A 26-year-old organizer in Chicago is mounting a primary challenge to Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who has been a member of Congress for 26 years.
Robert Emmons, whose best friend, high school classmate, and freshman roommate was shot and killed in 2015, is making gun violence prevention a cornerstone of his campaign. The Windy City experiences gun violence at alarming yet not uncommon rates, as compared to other metropolitan areas — but the number of fatal shootings is in some ways unique to Chicago, where Emmons’s 21-year-old friend was one of 424 people killed by gunshots in 2015. Rush’s own son was fatally shot on Chicago’s South Side in 1999, just 12 blocks away from where Emmons’s friend was shot.
“At the time, I was fighting for gun violence prevention,” Emmons said in an interview. “And then it happened to me.”
Since he formally launched his congressional bid to represent Illinois’s 1st District in February, Emmons has been highlighting the ways gun violence is linked to the other issues that impact Chicagoans in his district, like lack of access to job training and mental health care. On Thursday, he released his first campaign video, which features activist Ady Barkan testifying before Congress on Medicare for All and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announcing plans for a Green New Deal — policies that Emmons supports.
“A lot of people don’t think it’s possible until I paint the picture of what it looks like to live in a world free of gun violence,” Emmons said. He drives that point home by talking to voters about areas in Chicago and the state as a whole that “have relatively no gun violence whatsoever,” he said. “And you start to break it down, like, what are the characteristics of that community? And then you start saying, ‘OK, they have well-resourced schools. There’s X amount of mental health care facilities around this area. They have a mayor who goes into the schools and speaks to young people about solving conflicts peacefully.’ Once you start breaking it down, it’s like, ‘OK, this is possible. We just need to do that same thing in under-resourced communities.’”
The district, which includes parts of Cook and Will counties, is overwhelmingly blue. Rush, who is 72 years old, has easily won reelection with more than 70 percent of the vote in each of his 14 races since 1992. But his share of the vote has ebbed very slightly since the late ’90s and 2000s — when he was consistently hitting percentages in the mid-70s and high 80s — to shares in the lower 70s after 2010.
Rush’s campaigns have largely been supported by PACs, including ones tied to organized labor and the oil and gas industry. The amount his campaigns have raised in individual contributions has dropped in recent years. Emmons, meanwhile, has vowed not to take PAC money or contributions from the oil and gas industry, aiming to run a people-powered, grassroots campaign.
There are signs that his campaign is already making an impression on voters in the district.
With more than 600 small-dollar donations so far this cycle via platforms including ActBlue, GoFundMe, Crowdpac, and Paypal, Emmons outraised Rush by $3,898 in the first quarter of this year; he raised $7,656 to Rush’s $3,758. The next quarter, Emmons more than doubled that haul, bringing in $17,100 in individual contributions. Rush crushed him by bringing in $79,270 — but only $5,770 of that came from individual donors. Corporate PACs contributed the remaining $73,500. Emmons, who has no prior political experience, has raised $24,757 to date.
Emmons joins a wave of progressives seeking to unseat entrenched incumbents across the country. In Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District, Marie Newman is doing something similar in her challenge to Rep. Dan Lipinski, an anti-abortion, anti-immigration Democrat who took over the seat from his father. The two are coming up against a policy from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to blacklist consultants who work with primary challengers. But Newman, who is challenging Lipinski for the second time, is an ally for Emmons, and he’s taking notes from how she’s navigating the new policy by working with progressive groups like Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Watching her go through that has given me insight into what it’s gonna be like in a couple of months,” he said. The two co-hosted a community town hall on gun violence in June in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood and put out a joint press release earlier this month calling on all congressional candidates running in 2020 to commit publicly to ending gun violence within a generation.
Rush was elected to represent the 1st District, which covers the South Side of Chicago as well as the city’s southwest suburbs, in 1992, the year Emmons was born. The district has historic significance: Harold Washington represented it for one term before becoming Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983. In 2000, Barack Obama made his first attempt at federal office by launching a primary bid against Rush. The incumbent defeated Obama by 30 points before cruising to reelection.
Before entering elected office, Rush was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He co-founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. He went on to serve for a decade on the Chicago City Council and then became a star freshman Democrat in Congress.
Over his two and a half decades in Congress, he’s been an independent voice on some issues and toed the party line on others, earning an early reputation for trying to upend the Democratic machine within and outside of Chicago, while simultaneously becoming a fixture of it.
In 2012, he was escorted from the House floor for wearing a hoodie and sunglasses in honor of Trayvon Martin. That same year, Color of Change PAC co-founder James Rucker wrote an open letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her to keep Rush out of the party’s top spot on the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet. He criticized Rush for his position on net neutrality and campaign contributions from giants in the telecom industry. Rush penned a counterpiece in the Huffington Post calling the attacks “unwarranted” and calling Color of Change “beholden to Silicon Valley.” Rush, thought to be a shoo-in for the post, was eventually denied the position. He later came out in support of net neutrality.
