Spend any time these days in Illinois’ expansive 1st Congressional District and you’re liable to bump into a candidate trying to succeed U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush for the historic seat.
A total of 17 Democrats are on the ballot, the most for any congressional race in the state. And no wonder: If history is any guide, whoever wins the primary will hold the seat for years, if not decades.
It’s a bit of a scrum as the candidates try to differentiate themselves while crisscrossing a district that had once represented mostly just Chicago’s South Side but is now half-city, half-suburban and includes towns from just outside Chicago to as far away as bordering Kankakee.
What’s more, most of those running in the June 28 Democratic primary — from elected officials, entrepreneurs and grassroots activists to even one of the sons of civil rights icon Jesse Jackson — generally share the same views on national issues and aren’t offering vastly differing positions on how they would effect change in a deeply divided Congress that could be controlled by Republicans in the near term.
“They basically all support the same things one way or another,” said veteran political strategist Delmarie Cobb, who isn’t working for any of the campaigns. “They’re all pro-choice, anti-guns, pro-health care cost reforms. So it’s a question of what you’re going to do specifically for the 1st District. A candidate needs to have that vision, to show people they have an idea to accomplish those things they all say they’re going to accomplish.”
While political campaigns are usually forward-looking, history is also playing a significant role.
The 1st District seat isn’t just the rare safe Democratic district with no incumbent on the ballot that draws a bunch of aspirants. It’s a seat famous for its political importance to African Americans.
When Oscar De Priest won the 1st District seat in 1928 — with the backing of Chicago’s Republican machine and Mayor William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson — De Priest became the first Black person elected to Congress in the 20th century and the first ever in the North. De Priest’s victory marked a milestone in Black urban political power in Chicago and, nationally, gave the district a special significance.
After De Priest, the seat has been held by seven Democratic congressmen, a roll call of federal lawmakers that includes congressional powerhouse William Dawson and Harold Washington before he became Chicago’s first Black mayor.
Rush, a former Black Panther, has held the post since 1993. While it was a seismic political event when the onetime “radical” won, Rush long ago morphed into a sometimes-conflicted elder statesman who amassed political power strong enough to defeat a young Barack Obama in the 2000 Democratic primary for the seat.
The Democratic candidates this year are all Black, and the significance of the seat is its own issue in the campaign.
“It has a legacy of folks … a lot of big names there,” one of the candidates, business owner Jonathan Swain, said. “What I can say is all of them were reared and developed by the richness of the district, and those days in particular, the South Side. And for me, I’m a son of the South Side.”
Today, the district is 49.7% Black, according to state Democrats who designed the latest Illinois congressional map. The redrawn district, which threads from the South Loop through the South Side and deep into the south suburbs to the edge of Kankakee County, gives the 1st District the most number of African American residents of the state’s 17 congressional seats. Still, it is a significant decrease from prior configurations that had Black residents as a clear majority districtwide.
During a recent candidate forum at St. Mark United Methodist Church in Chatham on the South Side, Swain and 13 of the other hopefuls pitched themselves as Rush’s obvious successor but all struggled to stand out from the others. Time and again, they said the issues that mattered most in the district were jobs, inflation, health care and public safety. Explaining why they were better than the other candidates usually ended with a pitch about upbringing or experience.
Jahmal Cole framed his campaign through the lens of his work as the founder and CEO of My Block, My Hood, My City, the nonprofit that seeks to give young people opportunities to get involved in their communities.
“All types of activists, we all have our different tactics and agendas in addressing issues,” he said at the St. Mark forum. “Some activists, they don’t have nonprofit programs. Their specialty is making sure causes aren’t forgotten, and I think that’s great for Chicago because they put pressure on institutions to address issues we care about, right? So I think that we all work together as activists, and we need a partner in federal government to help us.”
Charise Williams said her work as the chief of staff and a deputy director at the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority has prepared her to bring home the bacon from the capital.
“Representation matters. You need a person in the room who can be able to get this money from Congress and give it to the community,” Williams told the crowd at the St. Mark forum about her work at the ICJIA, which is a state agency dedicated to improving the administration of criminal justice. “This is what I’ve been doing (in) my work at ICJIA … I’ve allocated hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to the communities, and honestly I’m the only one who has.”
