A rush to be first

In January, U.S. Representative Bobby Rush announced his retirement, and for the first time in 30 years, the seat for Illinois’s First Congressional District is wide open.

A whopping 17 Democratic candidates (and four Republicans) are vying to represent this south-side/south-suburban district. Among them are an alderperson, a state senator, a son of Reverend Jesse Jackson, and several activists, business leaders, educators, and pastors.

“This is literally unpredictable,” said Pete Giangreco, a Democratic consultant who has campaigned for Rush, Barack Obama, and Representative Mike Quigley. “Anybody with a little bit of [political] base, a little bit of money, and a little bit of shoe leather could win this thing.”

We spoke to political insiders to break down this key race. The election will take place on June 28, 2022, and early voting is now available.

The past

Though its shape has changed over time—it now stretches farther into the suburbs, from Bronzeville on Chicago’s south side all the way to Bourbonnais in Kankakee County— the First Congressional District has been a bastion of Black political power for nearly a century. During the Great Migration, more than 500,000 Black people moved to Chicago to escape the segregated south, but due to discriminatory housing practices, were confined to overcrowded living conditions in certain south-side neighborhoods.

As a result, the majority of the First District’s residents were Black people, and in 1929, they voted for Oscar De Priest, a vocal desegregationist who was the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century. Since De Priest’s historic win, Black men have continued to represent the district. William Dawson, who served from 1943 to 1971, built the city’s first Black political machine through shrewd politicking and his close ties to Mayor Richard J. Daley and President John F. Kennedy. Harold Washington represented the district for one term before becoming Mayor of Chicago and played a key role in extending the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In 1992, 2nd Ward alderperson Bobby Rush successfully challenged the incumbent congressman, Charles Hayes, who was implicated in an ethics scandal days before the primary. A co-founder of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party alongside Fred Hampton, Rush ran for Congress as an insurgent candidate advocating for economic and anti-violence reforms.

In his 30 years in office, Rush, now 75, has advocated for gun control—a resolve strengthened after his own son was murdered in 1999—and introduced historic legislation such as the Emmett Till Antilynching Act that was signed into law in March. In 2012, Rush was kicked out of a session of Congress for wearing a hoodie in protest of Trayvon Martin’s murder.

His civil rights record has earned respect from a constituency that elected him 15 times (U.S. representatives serve two-year terms). But in recent years, he’s garnered criticism from people who feel he’s out of touch with residents and the modern Black liberation movement. He’s also come under fire for his low attendance record in Congress.

Jacky Grimshaw, who ran Harold Washington’s congressional campaign and worked for him until he died in 1987, referred to Rush as a “backbencher” and “do-nothing congressman” who wasn’t responsive to community needs until people started running against him.

In 2000, Rush defeated little-known primary opponent Barack Obama—the first and only time Obama lost a race. “Barack is a person who read about the civil-rights protests and thinks he knows all about it,” Rush told the Reader at the time.

In 2020, three activists challenged him from the left; Rush kept his seat easily, winning 71.5 percent of the vote.

On January 2, Rush announced he was retiring to spend more time with his family and ministry. “I don’t want my grandchildren . . . to know me from a television news clip or something they read in a newspaper,” Rush told the Sun-Times. “I want them to know me on an intimate level, know something about me, and I want to know something about them. I don’t want to be a historical figure to my grandchildren.”

The present

Currently, there are 17 Democratic candidates in the race; four Republicans are also running in the June 28 primary. Since Rush was elected, Republicans running to represent the First District have never received more than 30 percent during the general election.

Why is this race so crowded? “People have been waiting for this opportunity,” said Grimshaw, who has endorsed Jacqueline Collins in the race. “All the folks who had ambitions to go to Congress, they’ve been stymied for 30 years. When he finally gets out, the dam opens and you have a flood of candidates.”

Stephanie Skora referred to the race more irreverently, calling it a “clown car.”

“Every time you think you’re done looking at all the candidates, there’s one more that comes jumping out the door,” said Skora, writer of the progressive voter guide “Girl, I Guess,” which also endorsed Collins.

The race offers a wide-ranging mix of conservative, moderate, progressive, and radical Democrats—some with decades of experience in politics or organizing, and some with major name recognition among Black voters in Chicago. For many candidates, such as Jahmal Cole, who began his campaign a year before Rush announced his retirement, this is their first time running for public office.

For others, it is another attempt: Ameena Matthews is running again after garnering 7.8 percent in 2020, and Alderperson Pat Dowell decided to run one day after Rush’s retirement announcement, dropping her bid for Secretary of State. Karin Norington-Reaves ran for 6th Ward alderperson in 2007, but gained only 14.1 percent of the vote.

Democratic candidates raised a total of $2.74 million as of June 8, according to the watchdog website Open Secrets. At the time, Swain had raised the most with $535,632, followed by Dowell with $531,812, Norington-Reaves with $456,802, Jonathan Jackson with $374,303, and Jacqueline Collins with $159,426. Jahmal Cole has raised $153,622.

Progressives have rallied around multiple candidates in the race, with no clear coalition. A week after announcing his retirement, Rush endorsed Norington-Reaves, former CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, who was also recently endorsed by the Tribune. Dowell was endorsed by SEIU Locals 1 and 73 and several alderpeople.

Jackson was endorsed by Representative Chuy Garcia, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, and, amazingly, Judge Mathis of television fame. Collins was endorsed by state senate colleagues, including Don Harmon, Robert Peters, and State Senator emeritus John J. Cullerton as well as Dr. Cornell West and Father Michael Pfleger of Saint Sabina.

