The political landscape in Effingham and Shelby counties is being shaped by the political force that is President Donald Trump. Its rippling contours are evident in the increasingly vibrant voices raised to defend and attack him.
Immigration, health care, abortion – the debate over each rings louder than ever. The right has been emboldened by a president it cheers as a man unafraid to speak his mind; the left has been invigorated by a president it condemns as unfit for the job.
"There's no redeeming factor about him," said Jim Harvey, 69, of Effingham. "The best thing he can do for this country, to make it great again, would be to resign and plead guilty to the many crimes he's committed.”
Harvey knows all too well that 78 percent of the voters in Effingham County cast ballots for Trump in 2016. That just makes the retired judge all the more vocal.
“Saying this out loud in this county means it could lose you your teeth,” Harvey said.
Harvey's polar opposite is Marilyn Wirth, 66, also of Effingham. Their dueling viewpoints have frequently appeared as contributions to the Opinion Page of the Effingham Daily News. Each has taken heat for their perspective. Each remains undaunted.
“Some say the Republicans were the obstructionists when Obama was in office," said Wirth, a retired bank teller. "And now the Democrats are the obstructionists, with Trump in.”
As Central Illinois and the rest of the nation lurch toward the midterm elections on Nov. 6, contested races at the local and state level, including a governor's race rife with rancor, add fuel to the fiery discourse ignited by Trump.
Democrats say louder voices are needed to rise above today's political din. The Effingham County Board, which has long rested firmly in GOP hands, has two newcomer Democrats seeking seats against Republican incumbents. Democrats are also running for the General Assembly and the state senate seats representing Effingham County. Many chastise the district's Republican congressman who once supported term limits, but this year is running for the 11th time.
GOP voters, meanwhile, stand firm in their support of the president and the ideologies that put him in the White House. Locally, they hope to maintain Effingham and Shelby counties as defiant pools of red in a state that the country sees only as pure blue.
Voters on the right and left have found just one piece of common ground as 2018 draws to a close.
This election is crucial, they say in unison.
Gary Rhodes, 68, of Effingham, enthusiastically attended the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2016. He considers himself "mostly Republican," despite growing up in a family of Democrats.
His wife, Kimberly Rhodes, 62, doesn't like being labeled as belonging to a specific party, although she also considers herself "mostly" Republican. She, too, grew up in a family of that strongly supported Democrats.
“Common-sense deficiency is running rampant in our country today,” said Kimberly Rhodes. (She is not the Kim Rhodes running for Effingham County coroner.)
Vickie Dasenbrock describes herself as a diehard Democrat. On a recent morning, she joined Shirley McEvers at their party's headquarters in Effingham to talk about issues they say are crucial.
Dasenbrock, 63, wore a t-shirt that read, “Sick and Tired of Winning.” She called it a spoof of Trump's campaign talk, “We're going to win so much, you're going to be sick and tired of winning.”
“Get involved in politics on the local and state level,” said Dasenbrock, of Effingham. “Make your voices heard in a way that it counts.”
McEvers, 63, used to be a Republican. She changed parties in 1993. Today, she regularly attends Effingham County Board meetings. McEvers said Republicans around Effingham County, who far outnumber Democrats, need to educate themselves.
“If they would do their own research, many will find out they have been led down the wrong path,” said McEvers. “Just like I was myself for a number of years.”
Harvey, meanwhile, preaches that people should just plain vote a straight Democratic ticket in November.
“I have a sign in the trunk of my car, that I sometimes put in the window of my car," he said. "'Vote Democratic or learn to speak Russian. Your choice.'”
And yet, Harvey invites vigorous political debate and discussion. He remembers a time when that was useful.
“We don't have two parties, effectively, any more," Harvey said. "We have President Trump and his followers, who have basically hijacked and gutted the Republican party. I'm a Democrat, but I see the need for an opposition party that is decent and fair, to keep both parties in check.”
Gary Rhodes senses a silent majority at work across America, people who do not express their opinions publicly, and who are not actively involved in politics – until they enter the voting booth.
“That's probably the reason we have the president we have today, because they are silent,” he said. "They aren't out there waving banners and creating havoc and mistrust. They are saying, 'We've got common sense. We know what needs to happen.'”
Rhodes and his wife said it's important to invest some time learning about candidates. Both believe going beyond party affiliation is important.
“You just have to look and see, 'What do I know about that person?'” said Gary Rhodes.
“I think this is a critical election for us,” said Wirth. “If Democrats end up taking over the House, we're going to start seeing impeachment hearings. Then all of the things (Trump) accomplished will go down the toilet.”
Gary and Kimberly Rhodes believe that walls serve a purpose. They embrace the one proposed along the Mexican border by Trump.