In an interview with the Tribune, Chicago Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd, said her 15 years representing her ward, which includes parts of Bronzeville, the South Loop and Washington Park, have prepared her for the responsibility of representing the 1st District.
“I’m no stranger to parts of my district, and I would be honored and proud to be the first woman to represent this historic 1st Congressional District,” Dowell said.
In addition to Swain, Dowell, Cole and Williams, other candidates who have tried to elbow for attention include Karin Norington-Reaves, who has received Rush’s endorsement and is the coordinator for federal workforce training for Chicago and suburban Cook County, state Sen. Jacqueline Collins of Chicago, Nykea Pippion McGriff, a real estate agent and former president of the Chicago Association of Realtors, and Jonathan Jackson, a civil right activist and son of Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Jackson likely has the most name recognition due to his family’s history in Chicago, but whether the elder Jackson’s legacy has enough pull anymore remains a question as well as other issues the family has faced in recent years.
Jackson’s brother, Jesse Jackson Jr., represented the nearby 2nd Congressional District from 1995 to 2012 but resigned while he was under federal investigation for misusing campaign funds. He later pleaded guilty to wire and mail fraud and was released from prison in March 2015.
Voters in the district aren’t focused on that history, Jonathan Jackson said.
“I haven’t heard it,” he said in an interview with the Tribune.
Jonathan Jackson himself has had two issues with tax collections, records show, one with the IRS for more than $52,000 and one with the state of Illinois.
Both liens have since been lifted, records show, after Jackson said he paid what was owed. The most recent was in March as he ramped up his run for Congress. The state a month earlier had filed a $7,770 lien against Jackson for his 2018 state income taxes, according to state records. Jackson said the problem occurred because he received mail about a required payment at an office he didn’t visit during the pandemic.
On the campaign trail, Jackson argues he’s most ready to get things done for “this storied district with an incredible history,” pointing to his past work nationally and with members of Congress locally on voter registration drives and other programs through his father’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
“I start with relationships in the Congress, so that’s one point of differentiation (compared with other candidates),” Jackson said. “So I would say I would not be a regular freshman congressperson.”
Jackson, who owns a construction company in Bronzeville, also said he wants to work in the House to bring jobs to the region. He said there will be more “onshoring” of manufacturing and he’ll help make the Chicago area attractive to companies.
“I want to make sure that we are positioned for the future, electronic vehicles and battery recycling, the innovation, the subassembly, the manufacturing,” Jackson said. “The automobile is basically a computer with four wheels now, so how are we looking at the future to make sure we’re positioned for it?”
While his name recognition might be high, as of mid-April Jackson’s campaign only had about $130,000, according to Federal Election Commission records. That’s less than half the $321,000 that Swain, the top money-getter in the race, has raised, FEC records show.
Swain owns his family’s Kimbark Beverage Shoppe in Hyde Park, and is president and CEO of LINK Unlimited Scholars, a nonprofit group that works to help Black youths to succeed in college. He also has a long history in city government.
After serving as 17th Ward Ald. Terry Peterson’s chief of staff, he worked in the city Planning Department under Mayor Richard M. Daley, who eventually appointed Swain to chair the city Zoning Board of Appeals. Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans later named him to the Chicago Board of Elections.
In his first political race, Swain said the contributions give him “a leg up” in the crowded field in showing other potential supporters his campaign is serious. And the money will help him get his story out.
“I believe I’m the candidate with the most unique experience in this race, in that I have significant government experience, but I also have business experience and I also have experience working with young people, nonprofit experience, community experience,” he said.
While money will pay for flyers and help build a campaign infrastructure, other issues such as organization, strategy and an ability to connect with voters will also be key.
On the strategy front, Dowell is counting on her deep ties in the city to help her cause. She said she’ll dedicate the nearly $300,000 that records show she had on hand as of mid-April on mailers, phone banks and other ways to inform voters about her City Council track record of working with colleagues, a harbinger of her ability to get things done in Washington, D.C.
