A map of the 1st District. Illustration by Shane Tolentino

This year, three challengers are running against long-term incumbent Bobby Rush in the primary race to represent Illinois’s 1st Congressional District. Rush has been in office for over twenty years, and has beaten his fair share of competitors. In the fourteen elections he has won, his support has only dipped below seventy percent once, during the famed 2000 race when he defeated future President Barack Obama. Winning Rush’s seat is no small feat, but three candidates believe that they are up to the task and that the first district needs to fundamentally change. 

The challengers are nonprofit manager and activist Robert Emmons Jr., law student Sarah Gad, and community activist Ameena Nuur Matthews. While they are all broadly left of Rush on key issues, each has a distinct background and policy focus. 

Judging from both his received endorsements and his fundraising, Robert Emmons Jr. appears to be the challenger with the best chance of taking down Rush. He is an anti-gun violence advocate who works for the organization OneGoal, an educational non-profit  organization that helped Emmons himself get into college. Motivated to enter politics after losing his college roommate and best friend to gun violence, Emmons has placed the issue at the center of his campaign. He has made a point of connecting gun violence to a spate of wider concerns like environmental racism, disinvestment and public health inequities. It makes sense, then, that Emmons is a proponent of both the Green New Deal and Medicare for All: for him, only these progressive policies can target the “root causes” of gun violence. 

At twenty-seven, Emmons is the youngest challenger. He was endorsed, perhaps unexpectedly, by the Tribune’s traditionally conservative editorial board, as well as the climate activist group Sunrise Movement and former Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. 

Challenger Sarah Gad is a University of Chicago law student who has placed criminal justice and drug law reform at the center of her campaign. Gad’s policy positions are rooted in her own struggles with opioid addiction and imprisonment for a nonviolent drug offense, which gave her experience with the criminal justice and health systems that she says are both failing community members.

Ameena Nuur Matthews is a community activist whose platform emphasizes improving criminal justice and mental health systems. Matthews, the daughter of the Almighty Black P. Stone Nation street gang cofounder Jeff Fort, has based her career on antiviolence activism. She has worked in peace organizations such as CeaseFire and established her own group Pause for Peace. She gained recognition from her role in the documentary The Interrupters, which focused on the efforts of CeaseFire in Chicago neighborhoods. 

All three challengers contend that Bobby Rush is out of touch with the district’s residents. They point to how pre-existing problems such as systemic poverty and gun violence have continued to plague the district during the congressman’s twenty-year tenure. “My district has looked exactly the same for twenty years,” said Emmons. “I don’t think that’s progress.”

These accusations of stagnation can seem slightly surprising. After all, Rush is well-known for his history of fighting for Black communities across the country. In the 1960s, he cofounded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. In 2012, he was kicked off of the House floor for honoring Trayvon Martin’s legacy by wearing a hoodie. However, his challengers maintain that he has neglected his own district, arguing that this is in part due to Rush’s reliance on corporate money. “Bobby Rush has taken $540,000 from the fossil-fuel industry over the course of his tenure,”said Emmons. “Who you take money from helps to dictate your decision-making.” Emmons has himself vowed never to accept donations from a PAC.

In 2019 alone, Rush raised $183,000 from corporate donors. Fourteen thousand was from the oil and gas PACs, who are listed by research group OpenSecrets as one of the “top industries” donating to his campaign fundraising committee. These groups have often been rewarded by Rush’s decision-making in Congress. At a public forum in January, Rush, who is the House Energy Subcommittee Chairman, called the Green New Deal a “pipe dream”—though at other times he has said he supports the philosophy of it. He instead promoted his own CLEAN Future Act that aims for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, calling it a more realistic plan.

Most recently, however, it does seem that Rush has been making moves to try and clean up the air in his district. He recently introduced the NO EXHAUST Act, and several energy bills such as one that aims to give school children a clean-air commute to school. 

In addition to his ties to corporate money, Rush’s challengers have also attacked his voting recordboth votes that he took as well as those that he has missed. Rush has the tenth most missed votes of any Representative. But while Gad has gone after Rush on this issue, calling him a “backbencher” who has consequently failed to represent his district in Congress, Emmons acknowledges that Rush’s personal struggles during his time in Congress go a long way towards explaining those absences. In 1999, Rush’s twenty-nine-year-old son Huey was shot and killed in Chicago. In 2008, Rush had surgery to remove a tumor on his salivary gland. And in 2017, Rush lost his wife of thirty-six years. At a recent forum, Rush responded to Gad’s criticism by saying, “I was fighting for my life.” He added, “If my wife is ill and needs me by her side, this is where I’m going to be.” 

However, Matthews believes that Rush should have at least sent a proxy to vote on his behalf. “I understand life happens,” she said, speaking to her experience as a leukemia transplant survivor. “I’m not minimizing that. But he didn’t care enough about the first district to send a proxy.”

Putting the missed votes aside, when Rush is voting, his challengers say he has still failed to adequately represent his district. According to Matthews, Rush failed to vote for bills that enhance public safety, support criminal justice reform and protect women’s rights. In her words, he has, “left the first district for dead.” Matthews has also criticized Rush for repeatedly exceeding federal regulations on gift-taking from campaign funds, such as when he pocketed more than $130,000 during the 2016 election cycle and paid it out to his family members.

“That’s stealing campaign funds,” Matthews said. “That’s criminal.” 

Emmons and Gad were quick to point out Rush’s “disastrous” voting record as well. 

Most notable among the votes criticized was his 1994 vote in favor of the “tough-on-crime” Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which had a disproportionate and damaging effect on minority communities. Rush has since acknowledged regret about this vote, admitting in 2016 that he is “ashamed” and saying “I apologize to my community, to my family. That was the worst vote, as I look back on the years.”

Another issue plaguing  Rush’s campaign are recent endorsements that challengers say are a signal he is out of touch. In 2019, he endorsed the extremely corporate-connected Bill Daley for mayor. Most recently, Rush endorsed and briefly served as campaign cochair for Michael Bloomberg, who has since dropped out of the presidential race. His endorsement of Bloomberg drew criticism due in part to the billionaire’s  implementation of the racial-profiling program known as “Stop and Frisk” while  mayor of New York City. But Rush defended Bloomberg  by saying he was the only candidate who had actually paid any attention to low-income majority-minority communities like those that predominate in the 1st Congressional District. 

But the backlash that Rush has received against his endorsements of these two wealthy white  politicians could also be indicative of the broader progressive moment. Across the country, there has been a trend of progressive and often young challengers taking on deep-seated incumbents and championing bold solutions to inequality, like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

The challengers face a deck that is well stacked against them. Nationwide, incumbents like Rush are protected by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which is known to blacklist vendors and consultants that work with primary challengers. This rule has forced progressive challengers to rely even more heavily upon both grassroots support and each other. Emmons has paired up with fellow progressive challenger Marie Newman from the neighboring 3rd Congressional District on multiple occasions to learn how she navigated the DCCC rule by relying upon progressive organizations to fundraise, instead of the consultants who dropped her as a client after the rule change.

For Emmons, Gad, and Matthews, the long odds of unseating Rush are worth it, because they believe the district is in need of change now.

“[Rush] has been very disrespectful to the first district,” said Matthews. “The first district is a unique jewel, and it needs to be taken care of by someone who knows it.”

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Jade Yan is a contributing editor to the Weekly. She last interviewed Robert Emmons for the “Meet the Challengers” series.

Gabe Levine-Drizin is a contributor to the Weekly. He last covered efforts to save Fred Hampton’s boyhood home in the west suburbs.

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