The mad rush to replace Bobby Rush

Seventeen Democrats will be on the ballot in the June 28 primary to replace the Chicago congressman, who is retiring after 30 years

When voters on Chicago’s South Side head to the polls later this month for the state’s first-ever June congressional primaries, they’ll face several changes: warm weather, newly drawn congressional boundaries and the first election in 30 years without retiring Rep. Bobby Rush’s (D-IL) name on the ballot. 

The veteran lawmaker and activist, who is 75, announced in January that he would not seek another term in Congress, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that the decision was sparked by a conversation with his teenage grandson, who said he wanted to get to know Rush better. “I don’t want my grandchildren … to know me from a television news clip or something they read in a newspaper,” he said. 

His decision set off in a Democratic free-for-all ahead of the June 28 primary, with 17 Democrats set to appear on the ballot to represent the heavily blue 1st Congressional District. 

“They all have basically the same beliefs,” Chris Shaffer, a political consultant who works with Democrats in Illinois, told Jewish Insider. “To be honest, I think it’s just a popularity contest, who you think will do a good job, but they all pretty much have the same positions. There’s no real difference between them on taxes and gay marriage and different things.”

Shaffer said the top issues in the race will almost certainly be “kitchen-table stuff” — the economic issues and challenges that voters face every day. 

“The South Side and the West Side deal with issues that are just normal issues: crime, inflation, jobs. There is a Whole Foods that’s a big grocer over in Englewood that is closing, so it’s going to be a food desert again,” Shaffer explained. 

When Rush announced his retirement, he also attempted to anoint a successor, endorsing Karin Norington-Reaves, a lawyer and the CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership. But the relatively limited polling in the race has shown Norington-Reaves, who is also endorsed by the Chicago Tribune, trailing three candidates: Jonathan Jackson, an activist who is the son of the civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson; Pat Dowell, a Chicago alderperson and a former nonprofit administrator; and Jacqui Collins, who has served in the Illinois state Senate for two decades.

The race has not attracted the national attention or spending that has dominated other Chicagoland races. In the Democratic primary in the 6th Congressional District between incumbent Reps. Sean Casten and Marie Newman, outside groups have spent more than $570,000. The nearby open seat in the 3rd Congressional District, where Latino candidates Gilbert Villegas and Delia Ramirez are facing off, has attracted more than $1.8 million from groups including VoteVets, the Working Families Party and Democratic Majority for Israel. 

Instead, candidates in the 1st District are campaigning the old-fashioned way: by going door-to-door and talking to voters, a task made much easier by the warm weather.

“​​We normally have our primaries in March, so it’s a real difference. Normally in the wintertime, if you’re knocking doors at that point, you get sympathy points because you’re showing up to people’s houses in the winters, as opposed to this time around, it’s sunny outside,” said Shaffer. “It’s a totally different kind of campaign.” 

A poll released in May by Collins’ campaign showed Jackson leading with 19%, followed by Collins and Dowell with 14% each, and Norington-Reaves with 5%. Forty-two percent of voters were undecided.

In conversations with Jewish Insider, the four candidates all touched on similar issues as their priorities, namely fighting gun violence, improving economic outcomes in the district and championing voting rights. 

Jonathan Jackson (Courtesy)

“​​It seems like this is the culmination of all my life and work experiences that have come together,” said Jackson, who has made the work he has done alongside his father a central component of his campaign. “My experiences of having traveled far and wide and been in the room… with my father, when he was standing up for free South Africa … I’ve seen the third rail, the outside force, to make the political process go forward.”

Jackson, who is 56, is the spokesperson for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy organization founded by his father — and a place that is a frequent campaign stop for other candidates in Illinois races. In the heavily Black 1st District, the Jackson name offers instant name recognition that the other candidates will have to work harder to achieve. (Collins and Dowell have their own built-in constituencies, whom they have each represented for more than a decade.) 

Most of the endorsements in the race have come from local elected officials and activists in Illinois, but Jackson recently won the backing of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The two are set to appear together at a campaign event tonight. 

“Jonathan has been a fighter for working people for decades, and I know he will fight on their behalf in championing Medicare for All and a Green New Deal when he is in the Congress,” Sanders said in a press release. 

Jackson also boasts extensive experience in foreign policy. He has tagged along on several of his father’s overseas peacebuilding missions since he was a teenager, to places including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. 

His first trip with his father was to Syria in 1984, in what was ultimately a successful attempt to secure the release of Lt. Robert Goodman, who was shot down over Syria while on a mission to drop bombs on Syrian tanks in Lebanon. “I was maybe 18 years of age at the time, 17, 18. We went over there with an ecumenical delegation, Arab, Jewish, Christian and met with the president, Hafez Assad,” Jackson recalled. “That taught me a lesson on taking the initiative: Sometimes you can get just because you’ve asked, and the benefit of being a peacemaker, not just a peacekeeper.” 