This crowded field calls into question the value of Bobby Rush’s endorsement. In many Chicago-area races, the incumbent has heavily influenced who will succeed their term, but those in the First District seem undeterred by Rush’s anointment of a successor. Delmarie Cobb, who ran Rush’s first campaign in 1992, said, “I don’t know that he has coattails in terms of turning out votes”—Rush’s son, Flynn, lost an open statehouse race in 2018 to Curtis Tarver—“but he may have coattails in terms of helping [Norington-Reaves] raise money and get endorsements.”

Jerry Morrison, who worked on Rush’s campaign against Obama in 2000, and whose employer, SEIU Local 1, has endorsed Dowell, was also skeptical of how much it would sway voters. “An incumbent congressman endorsing someone in a field of unknown candidates is significant, [but] in a field of very well-known candidates, it’s probably not as important,” he said.

“It’s not the Lipinski seat,” political consultant Giangreco quipped, referring to the Third Congressional District, where Bill Lipinski and his son, Dan, presided for more than 25 years before Marie Newman won the seat in 2020.

Instead, Giangreco compared this race to Illinois’s Fifth District. In 2009, Rahm Emanuel vacated his congressional seat to become White House chief of staff, and a special primary was held. Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley did not have the money or endorsements that his rivals had, but low voter turnout, a 12-candidate field, and reform-minded messaging allowed him to clinch the Democratic nomination with only 22 percent of the vote, according to Giangreco, who worked on his campaign.

“I think this is very much the same story, just on the south side,” he continued. “There is going to be a spirited battle and the person who wins may only get 20 or 25 percent of the vote.”

Jonathan Jackson is perhaps the best-known candidate in the race. Jackson is the national spokesperson for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which his father Jesse Jackson Sr. founded, and the owner of a Bronzeville-based construction contracting company. He touts his international advocacy—going on trips with his father—and his connection to Martin Luther King Jr., his godfather. Multiple sources expressed skepticism at his influence, compared to his father and brother, Jesse Jackson Jr., who represented the Second District in Congress for 17 years and resigned in 2012 amid health issues and a probe into campaign fraud.

A progressive organizer on the south side, who asked for anonymity because of their employer, said they think Jackson is an OK candidate, but added, “As a city, I think a lot of people are sick of the Jackson name. . . . Not saying that Jesse Jackson [or his son] didn’t do a lot of good work, but this is Chicago, and we don’t have a monarchy.”

Cobb, who is not in the race, has worked for both Jesse Jackson Sr. and Jr., and says the aphorism “familiarity breeds disrespect” applies when discussing the Jackson legacy. “What I see is that, when people are close to people, and see them every day and take them for granted, there’s not that same level of esteem and respect,” she said. “Whereas from afar, people think about the Jacksons very differently.” She thinks there may be hesitation because of the manner in which Jackson Jr. stepped down, but “if you’re looking for people who are willing to take on the establishment, who are willing to speak truth to power . . . Jonathan would be one of them.”

In such a crowded race, the outcome may come down to influence. “Does the Rush endorsement mean more than the Jackson name? That’s the great unknown here,” said Giangreco.

For the most part, no candidates have gone negative on each other. At one point during a May 23 candidate forum hosted by Indivisible Chicago-South Side and UChicago Democrats, Norington-Reaves lambasted “a certain candidate” for receiving an endorsement from an organization that advocates for defunding police. Called for comment, Norington-Reaves said she was referring to Our Revolution’s endorsement of Jackson. Her campaign also sent out an email that attempted to paint Jackson as supportive of defunding police based on the endorsement.

The sources I spoke to generally agreed the frontrunners in the race were Collins, Dowell, Jackson, Norington-Reaves, and Swain, based on fundraising, endorsements, name recognition, campaign infrastructure, and professional record. A May 17 poll released by Collins’s campaign projected Jackson capturing 19 percent of the vote, Collins with 14 percent, Dowell with 14 percent, Norington-Reaves with 5 percent, and Swain with 3 percent.

But so much is still up in the air—even Collins’s poll told her that 42 percent of voters were undecided.

The future

The Illinois primary election will take place on June 28. Early voting is open now to Illinois residents. Democrats and Republicans who win their primary elections will face off in the general election on November 8, 2022.

Typically the primary election takes place in March, but last year, Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a package of election reforms that shifted the 2022 primary forward by two months. Morrison, who has worked on many political races, said the delayed primary date, the proximity to Independence Day weekend, and the fact that this is a midterm election (no U.S. president on the ballot) could lead to low voter turnout. “People in Illinois aren’t accustomed to voting that late in the season.”

Depending on the outcome, the person elected to represent the First District could have a long-term effect on national policy. “These seats don’t come up very often,” Giangreco said. “It’s a safe Democratic seat. . . . Once you win them, you tend to have a long career in them.”

Cobb says people should be doing as much research on these candidates as they would if buying a car. “All these people have a record, whether you were in the private sector or the public sector. If you’re a progressive, where have you been on the big issues? Why didn’t I see you? Those are the questions people need to ask themselves. Don’t let somebody tell you who they are.”

Whoever wins the primary will have large shoes to fill.

“This has always been an activist seat,” Cobb said. “When you look at the types of people—larger-than-life personalities and activists—that have held this seat, there’s a legacy that follows. Those are the kinds of people [First District residents] want representing them—somebody who’s going to fight, somebody who’s going to make sure they have a voice in Congress and bring resources back to the district.”


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