Friday, July 07, 2006

When in Rome

Or in this case, “When in Sparta.” Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Thursday the media like to polarize the state on issues. That was shortly after he highlighted the cultural differences between northern and southern Illinoisans, shooting basketball hoops in Chicago versus shooting quail in Sparta.

The Governor joined other state and local politicians in cutting the ribbon of a huge, $50-million World Shooting & Recreation Complex in Randolph County (the state’s share of the cost was $29 million, explaining why $29 million appears on all state press releases). The 1,600-acre complex was built on an old coalmine and boasts of trap fields, sporting clay courses, all terrain vehicle demonstration areas, archery courses and exhibition center with restaurant.

The theme of the complex was best stated by Sparta Mayor Randy Bertetto: It’s been a road long traveled. The effort started more than five years ago under Republican Gov. George Ryan’s administration and hit one GOP senator called “a bump” – a transition into a Democratic administration.

Republican Sen. Dave Luechtefeld of Okawville said the credit of ensuring the shooting complex remained a priority goes to Joel Brunsvold, retired director of the state Department of Natural Resources and 20-year member of the Illinois House. (He chaired the Illinois Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus and the Illinois Democratic Sportsmen’s Alliance – Blagojevich joked that Brunsvold wore his nickname of “Gunsvold” as if it were a badge of honor.)

“It’s a little bit political in Illinois,” Brunsvold said during the ceremony. “When you get $29 million in bonds like this, there has to be a little blood [shed], a little yelling and screaming. Everybody had to get their piece of flesh.”

Everyone seemed pleased Thursday, patting each other on the back. Rep. Dan Reitz, a Steeleville Democrat, thanked fellow Democratic Reps. Brandon Phelps of Norris City, Tom Holbrook of Belleville, John Bradley of Marion and Democratic Sen. Gary Forby of Benton for their lobbying. And, Reitz said, he “definitely” needed to thank the governor.

Blagojevich said he has supported building the complex since before he became governor. From an economic development standpoint and out of respect for the cultural and traditional sport, it was good for the state. He compared it to why the Legislature approved using taxpayer dollars to renovate Soldier Field for the Chicago Bears and the former Comiskey Park for the Chicago White Sox. “Why would it be different then when you pursue a legitimate sport down here in southern Illinois?” Blagojevich said.

Some eyebrows rose, considering his stance on gun control. The governor’s State of the State speech in February highlighted his effort to ban assault weapons after a federal ban expired in 2004. Thirteen years earlier, the governor tried to increase the fee for FOID cardholders as a way to raise money for other services. Thursday, Blagojevich said the FOID card effort was “worse than youthful discretion.”

“I’ll be damned if we raise your FOID card, I’ll tell you that,” the governor said Thursday, repeating his pledge not to raise income or sales taxes if re-elected in November. Citing his own campaign commercial, he added, “I’m a little bit older, wiser and prouder today.”

The governor acknowledged regional differences, repeating his favorite anecdote about his immigrant father settling in Chicago and working as a steelworker. He grew up “shooting hoops” rather than shooting guns. “It’s a little bit different down here,” Blagojevich said. “A guy in my neighborhood who has a gun, that's a ‘gang banger,’ and he ain’t hunting deer or quail. That guy’s up to no good.”

He said if his dad would have settled in southern Illinois and worked as a coal miner, he would have grown up shooting quail just like “you all” (many standing audience members were Polo-shirted state and local government workers).

After the ceremony, Blagojevich said he hasn’t flip-flopped on gun control issues. “I think people get it. I think people recognize there’s a big difference between respecting and supporting the rights of law-abiding citizens to be hunters, to pursue their sport, whether it be trap shooting or skeet shooting or target practice, and whether or not gang bangers who are criminals ought to have assault weapons and AK-47s.”

Also after the ceremony, Luechtefeld said, “I think people know where the governor stands on gun issues. The groups that do care, we’ll let them know how strongly he is against guns. I’m just happy he was willing to support this project, and I think he made the decision that, politically, this was good to support. And that’s what he did.”

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