With peace in mind, Jackson said he supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “to bring about long-lasting peace,” and he pledged to support U.S. security assistance to Israel, including funding for the Iron Dome missile-defense system. He also expressed support for reentering the nuclear deal with Iran. 

Jackson, who traveled to Israel with his father in 2006 in an attempt to secure the release of two Israeli pilots from Lebanon, told JI that he opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “I respect the depth of history in other parts of the world, from my travel and from the architecture and the language and the traditions and customs,” he explained. “We have to educate some members of our own Congress that there’s a history here.” 

Recent reports from human rights organizations have accused Israel of committing “apartheid” in its treatment of the Palestinians, but Jackson, who for years worked with his father on the anti-apartheid movement, rejected the claim. 

“It is two separate things, two separate times,” he said. “There’s a different set of circumstances right now and they’ll have to be dealt with. Totally independent. That was a racial majority [in South Africa] with minority control. I would say that was different, and what would have to happen as it relates to Israel is multifactorial. The Jewish community has to be involved.” 

Illinois state Senator Jacqueline Collins (left) listens to the invocation during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 28, 2016. (Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Collins was elected to the Illinois state Senate in 2002 following a diverse career path that included a long stint as a TV news reporter, as well as faith-based political advocacy and two mid-life master’s degrees at Harvard. 

“There’s only so much you can do on the state level in the issues that are important to me. I think we’re facing an urgency of now. Rise of white supremacy and nationalism, the attack on our reproductive rights and also the suppression of voting rights,” said Collins, as well as countering gun violence. She authored a bill to ban ghost guns, which was recently signed into law. 

Born in segregated Mississippi, “I came out of the ‘60s, that generation very much influenced by Dr. King and Robert Kennedy,” Collins, who is 73, said. “The Kennedys basically, because of their definition of what public service looks like, Dr. King because of his witness from his faith. Faith informs my public policy. So I come out of that tradition of wanting to give voice to the marginalized.”

She called Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel a role model, and said her admiration for him inspired her to earn a master’s at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago “to study the origins of social justice, which is in the Torah.” 

Collins is Catholic, but her sister Kai Gardner Mishlove — who converted to Judaism — is the director of Milwaukee’s Jewish Community Relations Council. “She’s the one on the forefront of addressing the antisemitism that’s rearing its ugly head in Wisconsin,” said Collins, adding that she is also “well aware of the issues confronting Israel.” 

“​​I’ve also been to Israel, so I’m aware of the geopolitical reality, of how important Israel is as an ally for democracy in the Middle East,” she explained. Collins noted that she would vote to support Iron Dome funding, but that she did not yet have a stance on how to approach Iran.

“I will probably take a position on whether whatever it would mean to guarantee the safety and the security and the existence of Israel. I mean, that would be my guiding principle,” said Collins, who added that she had recently discussed the matter with AIPAC.

Supporting Israel, for Collins, connects her to her faith, and her trip to Israel was a powerful religious experience. 

“I got baptized in the Jordan River,” she recalled. “I wanted to be on the ground. I prayed at the Wailing Wall. I wanted to go through those experiences because the foundation of the Christian faith is in Judaism, because Jesus was a Jew, basically. He was Jewish. So I wanted to understand my Christianity in the realm of the Jewish foundation.”

Collins has dabbled in foreign policy more than many state lawmakers. At the height of the “Save Darfur” movement, she co-sponsored a 2005 bill banning Illinois from doing business with Sudanese businesses and requiring the state to divest its pension funds from companies with ties to Sudan.  

At a national level, Collins earned the endorsement of noted professor and author Cornel West, while in Illinois, she noted that a handful of her colleagues in the Illinois Jewish Legislative Caucus endorsed her. She tied the importance of Israel’s security to political trends in the U.S., namely the rise in white supremacy targeting Jews. 

“We’re moving to a fascist state and the rise of white supremacy here, and white nationalism is becoming more and more — well, it’s being emboldened,” she said. “So we have to be critically aware. We have to be serious about the threat. We have to be serious about the threat here in the United States, as well as protect the interests of Israel, and stress the point of Israel’s right to exist on all levels.” 

Pat Dowell (Courtesy)

Representing a population of 2.7 million people, Chicago’s city council exerts significant influence over the country’s third-largest city. Dowell, who chairs the budget committee of the 50-person body, has served as an alderperson since 2007, an experience that she said has been characterized by “working with the people in the community, trying to move the needle on my community, making it better. And I have done that, moving two grocery stores into a community that was a food desert, bringing in a new classical school, creating and supporting dozens of new businesses that bring in jobs and amenities to the community, to building new parks.”

Dowell, who is 65, grew up in Queens, where her parents — a janitor and a nurse — were active in the community. “Being an only child and them not wanting to let me stay at home a lot by myself, they dragged me to a lot of meetings,” Dowell said, “so I watched my parents spend a lot of their free time working on concerns in our community.” 

After reading about the city of Chicago and its glamor and excitement on the pages of Ebony magazine, Dowell moved to the city to study social work at the University of Chicago. She stuck around in a career that included time as a social worker, a nonprofit professional and a university educator. 

