A ‘Justice Democrat’ picks a new fight with a longtime Chicago liberal

Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), the veteran Chicago congressman, has long been regarded as one of the most progressive lawmakers in the House. The 79-year-old Democrat, whose voting record has earned high marks from several liberal advocacy groups, frequently stands to the left of his party on issues both foreign and domestic. He voted against the Iraq War in 2002 and has co-sponsored bills proposing Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. In April, Davis signed on to legislation that would restrict U.S. aid to Israel. 

Still, the long-serving incumbent appears to have fallen from favor among some of his traditional allies. In recent election cycles, Davis has fended off far-left challengers who allege that he has grown complacent throughout more than two decades in office, while finding fault with contributions he has accepted from corporate political action committees.

Davis is now fielding such criticisms anew as he prepares to defend his seat against Kina Collins, a gun violence and healthcare activist, in the 2022 midterms. The 30-year-old Chicago native ran against Davis in the last cycle in Illinois’s heavily Democratic 7th Congressional District, losing by nearly 50 points in the four-way primary. But as she climbs back into the ring for round two, Collins is confident that she will have better luck pulling off an upset. 

“People are hungry for new leadership,” Collins declared in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “We want to organize the district to help bring that change.”

Collins, who announced her candidacy earlier this month, may have reason for optimism. Buoying her campaign is an endorsement from Justice Democrats, the formidable national progressive group that is also now backing left-leaning challengers running to overthrow established incumbents in New York City and Nashville, Tenn.

“Kina Collins is part of a generation of community organizers who have been engaged in the social movements that hold the center of energy in the Democratic Party,” Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, told JI. “Kina’s policy work and activism in the Black Lives Matter movement, in gun violence prevention and for Medicare For All represents the kind of leadership and urgency we need more of in the Democratic Party.”

Justice Democrats has helped a number of progressive insurgents take down Democratic incumbents in recent primaries, including in the Chicago suburbs. Last cycle, freshman Rep. Marie Newman (D-IL) unseated former Rep. Dan Lipinski, a conservative Democrat, with support from the group.

Like Collins, the organization is now targeting Davis for a second time. In 2018, Justice Democrats backed Anthony Clark, an educator and community organizer, in its effort to take down the 12-term congressman. Clark also notched an endorsement from the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which had previously thrown its support behind the incumbent. Davis emerged largely unscathed from that race but failed to secure more than 80% of the vote for the first time in his congressional tenure. 

In 2020, when Collins came in second, Davis pulled in just over 61% — an indication, however faint, that his hold on the district was loosening.

Davis has not yet officially launched his campaign for the 2022 midterms, but he confirmed to JI that he intends to run again for a 13th term and expects to declare his candidacy before the end of summer.

Progressive Pitch

Collins is no doubt hoping she can capitalize on any perceptible shift in declining voter support for Davis, even as an upcoming redistricting leaves the dynamics of the race — Illinois is poised to lose a congressional seat next cycle — somewhat in flux.

The community organizer leans on her personal story, which is deeply intertwined with her professional trajectory, while making her case to voters. Collins, who grew up on the West Side of Chicago, witnessed a fatal shooting in front of her childhood home — an early formative experience that she credits with leading her into local activism. 

“My story is similar to a lot of the young people of color in my district,” said Collins, who, like Davis, is Black. “Oftentimes when we hear about gun violence victims, or even the shooters, there’s no humanizing either way, and so what I knew very intimately was that the bullet was flying long before anybody pulled the trigger in my neighborhood.”

Collins is a founder of the Chicago Neighborhood Alliance, a gun violence nonprofit, and worked as an organizer for Physicians for a National Health Program, which advocates for single-payer health insurance. In 2018, she helped author the Illinois Council on Women and Girls Act, which advises state lawmakers on issues affecting women and girls.

The congressional hopeful supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, while arguing in favor of increased police accountability as well as stricter gun control measures like universal background checks, banning assault rifles and increasing the legal age for gun purchases to 21 as gun violence has surged in Chicago. 