“People think the City Council is monolithic, and it’s not,” Dowell said. “We have people of different persuasions, Republicans, Democratic Socialists, old-line Democrats, progressives — you name it, we have that in the City Council.
“And I have been the kind of alderman and leader that’s been able to create consensus around some things in City Council to be able to represent the differing viewpoints of my colleagues in order to get a win-win for neighborhoods in the city of Chicago,” she added.
Whether city support will be enough for any candidate remains to be seen since half the district includes an array of suburbs close to the city and others closer to farmland.
Other Democrats running for the seat include Ameena Matthews of Tinley Park, Steven DeJoie of Chicago, Kirby Birgans of Chicago, Robert Palmer of Chicago, Terre Layng Rosner of Frankfort, Cassandra Goodrum of Chicago, Marcus Lewis of Matteson, Michael Thompson Jr. of Chicago, and Chris Butler of Chicago.
There are also four Republicans vying for the GOP nomination in the June 28 primary. While the 1st District as designed by Illinois Democrats leans heavily Democratic, whoever wins will be joining a bitterly divided U.S. House of Representatives where the GOP has designs on reclaiming the majority.
State Sen. Mike Hastings, a Democrat from Frankfort who is not running for the congressional seat but whose Senate district is part of the 1st Congressional District, said he expects the big pack of challengers to split up the Chicago vote. The tally from the south suburbs could tip the scale, he said.
“I think some people are underestimating the importance of the suburbs,” Hastings said. “But in order to make inroads in the suburban part of the district, a candidate needs the resources, the money and the volunteers with the territorial buy-in to get that message to people throughout the district.”
Norington-Reaves has undoubtedly been helped by Rush’s endorsement, which boosted how well she’s known.
“For all of us, the bottom line is name recognition, and really having to get out there and help people understand who we are and what we’ve done,” Norington-Reaves said.
But noting her experience with the federal workforce training program, she added she also has a vision she’s selling to voters — and that’s bringing more jobs to the area.
“I stand on my record, and I know I’ve got a deep record of accomplishments with respect to economic development, workforce development, job creation, and I’m going to lean on that,” she said. “I know that is of great importance to the folks within the district. For all of us, the bottom line is we’ve got to get connected to the voters.”
State Sen. Jacqueline Collins said her long record of fighting the good fight in Springfield makes her the best choice for the job.
“I’m not running on rhetoric, I’m running on a legislative record,” said Collins, who had $62,341 on hand in mid-April. She pointed to successful legislation she co-sponsored in the statehouse, like a state minimum wage law and efforts to stop predatory lending, as proof she can get things done in a legislative setting, albeit one controlled by Democrats.
But if the Democrats find themselves in the minority and it’s tough to move substantive legislation in the face of GOP intransigence, Collins argued she’s still the best candidate.
“Many times you fight the battles on principle, because it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “You don’t always know that victory is going to be the endgame, but you stand on principle. I still will have the bully pulpit to stand on the floor of Congress to raise my voice on the issues that are important. And I think that’s what’s important for me.”
McGriff, the former Realtor association president, said one of her top priorities if elected is gun safety. She said she felt compelled to run for public office after her son, Xavier Joy, was gunned down in Woodlawn in June 2017.
“We are losing, every day, our future,” McGriff said. “So for me it’s a part of, number one, the conversation that no one really wants to have about gun violence. And then, secondly, about how do we keep the legacy. My son was very involved.”
McGriff served six years as a real estate industry lobbyist liaison to Rush’s office, which she said gives her some insights into the district, whose 754,000 people share similar concerns.
“How much is it costing me to fill my gas tank? How much is it costing to feed my family?” McGriff said.
McGriff herself has been subject to difficult personal finances.
A mortgage company foreclosed on her home in 2016. When asked about it by the Tribune, she blamed the foreclosure on being “late on my mortgage, as many Americans have been.”
McGriff also filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, according to federal court records. She said another son of hers was diagnosed with autism in 2008, and she and her husband filed for bankruptcy after exhausting their savings on therapies for him.
“Now, thankfully, Artie is verbal and is able to enjoy a better quality of life,” McGriff said in a statement.