to attend, the meeting room is already standing room only. The July 20 event, planned for about 60 people and advertised on Facebook, seems to have drawn around 200.

Ron and Carolyn Carnell, a couple from Hartford, Ill., didn’t take any chances, they brought their own folding nylon chairs and snagged a spot inside the meeting room. Ron made Carolyn forego lunch at the Cracker Barrel so that they could arrive early. “I knew in my heart of hearts this thing was going to be packed,” he says. A former mayor of his small town, he knows a lot of people, and in his circles, the topic of today’s meeting comes up a lot, he says.

On the screen at the front of the room, the first slide of a Power Point presentation hovers: “A Plan for Splitting the State of Illinois.”

In Mount Vernon, a town where attorney and nascent statesman Abraham Lincoln once argued before the state Supreme Court in the dignified old courthouse, Ron Carnell, and all the other Illinoisans in the room, have crowded in eagerly to hear about a plan to secede from the Land of Lincoln.

Or, to put it another way, they’d just like to kick Chicago out.

Over the past two years, the movement to divide the state of Illinois into two states, Cook County in one, the other 101 counties in the other, has been gaining support. In February, as Gov. J.B. Pritzker was pursuing an agenda for Illinois that included new tax and abortion policies, Halbrook refiled a resolution in the state legislature, HR 101, in which he and six co-sponsors asked the U.S. Congress to recognize Chicago as the 51st state. “I hear it a lot from my constituents, that we need to be separate from Chicago,” Halbrook says. “I thought yep, this is what we need to do.”

The resolution, which could be dismissed as simple political maneuvering, plays big at home, but has scant chance of seeing daylight in the legislature, is also backed by several grassroots groups agitating for separation. One of them, Illinois Separation, founded by Collin Cliburn, of Athens, Ill., has 24,000 followers on Facebook, and growing. Cliburn is also holding events at venues from wineries and gun shops to community centers around the state through August and September to capitalize on the cause’s momentum.

G.H. Merritt, who refused to reveal her face for a photograph, is founder of the New Illinois movement. Merritt spends a lot of time telling people what her movement is not. “This is not a racist movement; we are not a white supremacist movement,” she says.

‘They think we’re a bunch of country bumpkins’

G.H. Merritt, a Lake County woman who founded New Illinois, the group hosting the Mount Vernon event, starts her presentation after the prayer and pledge of allegiance. She points out to the crowd, now using New Illinois brochures to fan themselves as the overwhelmed air conditioning loses its grip, that the idea of a state split isn’t new. In fact, groups from either downstate or Chicago have tried to secede from Illinois several times since 1840, when a group of northern counties asked to be given to Wisconsin. (The state line was set above the tip of Lake Michigan in 1818.) In the 1970s, a group of western counties dubbed themselves the Republic of Forgottonia. And in 1981, a Chicago legislator pushed a secession bill through the state Senate, as a public poke at downstate counties for complaining about CTA funding. The bill was tabled by then Speaker of the House George Ryan. Most recently, downstate legislators proposed a split in 2011, after election data showed that in 2010 Gov. Pat Quinn won only three downstate counties and gained the governorship by carrying Cook County.

But the current us versus them drive to “divorce” Chicago from the rest of Illinois, while it shares elements with earlier efforts, comes in an era of heightened political conversation in America. More importantly, it’s a dire