But Rush has also faced criticism for financial dealings, as well as positions he’s taken on issues ranging from criminal justice reform to climate change.
In 2014, Rush faced an investigation by the House Ethics Committee for skipping out on the $365,000 rent he should have paid to use a Chicago office space. The committee concluded last year that Rush’s use of the office, for which the landlord had stopped asking for payment, was a gift that violated congressional ethics rules. It ordered Rush to pay back the amount he owed, amend his financial disclosures to reflect the gift, and start paying for the space if he intended to continue using it.
More recently, Rush said the Green New Deal was “a media creation, like Bigfoot,” a sharp criticism of the proposal to create a comprehensive plan to confront the threat of climate change. Rush is the No. 2 Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and he received $13,000 from the oil and gas industry last cycle.
The editorial board of the Chicago Sun Times gave him a lukewarm endorsement in 2018, when Rush had no competition in the Democratic primary, saying the district deserved a “more engaged” representative but that his challengers up to that point had been ill-qualified for the task. The Sun Times wrote that “Rush in recent years has missed more votes on Capitol Hill than any other member of Congress.” A 2015 analysis by ProPublica puts him in the number 10 slot for missed votes. The vast majority of those were in 2008 when he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his salivary gland. Rush also took a leave of absence from Congress in 2013 when his wife was sick and undergoing surgery.
Rush’s legislative record is mixed. He is a co-sponsor of the House’s Medicare for All bill and has sponsored a number of measures this session to improve access to insulin and generic drugs, build up rural access to broadband, and make pipelines for natural gas and hazardous liquids safer. One of his earliest votes, though, continues to haunt him. Along with many prominent Democrats, he supported the 1994 federal crime bill, which is now largely understood to have driven up the number of incarcerated people in the U.S. and had little impact on curbing overall crime.
Emmons frequently points to the 1994 vote as one of his opponent’s weaknesses. “If you look back at the 1994 crime bill that a lot of Democrats jumped on, it actually did the exact opposite thing that it was intended to do. It caused more crime in our communities and separated families for decades, and put nonviolent offenders in jail and the like,” Emmons said.
The challenger is also critical of Rush’s recent endorsement of Bill Daley, a Chicago mayoral candidate whose platform included increased surveillance as an antidote to the city’s gun violence problem. “Even if we were to give him a pass [on the crime bill vote] — a lot of Democrats were wrong about that bill — you fast forward to 2018, 2019, Bobby Rush endorsed the Chicago mayoral candidate Bill Daley,” Emmons said. “Bill Daley, in an effort to — basically in broad daylight, his policy to solve the crime problem was $50 million in surveillance and drone surveillance in the South and West Side of Chicago. And Bobby Rush endorsed him, therefore endorsing that policy.”
The endorsement “further proves that Bobby Rush doesn’t have the level of proximity necessary to actually solve the problems of our time. So instead of $50 million on schools, access to mental health care, getting our young people out of jail for nonviolent offenses just because they can’t afford bond, he proposed $50 million in drone surveillance,” Emmons said, laughing. “So it just further proves that, yes, we need a change in face. But we also need a change in ideology. And that’s what we’ve been missing in this district for a long, long time.”
Rush’s campaign did not return a request for comment.
Emmons was born in New Jersey and has lived in Chicago’s South Side since he was 13. Previously a volunteer peer adviser with the Obama Foundation, he has also worked for OneGoal, a national organization that facilitates college access and assistance for high school students. Emmons himself is an alum of the program. As a student, he worked with Generation Progress, a national grassroots organizing body that mobilizes college students around progressive issues. He was part of the group’s #Fight4AFuture Council aimed at eliminating gun violence and advancing reforms to the criminal justice system.
He believes Congress is in need of more representatives with experiences like his. “When you look at a lot of the issues facing our country, like the over-incarceration rate, gun violence, not having access to upward mobility, inaccessibility to economic development, all these issues disproportionately affect black men under the age of 30 years old,” Emmons said. “But when you look at the federal makeup of our elected officials, nobody fits that demographic.”
He supports Medicare for All but said he wants it to go “a little further” in guaranteeing sufficient support for mental health care. Emmons also supports the Green New Deal, though he says he’d like to see more concrete ways to achieve a carbon neutral status, which means having net zero carbon emissions.
While the district leans heavily Democratic — in 2018, Rush’s GOP challenger got just 19.8 percent of the vote — Emmons sees inroads with the Republican voters in the district, too. “At the end of the day, even gun lovers should be gun violence prevention advocates,” Emmons said. “No one should actually want to ever have to use their gun. And once I paint that picture of, I don’t really want to take your guns away, I just want to see your friends not being murdered anymore. And you want your students to be in math class, not participating in an active shooter drill. So we have those commonalities. So let’s work from there.”
Asked what the response to his campaign — a 26-year-old challenging a 26-year incumbent — has been, Emmons laughed. “It’s like that Gandhi quote: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” he said. “We’ve been going through that exact framework.”