“You've got to respect those people who have come over here legally and have done things the right way,” said Gary Rhodes. “But, for those who go around them and vote illegally in some areas, that's wrong.”
Kimberly Rhodes said it all boils down to just doing things the right way.
“America welcomes all nationalities, if you come into the country the right way,” she said. “You need to respect what our Founding Fathers have built this country on."
Wirth, too, wants stronger borders.
“I think both sides can agree that our immigration system is broken,” she said. “The wall is only one part of a comprehensive way to fix or reorganize the system.”
She used this analogy: A fence or a locked door at your home doesn't necessarily mean that you hate the people on the outside of your property. You simply want to keep your family safe.
“Not all migrants are bad,” said Wirth. “There are many types of migrants. Some have overstayed their visas. Some have crossed over the southern border. We are all for people who are willing to come here and assimilate, and not take advantage of our system.
“But what Trump has not been able to get across to his critics is that he is trying to keep the bad element – those bringing in drugs from the southern border and those involved in human trafficking. To be fair, not all immigration stories are the same.”
Wirth said the Democrats' policies are based “more on emotions and not common sense.”
Health Care and Abortion
McEvers called national health care important because it protects pre-existing conditions, as approved under the Affordable Care Act during the Barack Obama Administration.
“I am totally in favor of national health care,” said McEvers. “We have a granddaughter that was adopted into the family addicted to drugs. How many families are willing to take a child in addicted to drugs who will cry for the next six months?”
McEvers stressed that people need to understand that the ACA covers pre-existing conditions on the newborn who might be born with birth defects, so they can get necessary care.
Some say the Affordable Care Act isn't affordable. They're grateful for the Trump administration policy that takes effect in 2019, removing the mandate that everyone have health insurance.
Wirth said the liberals are outraged about Trump's policy on separating families at the border, because children can't be detained with their parents who are under criminal investigation.
“But, it is OK to separate a mother and a child still in the womb,” said Wirth. “Pro Choice people don't want to give a fetus 'personhood' status.”
Kimberly Rhodes doesn't believe that abortions should be used as a form of birth control.
“If we believe in Father God in what He has taught us, children are a blessing from Him,” she said.
Dasenbrock said abortions should be a personal choice. As an adoptive parent, she knows if her child's birth mom would have chose abortion things would be different for her.
“If you don't want to have an abortion, then don't have one,” said Dasenbrock. “If I thought that every abortion stopped meant that some childless family could get a child, I'd say that's great. But, that's not the case. I'm aware I wouldn't have my child if his mother had an abortion. But, every situation is different.”
McEvers believes that if it wasn't for the ACA, there would be more abortions due to birth defects, because one out of 33 babies are born with some kind of birth defect.
“Due to modern medical technology, the vast majority of these birth defects are detected,” said McEvers. “In the past, parents might have opted to abort, because they couldn't afford long-term medical care for the babies. With ACA, children are protected and covered for the rest of their lives.”
Wirth doesn't like the way Trump is portrayed in the media.
“Sure it was terrible what he said about grabbing women by the private parts,” Wirth said. “But, the media aren't getting both sides of the story. Back when Trump was like a New York celebrity playboy, I'm sure he had groupies, just like some rock and roll guys. Women would literally let men have their way with them. That was the culture he was in at the time.”
Many stories that would shine a positive light on the president aren't shown on CNN or ABC or CBS or MSNBC, Wirth said. Those outlets only tell negative stories about Trump, she asserted. Still, she likes how he responds to those portrayals.
“We've got a fighter,” said Wirth. “Trump won't sit still. Granted, sometimes he kinda goes overboard.”
Without his Twitter account, the public wouldn't get the whole story, Wirth said.
Wirth said she still on the 'Trump Train', regardless of news she hears. She says many people don't like the president's style, but they like some of his policies that affect the economy, foreign affairs and the military.
Gary Rhodes believes that Trump has it right and works around all the “fake news” with his busy Twitter account.
“You can't trust the news,” added Kimberly Rhodes. “I think there is fake news from most politicians.”
Gary Rhodes said he tries to view different news networks and viewpoints – CNN, Fox News, NPR – and not let himself be driven in one direction.
“Trump found a way around that fake news through his Twitter,” he said.
“I disagree with the way President Trump is tweeting,” said Kimberly Rhodes. “The more quiet you are the more people will listen. But, I agree he's got guts and I agree with what he's doing. Our economy is showing that.”
Dasenbrock said she doesn't see any “checks and balances” and it appears as a “free for all,” in the Trump Administration, with everyone trying to get their agendas run through. Meanwhile, he's Tweeting about television ratings, or NFL players taking a knee, she said.
