Fresh vs. familiar? Davis touts commitment to 7th Congressional District, but primary rivals want new voices and vision

Though Rep. Danny K. Davis has represented the 7th Congressional District for a quarter of a century, he often votes in line with the younger, more progressive members of Congress. But challenger Kina Collins believes it’s time for a change — not just in the newly redrawn district but across the country.

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Democratic candidates, left to right, in the 7th Congressional District: Denarvis Mendenhall, incumbent Danny K. Davis and Kina Collins.

Democratic candidates, left to right, in the 7th Congressional District: Denarvis Mendenhall, incumbent Danny K. Davis and Kina Collins.

Provided, Pat Nabong/Sun-Times; Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

When Rep. Danny K. Davis was first elected to Congress, Kina Collins was in kindergarten.

Now a 31-year-old gun violence prevention activist, Collins is making her second run against the 80-year-old Davis, this time with the backing of Justice Democrats, a national political action committee pledging to elect “the next generation of progressive leaders.”

By most measures, Collins seems like a natural for the PAC, which is best known for helping New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the so-called “Squad” win seats in Congress and is dedicated to pushing the Democratic Party toward “bold, progressive solutions” and away from “big corporate donors.”

The organization’s biggest success in Illinois was backing Marie Newman’s 2020 primary victory against moderate Democrat Dan Lipinski in the Third Congressional District.

But Davis is not quite Lipinski.

Though Davis has represented the 7th Congressional District for a quarter of a century, he often votes in line with the younger, more progressive members of Congress — co-sponsoring bills such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — Ocasio-Cortez’s signature piece of legislation.

“[My constituents] know that the changes they seek and we seek are not instant,” Davis told the Sun-Times. “It’s a continuation of work, engagement, involvement and commitment to see things through until the change comes.”

Rep. Danny K. Davis talks to a reporter during an interview in his office in the East Garfield Park neighborhood last week.

Rep. Danny K. Davis talks to a reporter during an interview in his office in the East Garfield Park neighborhood last week.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

But Collins believes it’s time for a change — not just in the newly redrawn district but across the country.

“If the Democratic Party is really going to be the party of a big tent, then we have to include everybody,” Collins said.

Two years ago, Collins came in a distant second in a four-way primary, losing with 13.9% to Davis, who won with 60.2%.

This time, in addition to being backed by a national progressive organization, she had raised $70,000 more in campaign funds than Davis as of April.

A third candidate, Denarvis Mendenhall, is a lifelong West Side resident who served in the military before returning home to work as an investigator for the Food and Drug Administration. Mendenhall, 44, says he chose to run because he knows young residents need investment and opportunity.

Denarvis Mendenhall

Denarvis Mendenhall

Provided

Collins was born and raised in the West Side’s Austin community. A murder she witnessed at a young age spurred her work fighting gun violence.

“It changed the entire trajectory of my life and put me on this pathway of violence interruption work … I tell people all the time that I knew the bullet was flying long before anybody pulled that trigger in that incident,” Collins told the Sun-Times. “In Chicago, we deal with public school shutdowns, we deal with the evisceration of our mental health services, we deal with food deserts. … That, to me, is violence and that, to me, is the bullet flying.”

After graduating from Von Steuben High School on the Northwest Side, Collins attended Louisiana State University before returning to Chicago in 2015 to participate in Black Lives Matter organizing and the fight to release the Laquan McDonald videos.

Collins continued her work as an organizer with Physicians for a National Health Program before entering the political arena. She said she is trying to build a community-powered campaign, refusing any corporate money.

Democratic challenger Kina Collins stands next to a map of the 7th Congressional District in her campaign office last month.

Democratic challenger Kina Collins stands next to a map of the 7th Congressional District in her campaign office last month.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Time

“I think that change happens at the intersection of public policy and activism,” Collins said. “I want to tell that story of the everyday working-class people in the Illinois 7th, but I also want to make sure that I’m informing policy and shifting the way that we write policy to include those voices.”

Davis came to the city’s West Side in the 1960s and has represented the district since January of 1997, when he replaced the retiring Rep. Cardiss Collins — whom he had unsuccessfully challenged twice earlier. A former alderman and Cook County commissioner, Davis also waged an unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 1991.

Both Davis and Kina Collins, who is not related to the former congresswoman, agree that economic development is one of the largest issues for voters in the 7th District — which includes West Side neighborhoods of Austin, Garfield Park and North Lawndale — areas impacted by decades of divestment.

Davis touts his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee and role in the recent passing of the Infrastructure Bill as examples of his ability to bring money into the district.

He is counting on his familiarity with voters to win him another term.

Campaign buttons displayed inside U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis’ office in the East Garfield Park neighborhood.

Campaign buttons displayed inside U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis’ office in the East Garfield Park neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

On West Madison Street leading to the congressman’s office, signs stand on nearly every corner reading, “Re-elect Danny Davis. He’s someone you know!”

“This is my community,” Davis said. “This is my home. This is my life. This is what I do.”

But Kina Collins argues those voters — and others across the nation — are ready for someone, and something, new.

“I’m not just running to be the congresswoman in the Illinois 7th, but to talk about a vision for the Democratic Party, which includes young people, people of color, women, and those who do not come from traditional political backgrounds.”

Early voting has begun at the Chicago Board of Elections downtown supersite, 191 N. Clark St., with sites opening across the city on June 13. For more information, go to chicagoelections.gov or cookcountyclerkil.gov/elections.

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