Robert Marshall with his map that lays out his proposal to divide Illinois into three states Credit: Sun-Times

How to fix all that ails Illinois?

Wild card Illinois gubernatorial candidate Robert Marshall has an offbeat suggestion: Dissolve Illinois and create three new independent states, each with their own constitutions and governors. During a Democratic candidate forum today hosted by the Sun-Times editorial board, Marshall kept waving around a visual aid to support his proposal—a map of Illinois with thick black lines drawn with marker. The boundaries designated the the new states: Chicago, the Chicago suburbs, and then the rest of the state.

For Marshall, a radiologist from Burr Ridge, the three-state solution (once a four-state proposal before he decided, he says, to “simplify” it)—along with the legalization of marijuana, and the decriminalization of cocaine and morphine—would be a cure-all for Illinois’s well-documented economic and bureaucratic flaws.

“Each state is a pretty good-sized state with the infrastructure, the people, everything to make a new state,” Marshall told WTTW in December. “The good thing about it is the debts and the bills and the pensions—everything would be renegotiable. Each state would negotiate how they wanted and each state would start off with a new constitution. Everything would be new.”

When education funding came up at today’s Sun-Times forum, Marshall once again held up his map and pointed: “Look at this, [dividing Illinois into three states] increases competition between all the universities,” he said. “Competition helps everything else. It drove the cost of televisions down. This would solve the problem of universities.”

Unfortunately, no one on the Sun-Times board asked some of the follow-up questions I had for Marshall. Such as how does he envision Chicago functioning as both a city and state? Would Rahm be automatically promoted to governor? What if Chicago decided to be even more ambitious and strive for city-state status in an attempt to become a modern Carthage? And what would happen if a three-way Illinois civil war breaks out?
Marshall may come off like a libertarian crank in the mold of Ron Paul—he previously ran for Congress in 1998 as a Republican before switching to the Democratic Party for a U.S. Senate run in 2010 and another congressional campaign in 2016—but breaking up Illinois is far from one wannabe governor’s isolated idea.

In “Downstate hate,” a cover story that ran this past November in the Reader, Edward McClelland documented the long history of proposals to carve up Illinois. It started in 1925, when Chicago’s City Council attempted to form the state of Chicago because rural legislators were refusing to reapportion the General Assembly to reflect the city’s growing population. Five decades later, western Illinoisans upset over transportation funding declared their corner of the state “the Republic of Forgottonia.” In 1981, state senator Howard Carroll of Chicago thumbed his nose at downstaters complaining about funding the city’s mass transit by passing a Cook County secession bill through both houses of the General Assembly. Most recently, Decatur area state rep Bill Mitchell introduced legislation in 2011 to divide Illinois into two states: one that includes Cook County, and the other the remaining 101 counties. The murmurs bubbled up again last year with our state’s budget and debt crisis prompting many to declare Illinois a “failed state.”

J.B. Pritzker, Chris Kennedy, and other Democratic gubernatorial candidates at the table chuckled dismissively at Marshall’s plan. And I’ll admit it’s pretty out-there. But then again the other candidates’ responses to questions of how to repair Illinois were the kind of wonky, empty boilerplate answers you’d expect. They offered vague talk of plans—pension reform, investment in education, smarter economic development policy—that were short on ideas for implementation.

A plan that would create a three-headed former Illinois doesn’t seem to have a chance. But strange things are afoot. Donald Trump is president. Spain might soon be a Russian nesting doll of nations. (Catalonia is busy trying to install a government independent of Spain while a fictitious southern coastal region called Tabarnia has in turn sought independence from Catalonia. Tabarnia has even sworn in an actor and theater producer, Albert Boadella, as its first president.) A group in California now wants to split that state in two, creating New California, which its proponents believe would give greater representation to residents in rural areas.

If the Overton window is this wide open in 2018, maybe it’s just wide enough to allow Illinois to crack like Humpty Dumpty.