But experts question whether voter enthusiasm is likely to coalesce around Collins, particularly given the circumstances of the race, in which the candidates are aligned on several key issues. Davis, whose grandson was shot and killed in 2016, has been an outspoken advocate for gun control legislation in Congress, and he is in favor of a number of policies Collins is backing on healthcare and the environment, among other issues .

“You can’t go much to the left of Davis,” said Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a former Chicago alderman. “He’s still a sort of a moderate progressive, but it seems to me his votes in Congress pretty well represent the district or may be even more liberal than the district.”

Thomas Bowen, a Democratic consultant in Chicago, agreed. “He’s very popular and very well-known,” Bowen said of Davis. “To be successful against a longtime congressional incumbent, you definitely need a lot of progressive energy, a lot of unhappiness with the quote unquote ‘Democratic establishment,’ and I just think that doesn’t exist here right now.”

Collins acknowledges Davis’s progressive bona fides. But she says that he has failed to live up to his potential in terms of policy achievements, arguing that the pandemic has exposed deep-seated inequalities that have festered on Davis’s watch. “He came in as a progressive,” Collins told JI. “I am not naïve in understanding the history of Congressman Davis. But when you’ve been in Washington, D.C., for 24 years, and you’ve been an elected official for nearly 40, you become a part of the problem that a lot of people see in our government.”

“Certain parts of our district, which include areas like the downtown portion of the city of Chicago, have flourished and thrived in those 24 years,” Collins added. “Other parts of the district, like the West Side and South Side of the city of Chicago, have been left behind. Those are just the facts.”

Davis, for his part, rejects the characterization. “It’s ludicrous,” he said in an interview with JI. “It’s totally, totally, totally ludicrous. It’s campaign stuff.”

Eye on Israel

Despite the acrimony, the candidates may have trouble finding areas of disagreement on matters of substance. While foreign policy is unlikely to emerge as a key issue of debate in the primary, Collins and Davis seem to hold similar views, at least with regard to Israel.

Collins, who visited Israel in March 2019 on a two-week trip sponsored by the Israeli consulate in Chicago, supports conditioning American foreign aid to the Jewish state. “I would support the conditioning of aid of any country that we give funding to if we feel that there are international human rights violations happening,” she said. “If we feel that our values and our morals are not aligning with what that aid is being used for in that country.”

Asked for specifics, Collins suggested that the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, during which Israel was accused of using disproportionate military force, was grounds for withholding foreign aid to the Jewish state. “We have to look at the reports and the things that are coming out when conflicts like this arise,” Collins said, “and we do have to be cognizant that these were children who were also being murdered as this conflict was happening and that number was climbing.”

Collins opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, but makes clear that she still supports such political expression on First Amendment grounds and would not seek to legislate against the movement in Congress.

During his time in office, Davis has cast votes and co-sponsored bills that indicate a tougher stance on Israel than the majority of his Democratic House colleagues. He was one of just five representatives who voted “present” on a 2019 resolution condemning the BDS movement. Later, he was among 18 co-sponsors of a resolution introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) affirming “the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad.”

Recently, Davis co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) seeking to restrict aid to Israel that would be used for “the military detention, abuse, or ill-treatment of Palestinian children in Israeli military detention,” among other things.

“There are no simple solutions to very serious problems and serious issues, so there has to be the massaging, if you will, and interaction and negotiations taking place to arrive at an ultimate decision,” Davis said broadly of his support for the bill. “But at the same time, there are some things on balance,” he added. “I mean, I’m a law-and-order kind of person, but I’m not in favor of law enforcement misconduct. I’m not in favor of police brutality. I’m not in favor of destroying children.”

Davis, who says he has visited Israel three times, emphasized that he is philosophically aligned with J Street, the left-leaning Israel advocacy group now on a mission to advance a new policy objective: restricting aid to Israel. J Street is endorsing Davis for reelection in the 2022 cycle, as it has in each election since it first backed him in 2010, a spokesperson for the organization confirmed to JI.

