How George Lipper Changed Forgottonia By Bill Edley
George Lipper and I met thirty years ago when I owned a small business and served as President of the Macomb, IL Chamber of Commerce. George owned the only radio station in the county and was Chairman of the Chamber’s Transportation Committee.
“Interstate highways are like canals were in the late 18th Century, like railroads were in the 19th century, and like hard roads were in the early 20th Century,” George shared. “Those communities that had them could participate in the growing economic actives and those that didn’t withered away.”
Western Illinois University with 12,000 students is located in Macomb. Macomb is located in western-Illinois, an area that the locals called “Forgottonia” because the region was so Republican that when Republicans held political power the region didn’t get anything because Republicans took the counties for granted and when the Democrats held power they thought of the area as hopeless territory. Thus, no matter who held political power, the public needs of the area weren’t being met.
George understood that the area was 60 plus percent Republican, but he believed the economic issues important to the region depended on a proactive government, and therefore Democrats could have a shot at winning an important election---if the candidate had the right message.
For instance, WIU depended on enrollment from the Chicago area which was over 200 miles from Macomb. However, the five counties surrounding WIU didn’t have an interstate highway connection to Chicago. In fact, there wasn’t an inch of four-lane highway in any of those counties.
The region’s Illinois State Representative lived in Macomb, but instead, of serving on appropriation committees, he served on both House Judiciary committees. As could be expected from this lack of attention, WIU came in dead last with the smallest state funding percentage increase of all the 12 public universities for ten years straight, even though its enrollment was increasing.
In 1986, George sold his radio station and the two of us decided to change the political status quo. George ran as a Democrat for State Representative opposed to the incumbent Republican and I served has his campaign manager. “Send a Message” was our campaign theme.
Nobody with the Illinois State Democratic Party thought we had a chance and wouldn’t return our phone calls. So we raised $25,000 locally ($50,000 was average for a race at the time). We both did a lot of door-to-door campaigning. We made a lot of silly mistakes such as spending money on balloons and handing them out at parades. But even with our mistakes, George was so good with the media that his campaign began to catch fire as Election Day approached. As you might expect, he was very good in debates. He was informed, articulate and forceful without being unfriendly. In other words, he was driving his opponent nuts.
He made only one serious mistake. In a radio debate a few days before the election a reporter asked him--“What can you do to save the family farm?’ George replied honestly, “Not much, the consolidation of agriculture began 100 years ago and the trend isn’t changing---rural America must find other industries to maintain economic growth.”
We didn’t win that election, but George aggressive campaign encouraged his Republican opponent to leave the state legislature and run for District Judge. George then encouraged me to run in 1988 and I won what the Illinois Issues Magazine called “the greatest election upset of 1988.” Believe me without George’s encouragement and guidance I never would have made the race.