In ‘Hyde Country,’ Voters Warily Eye Impeachment, and Fear Its Aftermath

November 13, 2019
In The News

GLEN ELLYN, Ill. — Anna Schroeder was making dinner in her Hinsdale home in this stretch of the Chicago suburbs this year when her 8-year-old son interrupted to ask a question about the impeachment news blaring in the background: Does this mean President Trump is a bad guy?

“We don’t know, but this is what people are trying to figure out,” Ms. Schroeder, 41, a sales executive, recalled saying as she tried to explain the impeachment process to her elementary schooler. “This is what the country is trying to figure out.”

Like many voters in Illinois’s Sixth Congressional District, Ms. Schroeder knows exactly how she feels about the president and his first three years in office — she disliked him so much that his candidacy prompted her to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time.

What she finds more difficult to answer are the questions at the core of the impeachment investigation into Mr. Trump’s conduct: Who is telling the truth about his decision to suspend military aid to Ukraine? Did he abuse his power in pressuring the Ukrainian president to investigate his political adversaries? So what if he did; is that grounds for removing him from office? And what happens once this whole impeachment debate is over?

In more than a dozen interviews here in this politically competitive district, voters, activists and political officials from across the political spectrum said they were already growing weary trying to keep up with the flood of information pouring forth in the impeachment inquiry, which goes public this week. And they were concerned about the deepening partisan divide over a process that could result in the removal of a president for the first time in the nation’s history.

Locals sometimes refer to this area as Henry Hyde country, after the former Republican congressman who, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee at the time, led the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Mr. Hyde, a conservative who died in 2007, was such a fervent foe of abortion rights that the amendment banning federal funding for abortion bears his name.

But the district has long lain at the intersection of party politics. Voters here supported Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 — swinging right to back a Republican, Mitt Romney, in between — and Democrats seized Mr. Hyde’s old seat last year as part of the so-called blue wave that swept them to power in the House.

“We can think of it as a bellwether for the kind of suburban voters that folks think are up for grabs,” Ruth Bloch Rubin, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, said of the district, which curves like a C through five counties and some of the suburbs west of Chicago. “If the political winds are blowing less favorably toward Democrats, for instance, or things are looking good for Democrats, you could make the same guess for other districts.”

The relentless gush of information from the impeachment inquiry has exhausted many voters here, even before the House has begun to make its public case to the American people. The murky overlap of opinion and fact has frustrated them further, and many have reacted by simply tuning it out.

“I have no idea what truth is,” said Darrin Pollino, 52, a Republican who works in sales and no longer watches cable news. “Both sides throw out their comments — they have their own agendas.”

“The divisiveness that’s out there is ugly,” he added. “It’s not worth the stress or aggravation.”

Sania Irwin, 53, an engineering executive and the co-founder of One Community, a civic nonprofit, said when the inquiry comes up during her early-morning runs with friends, she sometimes feels overwhelmed by the onslaught of new details.

“It permeates everywhere — you can’t get away from it,” Ms. Irwin said, sitting in the Glen Ellyn public library. “Just following it can be exhausting.”

“How do you get to a final solution for the country that everyone will accept?” she wondered. “I don’t know. That’s the challenge.”

The Democratic congressman here, Sean Casten, made an early gamble that he could guide public opinion toward an impeachment inquiry, becoming one of the first freshman lawmakers who flipped seats to call for such an investigation this year. Instead of shying away from what many of his colleagues considered to be a political land mine, Mr. Casten — a top target for Republicans hoping to wrest back competitive seats — held impeachment-centric town halls across his district to further explain first the Mueller report, and then the Ukraine matter.

“I don’t think the political question about impeachment is particularly relevant,” he said in an interview at a market in Glen Ellyn, declining to indicate whether he would support articles of impeachment while the inquiry is in progress. “If you think this is the right thing to do, then you should do it. And it behooves you as a politician to explain to people why you think it’s the right thing to do.”

Evelyn Malone, a retired teacher and leader of a chapter here of Indivisible, a liberal grass-roots network that sprang up after Mr. Trump’s election, has pored over the transcripts and documents lawmakers have released in recent days, determined to formulate her own opinion even as she receives missives from national organizations making the case for impeaching Mr. Trump.

“I don’t think impeachment can divide the country any further than it already is,” she said. “At least it will put the truth out there that people hadn’t heard before.”

Given this district’s Republican roots, however, conservative officials argue that the impeachment inquiry will only drive independent voters into the arms of their candidates in elections next year. And with most opinion about the inquiry split down party lines, lawmakers and pollsters believe that independents will determine the political ramifications of impeachment in battleground districts.

“The independents are looking at, not necessarily what the Dems are doing or what the Republicans are doing, but are looking at the strength of the economy,” said Diane Evertsen, the chairwoman of the Republican Party in McHenry County. “It’s basically, ‘Let’s look at the reality of it: Are you better off now than you were six years ago?’”

That has resonated with some voters, including Jerry Newman, a 77-year-old barbershop owner who vows to vote “the N.R.A. way.” In his barbershop in Elgin, Ill., firearm magazines are scattered among the tabloids, and on a nearby shelf, he keeps a flyer for Representative Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House and one of the few he supports. Mr. Peterson was one of only two Democrats to vote against the impeachment inquiry last month when the House considered a resolution laying out rules for the public stage of the investigation.

“I don’t agree with him 100 percent, but I don’t believe in this impeachment stuff,” Mr. Newman said of Mr. Trump, adding that he hadn’t been in favor of impeaching Bill Clinton in 1998 either. “I believe in people — I’d just like them to get along.”

And with the Republican majority in the Senate likely to acquit the president and allow him to remain in office, some wonder whether going through impeachment is worth it, worrying that it will only deepen the country’s divisions.

Sitting in a coffee shop near Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school, Macaila Britton, a writer and photographer, lamented that “there aren’t so many facts as there are feelings” in the discussions she’s observed surrounding impeachment.

“It’s almost like, what’s the point?” the 21-year-old said. “If we’re going to impeach him and he gets re-elected, we could be spending that energy on other issues — L.G.B.T.Q. rights, homelessness.”

But Ms. Schroeder said she believed the process could ultimately help a country deeply at odds over Mr. Trump and his conduct sort through its conflicts.

There will be “some short-term pain,” she said. “We just need to rip off the Band-Aid.