Davis said he was considering accepting an invitation to visit Israel with J Street in August but had not yet decided if he would make the trip. “If I go with J Street, I’ll do what we’re going for: to look at the situation, to talk with people, talk with government officials. Generally, when I’ve gone, I’ve talked with both sides.”

J Street did not respond to a request for comment about the trip.

Though Davis characterized himself as a steady, if somewhat critical, supporter of the Jewish state, he has often found himself at odds with pro-Israel activists in Chicago. “Danny Davis has not been all that great of a friend to us,” said David Rosenberg, the president of CityPAC, a local bipartisan pro-Israel group. “It’s been an uphill battle to get him to move in our direction on these issues,” Rosenberg told JI, “so in that regard it’s been disappointing that he’s taken some of the stances that he has.”

Rosenberg said he was unfamiliar with Collins’s views on Israel, and that she did not reach out to CityPAC during her last run for Congress. 

Shahid, the Justice Democrats spokesperson, conceded that Collins and Davis are relatively in sync on Israel. But he suggested that Collins would be more holistically proactive in her advocacy. “I don’t see major differences on that issue between the two,” he told JI. “I think more broadly speaking, Collins, like other Justice Democrats, would take more of a community organizer and bully pulpit approach to all issues more than Davis has. Taking the fight to the court of public opinion rather than solely in Washington.”

Style aside, the two candidates aren’t exactly in tune on every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In conversation with JI, Collins argued that Israeli society includes “elements of apartheid,” citing “marriage laws” and “inequities in infrastructure” that she observed traveling through Israeli cities like the predominantly Bedouin town of Rahat two years ago. 

“I think it’s important not to blame in this moment, to sit in a place of acknowledgement that I’m not a part of the Israeli community or the Palestinian community,” she said. “But when I can make linkage to some of the life experiences that I’ve had here in America of feeling like a second-class citizen as well, then, you know, I do have to take that stance and say we should be speaking up about those issues.”

But Davis dismisses such analogies. “No, I don’t agree with that,” he said when asked if he would compare Israel to an apartheid state. “All of these harsh statements and banishments. I mean, I’m an advocate for change. But I’m also an advocate for change in a balanced way, and so I suspect that I’m a bit more deliberate.”

Jewish community relations

If the congressman seems somewhat cautious, it may be because he is still struggling to overcome a controversy in which he praised Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has been accused of espousing antisemitic rhetoric, as an “outstanding human being.” His comments, made in a 2018 interview with the Daily Caller, were widely condemned — and remain a point of tension with Jewish community members in Chicago, despite Davis later walking back his remarks.

He was reluctant to dwell on the heated topic when it came up in the interview with JI. “I’ve never praised — I’ll tell you what, I’m just not going to even get into that,” Davis said.

Collins, however, made clear that she wouldn’t be sidestepping the issue. “It’s hurtful, and it is absolutely unacceptable language,” she said of Davis’s comments. “It should not have required political pressure to say that this is unacceptable language, and that ‘I condemn it.’ I think it also just speaks to why we need a new vision.”

Oren Jacobson, a Jewish community activist in Chicago, said that Collins established herself as an outspoken voice against antisemitism after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh three years ago. “Kina was somebody I reached out to,” said Jacobson, a co-founder of Project Shema, an antisemitism awareness group. “She participated with us afterwards and spoke up pretty aggressively in support of the Jewish community and was one of the strongest voices in the aftermath.”

Kina Collins

“Chicago in itself has a very rich history and tradition of both the African American community and the Jewish community working together around movement work,” Collins said of her involvement with Jewish activists in the city. “Aside from standing in solidarity when we see an uptick in anti-Blackness or antisemitism,” she told JI, “I’ve built relationships with young Jewish leaders who are organizing around a plethora of issues, whether it’s fighting for voting rights, fighting for reproductive healthcare, or saying that, you know, white supremacy, antisemitism, anti-Blackness, Islamophobia have no place in this movement.”

