Meet the Challengers: Robert Emmons Jr.

The Weekly sits down with the gun violence prevention activist running for Congress in the 1st District

Running to represent Illinois’s 1st District in Congress, Robert Emmons Jr. has placed stopping gun violence at the center of his campaign. This commitment is personal for Emmons: it stems from the death of his college roommate and best friend, who fell victim to gun violence in Chicago after they had both left the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since college, where he majored in political science, the twenty-seven-year old Emmons has worked with activist groups including Generation Progress, NextGen Climate, and J Street in favor of gun violence prevention, solutions for criminal justice, and policies to address the climate crisis. 

Emmons is the youngest candidate in the race, and is taking on a long-term incumbent: U.S. Representative Bobby Rush, a pastor and former Black Panther and alderman who has held the seat for more than twenty years. Emmons believes that Rush is ineffectual and out of touch, evidenced by the fact that his “district has looked the same for twenty years.” 

Emmons has been endorsed by climate groups such as 350 Action and the Sunrise Movement, as well as organizations against gun violence. A few days after our interview, Emmons earned a surprising endorsement from the Tribune, whose editorial board is relatively conservative but has also been critical of Rush in the past. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How would you explain the role of a congressional representative to someone who doesn’t know much about politics? What do you think is the most important part of the job?

The representative is supposed to lead the community by representing it. I always think of it as more of a characteristic than a title. The representative works for you, by organizing people all dedicated towards solving big problems. It’s the people that have the power, the people who ultimately have the final say. 

The most important part of the job is to be responsive to the needs and desires of your community, and to be present when people need you the most. It’s to be politically imaginative in a society that tries to box you in sometimes. It’s to be creative, and to create new ways of solving old problems that haven’t been solved just yet. 

How much power does a Congressional representative have to make changes that you want to see?

Tons. [Representatives have the power to reverse amendments such as] the Dickey Amendment, which prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence as a public health epidemic. We need to completely reverse the Dickey Amendment in order to dive deeper into gun violence. It’s a public health epidemic, and we have to acknowledge it as one. 

[Representatives also have the power to] allocate funding. That’s one of the most important things a member of Congress can do, because cities and states know what to do with that money better than the federal government does. We have to allocate funding to go directly to community based organizations that are already doing the work on the ground to end gun violence. 

That’s the hallmark of our solution: we don’t have a monopoly on the best ideas. In fact, that’s our best idea: is that we don’t. I want to give money to the people on the ground, who are already doing the work and who understand the community. 

[Another] example of what a member of Congress can do is to have public hearings in areas that are disproportionately impacted by issues, to begin to help the rest of the delegation in different communities understand why this is such a big problem, and how we can actually solve it. 

There’s no one thing that’s going to end gun violence. We need progressive policies to target the root causes. We need to advocate for solutions like reparations for American descendants of slaves, to make sure that we’re helping to end systemic poverty that’s racially charged. We need Medicare for All, because medical debt leads to economic disparity, and makes it difficult for people dealing with gun violence to get treatment and the mental healthcare that stops people from pulling the trigger. 

There’s no one solution, but we do need a member of Congress who says they’re going to end gun violence, and be bold about it, and put pragmatic solutions towards it, and also build that bridge necessary to convince Republicans that this solution benefits everyone. 

How do you plan to give these organizations a platform? 

There are different ways to get them a platform. It’s also just allowing them to help move policies forward: we’ve seen this with the Sunrise Movement storming Congress and demanding climate debates. It’s working directly with these organizations, so that they can help push the conversation forward. True movements are always started by grassroots organizations and movements; [they are rarely started] by an elected official, but it’s important for that elected official to be a leader. The true leaders are obviously the people on the ground.

How do you see yourself as different from other people running for US representative?

I’ve been in this campaign for officially about a year, but unofficially, for one year and six months. I left my work, and took three to four months just exploring a run for Congress, [and I went] around the district asking key questions [like] what people want to see in the representative, and where they want to see this district and country go. When I saw that what the people of the 1st District wanted was the same thing as what I wanted to do, I officially made my decision. 

So I’ve proven that I have the stamina and the conviction to be congressman, and I’ve also listened to real people on the ground.  

Some of my other opponents haven’t done that work. Sarah Gad [entered the race] in September of 2019, after I had already been in for a good amount of time. If she truly believed that we need a progressive in the seat, she would have gotten behind us, rather than jumping in to divide. She didn’t do the work necessary to make sure that the people of the 1st Congressional District truly want you to run. Back when I was exploring a run for Congress, I went all across the district, not just in Chicago, I went to the southwest suburbs also and talked directly to them. My first endorsement was from Will County board chair Amanda Koch, because we did that work necessary to truly understand the entire district, and we did so honestly, and transparently.  

