Big field seeking to fill big shoes in historic 1st Congressional District
Nearly two dozen candidates are running in the First Congressional District, which stretches from Chicago’s South Side nearly to Kankakee. “It really is important that you have somebody that speaks truth to power,” said political consultant Delmarie Cobb, who ran retiring Congressman Bobby Rush’s first campaign in the district.
For a generation, Democrat Bobby Rush has represented Illinois’ 1st Congressional District, the latest and longest-serving holder of a House seat centered in the heart of Chicago’s historic South Side African American community.
After nearly 30 years in Congress, Rush opted not to seek a 16th term, and a field of nearly two dozen candidates quickly assembled, each hoping to join the roll call of political luminaries who’ve represented the district, a list that includes Oscar De Priest, the first African American elected to Congress from a northern state, and Harold Washington, who went on to be elected Chicago’s first Black mayor.
An open seat in a heavily Democratic district in Chicago will always draw a crowded field of contenders. The First Congressional District was redrawn this year to include a narrow section that stretches from the city through the south suburbs almost to Kankakee.
But the South Siders whose votes will likely decide the race tend to see their representative in Congress as a champion of the Black community in Washington, said longtime political consultant Delmarie Cobb, who ran Rush’s first campaign in the district.
“The city vote is still the biggest vote in the district, and in the city, it really is important that you have somebody that speaks truth to power,” Cobb said. “It seems like whenever a bill [is introduced] in Congress that favors African Americans, you know it’s hard to pass. You have to be willing to fight.”
With so many candidates splitting the Democratic vote, Cobb said it’s probably too close to predict who will win the fight for the seat. Cobb is not working for any of the candidates, but she did offer a list of top contenders among a field she found impressive for its number of solid political pedigrees or strong private sector resumes:
- Jonathan Jackson, son of civil rights legend the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
- Ald. Pat Dowell, whose 3rd Ward is at the core of the district and leads all candidates in fundraising.
- Karin Norington-Reaves, Rush’s choice to succeed him and head of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership.
- Jonathan Swain, a Hyde Park businessman with experience in City Hall who is close behind Dowell in fundraising.
- State Sen. Jacqueline Collins, who has received endorsements from more than 20 of her Statehouse peers.
- Jahmal Cole, activist and founder of the non-profit My Block My City My Hood.
- Charise Williams, deputy director of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority.
The candidates differ little on policy.
At two recent forums that together included 14 of the 17 Democratic contenders, the candidates all voiced support for the Green New Deal, student loan debt relief, federal marijuana legalization and — with the exception of candidate Chris Butler, an anti-abortion pastor — all favor codifying the right to abortion into law.
Other Democrats in the race are Nykea Pippion-McGriff, former president of the Chicago Association of Realtors; attorney Cassandra Goodrum; first-time candidate Michael Thompson; Robert Palmer, a Chicago Public School teacher; Kirby Birgans, a first-time candidate who is openly gay; Steven DeJoie, a banking consultant; Ameena Matthews, a community activist and violence interrupter; Terre Layne Rosner, a college professor from south suburban Frankfort; and retired postal worker and minister Marcus Lewis, who is hoping for success in his seventh run for Congress.
With so little difference on the issues, the Democrats stress their credentials.
Jackson touts his proximity to power during a lifetime at his father’s side, including negotiating the release of Americans imprisoned in Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein. But in an interview with the Sun-Times not long after his announcement, Jackson said his campaign is not about having the most famous name in the race.
“It’s nothing that was bequeathed. It’s not a dynasty. It’s a legacy of service. It’s going to the front line to make a difference,” he said soon after he announced.
The Jackson family name helped Jonathan Jackson’s brother Jesse Jackson Jr. win election in the neighboring 2nd Congressional District and Jesse Jackson Jr.’s then-wife, Sandi, to secure a seat in the City Council — although both were later convicted for misspending campaign cash. Jonathan Jackson campaigned for Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton and has been endorsed by Our Revolution, the progressive organization founded by the Vermont senator.
Norington-Reaves points to her experience in job creation and economic development working with government agencies at the city, state and federal level, and said she would champion public-private partnerships to increase hiring and investment in depressed areas.
“There are differences across the district, but the common thread is around economics,” Norington-Reaves said in an interview. “People want to be able to live a quality life, have a good job and salary that allows them to pay their bills and take care of their family. That is universal.”
Collins, who grew up in Englewood and lives in Chatham, has served in the state Senate since 2003 and points to her accomplishments in Springfield, including sponsorship of a recently passed bill banning so-called ghost guns in the state.
“I am the only proven progressive in the race,” said Collins at an online candidate forum hosted by Indivisible Chicago-South Side.
Dowell touts her experience on the City Council and her history as an urban planner who worked under three Chicago mayors before taking office in 2007. In her ward, Dowell has worked to bring in grocery stores and other businesses that have helped make Bronzeville one of the city’s hottest real estate markets.
“I am the person [in the race] with accomplishments that you can really see on the ground,” she said.
Swain suggests the key to many local issues actually depends on the ability of Democrats nationally to protect voting rights and win elections at the state and local level to increase the Democratic majorities in Congress.
“I will say, at its core, all of these issues are about access to the ballot box and voter participation,” Swain said. “What we’re facing now, with the Supreme Court rolling back Roe vs. Wade and what’s happening in state legislatures, that’s all rooted in how voting has been impaired in a lot of places.”
Cole’s extensive ties to community groups across the South Side could be a source of potential grassroots appeal that some observers believe might make him a frontrunner. Cole said his move to politics follows Rush’s own career arc from community activist to Congress.
“We can give out emergency money at the nonprofit level, we can build hundreds of block clubs, but I still feel like it’s not enough to make sustainable change,” Cole said in an interview. “The problems we have are too entrenched. These are policy problems, not nonprofit problems.”
Cole had discussed running for office with Rush before the congressman announced his retirement. Cole said he asked Rush when he would know he was ready to run for something.
“He said you never know if you’re going to be ready, so just run and you’ll at least be ready for the next time,” said Cole, who entered the race before Rush opted out.
“Then, when I jumped in the race he called me, and I told him ‘You said, “Run for something,”’ and he said, ‘Not against me.’ But he was cool about it.”