While Jacobson said he disagrees with some of Collins’s views on Israel, an issue they have discussed in depth, he appreciates that she has expressed firm support for Jewish self-determination as well as a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “She seems to be grounded in the desire to be a bridge-builder and not be divisive,” he said. “She’s always trying to learn and deepen her understanding of the issue.”

Collins expressed disappointment with the manner in which some community activists in Chicago addressed the violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza last month. “There were several protests, mass marches that happened here in the wake of the recent conflict that escalated, and there was no community meeting, there was no convening of the minds,” she said. “That needs to change, because these are difficult conversations. But in order for us to move forward, we’re going to have to bring folks together to educate ourselves.”

As for Davis, he claims to have built strong relationships with his Jewish constituents. “I think my relationship with the Jewish community in my district is the same as it is with all people in my district,” he told JI. “That is, I do my best to represent them, and I interact with them enough to know a little bit about what they want and how they want to be represented.”

He denied the existence of any lingering tension following his Farrakhan comments. “There’s never been any tension between me and the Jewish community in my district,” he said. “I mean, you know, there are some people, if you say go up, they’re going to say, go down. If you say, go across, they’re going to go sideways. And so you don’t expect everybody in any group to agree with everything that you do and everything that you say.”

Still, the congressman’s open admiration for Farrakhan — even if renounced — has caused lasting reputational damage in the district, according to Jewish community members who spoke with JI. Such comments, coupled with his somewhat limp support for the Jewish state — at least by the standards of pro-Israel advocates — would seem to put him in something of an uncomfortable position with Jewish voters in the district, who made up a population of 22,000 in a definitive 2014 survey.

But on other issues of concern to Jewish groups in the district, including social services like Medicare funding and tax deductions for charitable donations, Davis — who chairs the Worker and Family Support subcommittee of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee — has been a “very strong partner,” according to a source who is aware of the situation but asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the discussion. “He’s a champion, and he’s there doing the kind of work that’s important, not just for the Jewish community.”

“It’s complicated with him,” the source concluded.

The road ahead

As the midterms come hazily into view, Collins is betting that her early entrance in the race will give her the running start she needs to build out her campaign infrastructure while abjuring donations from corporate PACs. Though she ran against two other challengers last cycle — including Clark, the educator who had previously earned the backing of Justice Democrats — no other candidates have yet declared. Kristine Schanbacher, a litigation attorney in Chicago, ran in 2020 with strong backing from the pro-Israel community. But she told JI that she would be sitting this cycle out. 

“I’m not going to be running in the 7th District,” Schanbacher wrote in an email. “I will say that I don’t believe either the incumbent or the challenger are strong Israel supporters, which is very unfortunate.”

Recently, three Democrats — House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Terri Sewell (D-AL) — launched a PAC, Team Blue, that will support incumbents who are being challenged from the left next cycle as the party seeks to defend its razor-thin majority in the House. The group, according to an NBC News report, will offer resources to incumbents like Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who is facing a Justice Democrats-backed challenger, as well as Davis.

A campaign spokesperson for Jeffries, however, suggested that the PAC’s formation did not amount to a formal endorsement of Davis’s reelection bid. “No official endorsement decisions have been made in any race,” the spokesperson told JI.

Davis sounded relatively unconcerned by the prospect of competing against Collins for a second time in the upcoming primary. “She is a Justice Democrat running for office,” he told JI, noting that he had no knowledge of her presence in the district before she ran in 2020. “I think I’ve always been characterized as an independent Democrat.”

But deeply entrenched incumbents have been caught off-guard before, most notably last election cycle, when freshman Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), backed by Justice Democrats, unseated longtime Rep. William Lacy Clay, Jr. (D-MO) in St. Louis.

Collins argues that the solidly blue district is in need of innovative new policies that she vows to promote aggressively if she is elected. “We would get no political backlash,” she told JI, “for being bold and audacious on this progressive policy.”

Next year, Collins will find out whether voters feel as if Davis has already fulfilled that promise.

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