What Freeport can Learn from Savanna, Illinois

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Today is election day in Freeport, and there are many Democrats on the ballot. Despite that Freeport votes Blue in national races, local Democrats are anxious; the city has struggled to elect Democrats to local positions. I reached out to the Democratic mayor of Savanna, Chris Lain, to see how he was able to win in a community more rural and more conservative than Freeport. 

Chris Lain, an Indiana native, and Columbia College of Chicago alumnus moved to Savanna just four years before he was elected as mayor. In a town that voted for Trump by a margin of 54.77% in the 2020 election, Lain was elected by “mostly Republicans,” four years ago, and won his election with 86% of the vote. Lain explained that he “expected to win towards the end, but not by that margin.” 

Despite the conservative lean of Savanna, Lain did not sacrifice his liberal values to win his race. Instead, he focused on “shared values” and issues of “common ground.” “People want to be heard,” it “transcends Republican and Democrat,” Lain said. He explained that Savanna has an abundance of manufacturing and farming jobs, but not enough people to work them. Lain is tackling this issue by encouraging immigration, and he got the manufacturers and realtors on board. Lain will be reaching out to Congresswoman Bustos to figure out what the Biden Administration’s immigration laws will mean for Savanna and how Savanna can attract immigrants. Both Republicans and Democrats in Savanna want to attract more families to the community, immigration policy is how Lain seeks to achieve this. He believes that the way to get Republicans on board with immigration is through jobs. 

Lain explained to me that it was a challenge to run for office as a “gay, liberal Democrat in a small, rural community” but was able to win by “listening.” As a business owner, the community knew Lain, but as an outsider, he had to help people feel more comfortable with him. Lain led a grassroots campaign; he went “door-to-door” to meet with voters and built up a strong social media presence.

As Freeport Democrats struggle to compete with heavily-funded Republican campaigns, Lain explained that that “was an issue here [in Savanna] too.” “I started off with basically nothing,” he said. At the start of his campaign, Lain “invested with a good website” and “social media presence” to get his name out there. From there, he reached out to people for donations, sold merch, and accepted donations on his website. Lain used social media to hold “Topic Tuesdays” on Facebook. Citizens were allowed to submit questions and concerns every week. On Tuesday, Lain would host a Facebook Live event, or post a public statement that addressed the submissions. Sometimes, Lain would invite a guest to join his Facebook Lives to help answer questions that he felt a community member would be better equipped to explain. For example, Lain invited a realtor to discuss ways to bring families to Savanna.

The declining population is making it difficult to keep up with infrastructural costs, as there are fewer people to pay for the same amount of infrastructure. Crumbling roads, for example, are common to both Freeport and Savanna. Lain explained that Savanna conducted an “engineering street study” in which every street in town was assessed to determine which ones required repair. The study evaluated how much repairs on each street would cost, how long it would take to repair each street, how many people each street affected, and which streets would be most financially feasible to repair. Lain explained that the study concluded last year, and three roads are being worked on this year. However, Savanna is looking for outside funding sources because there are not enough people to pay for repairs. New to Savanna is a marketing director who “promotes the city and reaches out to the state” to promote tourism. The tourism industry is expected to bring in $400,000 for the city, which will be invested into infrastructure. 

Both Savanna and Freeport suffer from weak infrastructure and declining populations. Freeport should look toward our southwestern neighbor to learn how another community in the region is tackling similar issues. Freeport Democrats can use Mayor Chris Lain’s victory as a case study; by taking advantage of free resources (the internet) and focusing on shared issues, Democrats can capture Republican votes.