Growing up in a South Side political family, Howard Brookins Jr. looked up to Bobby Rush, the Black Panther who became an alderman and congressman.
Brookins helped Rush in his 2000 re-election campaign, when the incumbent brushed aside a young, little-known challenger named Barack Obama. In turn, Rush endorsed Brookins’ unsuccessful bid for Cook County state’s attorneyeight years later.
But now Brookins is one of two candidates seeking to unseat Rush in theMarch 15 Democratic primary in the state’s 1stCongressional District, which includes much of the South Side and south suburbs.
“Everybody has fond memories of [Rush], but he’s been unwilling or unable to do the job the last few years,” said Brookins, who’s been 21stWard alderman since 2003. “He’s phoning it in.”
Rush missed more votes than any member of Congress, according to a recent report by the ProPublica news organization. Since 2007, Rush did not participate in 22.4 percent of U.S. House votes.
The congressman said serious health problems affecting him and his wife were the main reasons for those numbers. Rush said his wife nearly died, and he chose to be with her rather than at work.
“I had to be at her bedside, praying, holding her hand,” he said. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do the same thing.”
He said he doesn’t think his absentee rate was a fair reflection of his record in office since 1993.
“I’m still one of the hardest-working members of Congress,” said Rush, who turned 69 in November. “My leadership transcends Washington, D.C., and what happens on the floor of Congress.”
Rush said he has brought home federal tax dollars for improvements to the Dan Ryan Expressway and the CTA’s Red Line and he long ago began pushing for a Department of Justice investigation of the Chicago Police Department.
Asked why the federal probe only began recently, after the notorious police shooting of Laquan McDonald, Rush said it was because many mayors have had close ties to the White House. The probe did not start “until they couldn’t avoid it,” he said.
Rush said he has no plans to slow down, although he added, “The thought has occurred that I need an exit strategy.”
Brookins, 52, tried to get Rush thrown off the ballot by contesting the validity of his nominating petitions. Failing in that, Brookins has persisted in his late-starting bid.
The alderman acknowledges that “it’s tough” to compete with Rush. Brookins had reported raising less than $139,000 for his campaign through Feb. 24.
Still, Brookins has the endorsements of Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and City Council colleagues Roderick Sawyer (6th), Carrie Austin (16th) and Matt O’Shea (19th).
Rush said those endorsements won’t have an impact on the race.
“I have lot of heavy hitters with me,” he said, listing Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), the Chicago Federation of Labor and Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli.
Over the years, Rush has been able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds, mostly from special interest groups, records show. The congressman’s political fund has paid his wife, Carolyn Rush, nearly $483,000 in consulting fees in the last nine years.
Brookins and the other challenger, city worker O. Patrick Brutus, have keyed on a series of ethical questions raised about Rush.
The bipartisan House Ethics Committee has said it was investigating whether Rush improperly received free rent for decades on his campaign office. That decision was based on reports from the Office of Congressional Ethics, which concluded there was “substantial reason” to believe the free rent should not have been permitted.
Rush said the investigation is ongoing but he denied wrongdoing.
“The Ethics Committee is trying to suggest I should have been paying, but I maintain I should not have paid rent,” he said.
The free rent — which was first reported in the Chicago Sun-Times by the Better Government Association —was estimated to be worth $365,040 over 20 years.
“I don’t think it’s that amount,” Rush said, adding that the office was “rarely used.”
The BGA also revealed Rush got a $1 million grant from the telecommunications giant SBC, now known as AT&T, for a South Side community technology center that was never built.
Rush says the money went toward other, good uses. But he said he did not have the documents to back that up.
Brookins had his own brush with scandal. The alderman’s former chief of staff, Curtis V. Thompson Jr., was convicted of taking a $7,500 bribe and sentenced to 15 months in prison last year.
In court records, Thompson said he wore a recording device to help federal authorities “ensnare” Brookins. The alderman was not charged with wrongdoing but says the issue “has been dogging me.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong in the matter or they would have indicted me,” Brookins said. “No U.S. attorney is going to give an alderman a pass.”
Rush said he regretted ever aligning himself with Brookins, whose father was a state senator. He said Brookins has been forced into runoffs in two of the last three council elections because he’s a weak alderman.
“I foolishly wasted my time trying to help this ingrate become state’s attorney,” Rush said. “Howard Brookins is a loser.”
The third candidate in the race, Brutus, is a 46-year-old employee in the city’s Department of Community Development. He launched a run for the Democratic nomination in the 2ndCongressional District in 2013 but dropped out before election day.