Sarah Gad saying that Medicare for all isn’t possible, that we have to slow walk this, [shows that she] isn’t the person that I believe should be representing this district. Tell that to my friends who are experiencing trauma and turning to drugs in an effort to treat themselves. Tell that to the grandmother who is cutting her insulin because her son can’t afford insulin. It’s not a matter of if we can do it, it’s a matter of political will. And anybody who doesn’t believe that we can, again, lacks the conviction and lacks the political imagination necessary to be the district representative.

You’re running against incumbent Bobby Rush, who has been 1st District Congressman for fourteen terms. In what specific areas do you feel you could do a better job than him? How specifically do you plan to improve these areas? 

During our campaign, we’ve been incredibly sensitive to the situations and trauma that Rush has faced over his tenure, so we typically don’t like even talking about the fact that he has one of the worst [attendance] records; we more or less focus on the times he’s voted incorrectly. 

For example, he voted for the disastrous 1994 crime bill, which disproportionately impacted Black and brown, predominantly young people. Then he apologized for it, but twenty-five years later, he’s still supporting candidates and policies that do the same thing. He supported a mayoral candidate in 2018 who said that we should spend $50 million on drone surveillance on the South and West Sides of Chicago, in order to reduce crime. [Ed. note: that candidate was Bill Daley; the $50 million was proposed for gang intervention, but Daley did propose mass drone surveillance over wide swaths of the city.] That means Bobby Rush hasn’t really learned his lesson. So it’s more or less about, when he is voting, what is he voting on. 

Also, Bobby Rush has taken $540,000 from the fossil fuel industry over the course of his tenure; this is why he sits on the Committee of Energy & Commerce, and why he called the Green New Deal a “smash and grab.” Who you take money from helps to dictate your decision-making. That’s why my campaign hasn’t taken money from any corporation—the fossil fuel industry or the pharmaceutical industry. I’ve taken the pledge to not take money from any corporation, ever. With that, I think we’re building a movement that is sustainable, because people trust when their leaders are only being held accountable by them. The only group of people that I want to be responsive to are the people of the 1st Congressional District. 

Bobby Rush has taken money from corporations, and a lot of his decision making has been in favor of them and not the people of the 1st Congressional District. Our campaign received the endorsement of 350 Action, the Sunrise Movement of Chicago, and the Sunrise Movement nationally, because of the way we’ve approached climate action now, and the way Bobby Rush has approached it. These are more or less the reasons why I think Bobby Rush is ineffectual and out of touch, and no longer politically imaginative as he was as an activist back in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. 

Where do you see yourself as fitting in in the national Democratic Party, particularly in terms of the progressives who are challenging centrist power? Who will you caucus with? Do you have an opinion on the centrist nature of the DNC?

My parents taught me to be independent in my thinking, from a young age. That’s the way I’ve approached almost everything in my life: being independent in my thinking. I learned more recently that it’s important to be both a truth teller and bridge builder: in my opinion, that’s one of my definitions of strategy. 

I plan on just being a strategist in Congress; someone who can work across the aisle to get things done. I don’t want to be someone who’s just speaking truth, but at the same time, my district has looked exactly the same for twenty years—I don’t think that’s progress. I will work with people who just want better for our country, and figure out ways to communicate with them so we can achieve our common interests. 

In an effort not to box myself in, the way I’ve approached where I fit is: when it comes to saving lives, I’m always going to side on that side, no matter what. Because of that orientation, I’ve been more aligned with the progressive movement than the more moderate lane. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t be able to work with a moderate or I don’t share similar concerns that moderates have, about how we pay for certain things. But what I tell the people of the 1st Congressional District is, if there’s a choice between profit and saving lives, you should know which one I’m going to side with.

Which one of the current presidential candidates interests you, and why?

I prefer Bernie Sanders over the rest, but I am someone who will support any of the Democratic nominees over Trump. But during this primary, I’m going to do what primaries are for, vote for one candidate over the others. His unwavering patience has attracted me, and his ability to galvanize the entire country both in 2016 and also doing it as a seventy-eight-year-old white man is just inspiring. He’s inspired candidates all over the country to run for Congress, judge, school board.

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Jade Yan is a contributing editor to the Weekly. She last wrote about efforts to increase youth voter turnout in the city and state.

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