Dowell, who loves to travel, told JI that she would be eager to work on foreign policy as a member of Congress. “I’m somebody who has traveled a great deal,” she said, “so I have a view from the ground, so to speak.” 

She traveled to Israel about eight years ago, and was set to go on another trip to the region to connect with Israeli and Palestinian women that was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Israel is a country that is surrounded by people, or surrounded by countries that don’t want them there, and then every day, people have to live out their lives, [to] self-actualize, be creative, have fun, build families, build institutions and businesses, always concerned about the security of their country,” Dowell said. “That was something that came across to me when I was at the border of Syria in Israel, and saw peacekeeping troops there.” 

While in the region, “the other thing that I saw was, that I had some concern about, frankly, was realizing that the Palestinians are dependent upon Israel for everything. So the lights, the electricity, water, and there’s something wrong with that picture,” she explained. “So I have been somebody who’s been supportive of a two-state solution.” 

Dowell, who said she opposes a boycott of Israel, added that she “understand[s] the importance of” the Iron Dome. “I think Israel has the right to protect and secure itself.”

She vowed to work with Israel to head off the Iranian nuclear threat but did not say how she intends to do so. “I think the United States should work closely with Israel to, how should I say it, to sort of halt Iranian aggression,” Dowell said, but added, in response to a question about her views on the 2015 nuclear deal, “I don’t know that I can answer that question specifically.”

If she is elected, Dowell pointed to her time as chair of the budget committee as an experience that prepared her well for the ideological divisions both across the aisle and within the Democratic Party. 

As budget chairman, Dowell explained, she has to work “across the various ideologies within the city council, from the regular Democrats and the progressives to the Democratic Socialists to the Republicans to pass a budget that supports every community in Chicago,” said Dowell. “That’s not an easy feat to get the required votes. But I’ve always tried to create a win-win situation.” 

Karin Norington-Reaves attends the 2018 National Retail Federation Gala at Pier 60 on January 14, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Norington-Reaves has not held public office, but she is no outsider to public service, having worked at nonprofits as a Teach for America educator and as an attorney with several government agencies. 

“I’m a third-generation Chicagoan and I’ve been a 20-year resident of the 1st Congressional District,” Norington-Reaves told JI. In recent years, she has seen changes in her neighborhood, as other families moved away because of growing gun violence. She decided to remain with her son and to head up a nonprofit job training center. 

“This is not normal, and it’s not OK,” she said of the area’s gun violence. “Several years ago, Congressman Rush called upon community leaders and others, state leaders and private sector leaders, to really make an investment in the community. And I had to make a decision, Do I stay or do I go? And so I decided to stay.”

As a Teach for America teacher in Los Angeles’ Compton neighborhood during the Rodney King riots, Norington-Reaves — who was already set on going to law school — decided to go into public interest law. The experience of working with young people and their parents who felt trapped due to generations of poverty “really just changed the trajectory of my career,” she said. 

Norington-Reaves, who is 52, has a longtime interest in foreign policy and other cultures, dating to her college years, when she majored in Spanish and studied Italian and Portuguese literature. She is also of Haitian descent, and adopted her daughter from Haiti six years ago. 

“I think a lot needs to change with respect to our immigration policies, and our demonization of people who come to this country seeking a better life,” she said. “I also think that the U.S. has a role to play in keeping peace throughout the world.” 

That role, she said, extends to “being a check with respect to Iran, and ensuring that Iran does not have access to nuclear weapons,” and playing a role “with respect to a two-state solution in brokering peace, and helping to mediate and negotiate.” 

On those two issues, she supports a return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and continued U.S. security assistance to Israel. Norington-Reaves added that she opposes the BDS movement. 

“Part of the problem is that it sort of starts from a premise that Israel shouldn’t exist,” she said, and referred to a recent conversation with a friend to explain her thinking on the topic.

“He said, ‘Israel is to Jewish people what Wakanda is to Black people,’” recalled Norington-Reaves, referring to the fictional African nation home to the superhero Black Panther. “I said, ‘Yeah, only Israel is real.’ Wakanda is this fictionalized, beautiful society where you can defend yourself, and you can be safe, and your culture can flourish. And Israel is a real place in which that can happen as an ancestral homeland for practitioners of the Jewish faith. And if BDS is rooted in the premise that Israel should not exist as such, then that’s a problem.’”

She also called for building bridges between communities as a way to fight antisemitism, and described a college seminar she took “about the architecture of oppression, and the otherizing of people who are different, as well as the great massacres that we experienced through slavery, and that Jews experienced in the Holocaust.”

“When I think about what it takes to create a structure of oppression, it makes me think about what it takes to disassemble that,” said Norington-Reaves, “and what it takes is sitting knee-to-knee with somebody who is very different from you, and seeing their humanity and learning about their humanity and learning that we have more in common with one another than  that which separates us.”

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