“I judge my opinion of (Trump) by exactly what comes out of his mouth,” said Dasenbrock. “It's not about 'fake news' or 'news media' or what's on my Facebook feed. I watch his speeches and his rally speeches, and his press briefings. I base my opinion of him on exactly what I see coming out of his mouth. Not by any type of media or what my friends think.
“The Republicans voted and then turned off their TV,” said Dasenbrock. “What kind of an ass do you have to be to be dis-invited to two funerals (Barbara Bush and John McCain) and a royal wedding? (Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.)”
Local and state races
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner overwhelmingly won Effingham and Shelby counties four years ago. Although he'll likely win comfortably here against Democrat J.B. Pritzker, his support among many Republicans is wavering over issues such as his signing of the law that allows Medicaid to fund abortions.
“The governor's race is one of those races that you have to hold your nose to vote,” said Gary Rhodes. “I'm definitely not a fan of J.B., but I don't like the abortion issue with Rauner. He's flip flopped. He's more pro-choice now.”
He said Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan of Chicago is the “common denominator in what is wrong in this state. Period.”
Republican John Shimkus has represented the Illinois 15th Congressional District since 1997. He faces Democrat Kevin Gaither of Charleston, who grew up in Sullivan.
“I like Shimkus,” said Gary Rhodes. “I like his values and the direction he's going. I think he's my choice.”
McEvers disagrees with the way Shimkus has been doing business. She's aggravated that he has broken his promise to limit his own term in Congress. She's disappointed that he won't have town hall meetings.
“He's afraid to come out and face the voters,” said McEvers. “It's going to be an interesting two years.”
Harvey thinks Shimkus has overstayed his welcome in Washington.
“He has been a reliable rubber stamp for everything that Donald Trump wants,” said Harvey. “He was elected initially on his pledge to the people to run for five terms. He was against all of these long terms.”
Harvey is also upset that Shimkus refuses to hold town hall meetings.
Gary Rhodes still supports Trump two years after attending the inauguration.
“I think the proof is in the pudding – the strong economy, people are working and if you want a job, there's a job out there for you,” he said.
He added that the U.S. has better relationships with other countries because Trump isn't a “push over.”
“Unless you put those people in place they, such as North Korea or China, will build a power that is bigger than us,” he said.
Trump says he has brought back the steel industry to the U.S., including Illinois, where steel workers will restart operations at a location closed in 2015.
“If we were ever in a war, we could very well lose because we have no steel manufacturing here,” said Gary Rhodes. “We've shipped it all out to Mexico and China and Korea. Trump is trying to bring that back.”
Harvey isn't buying it.
“It is almost a misnomer that Trump has policies,” said Harvey. “I think Trump's policies are whatever comes out of his mouth that strikes him. If he's asked a question, the first thing that pops into his head comes out of his mouth – and that then becomes policy.”
Wirth believes Trump can save Social Security.
“It is real lopsided,” said Wirth. “There are not enough people paying in to pay for the Baby Boomers who are now retiring. But, if the economy keeps going and more people are working, more people are paying into Social Security.”
She points to the robust economy under Trump.
“All of the predictions about if Trump won, the stock market would crash, but it has done the complete opposite,” said Wirth.
Dasenbrock, meanwhile, can barely bring herself to say Trump's name.
“Move forward,” said Dasenbrock. “So far, since he's been in office, all he's done is undo everything Obama has done in the past eight years.”
If there's a silent majority out there, she thinks those who are a part of it need to get moving.
“The president is sitting in the White House not because of the Republicans who voted, or the Democrats who didn't vote, but because of those who did not vote at all,” said Dasenbrock.
Effingham High School student Gage Payne admits he's got plenty to learn about the upcoming election.
“As it gets closer, and as I become of age, I'll research it more,” said Payne. “The mid-terms could easily sway me. When I hit 18, I should pay more attention to politics. It will affect not only the economy around me, the prices and overall way of life that we have.”
Effingham High School student Madison Storm will be a couple weeks shy of being eligible to vote on Nov. 6. She turns 18 on Nov. 22.
When she does vote, she wants to know about who is running and what they stand for.
“I'll have to see how the individuals seeking election and why they do what they do and if their ideas will benefit me and my family,” said Storm.
Nick Miller, 18, is ready to vote Nov. 6. The Cowden-Herrick High School student describes himself as an independent.
"I feel like being in politics is very important at a young age, just because it's kinda working toward the future," he said.
Miller said it's the duty of U.S. citizens to vote.
"This is one of the biggest steps people have to take," he said. "It takes maturity, it takes knowledge. You have to be able to understand. You have to be intellectual about it," he said.
Kennedy Nolen contributed to this story.
Dawn Schabbing can be reached at email@example.com