Like several members of the Illinois Democratic Party Central Committee, Rep. Danny Davis pulls from two campaign coffers: a state committee and a federal one. But Davis’s state committee has far outspent those of his peers, including on itemized spending for “campaign work” as recently as last quarter.
Some of that work falls under Davis’s role as a member of the state central committee, where he works alongside Reps. Bobby Rush, Chuy Garcia, and Robin Kelly, who chairs the state party. Some is less clear cut: An ad buy from Davis’s state committee touted his federal work, and some of the same staff run Davis’s state and federal offices.
This year, Davis is up for reelection to both the state committee and his federal office, which he has held since 1997. At the federal level, the 13-term representative faces two challengers in a June 28 primary fueled by criticism over a perceived lack of urgency. While the Illinois Democrat has voted with his party on major issues and racked up progressive bona fides, his long tenure has eroded the pressure many other officials face to push for more aggressive action on the biggest issues facing Chicago, from gun violence to poverty. Some have criticized him for what they view as an out-of-touch perspective on social issues. At a forum last month hosted by a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Davis waded into the debate over transgender people’s participation in sports, saying, “I think that women who say they’re women should play in women’s sports, women leagues; men who say they’re men should play in men’s leagues. I don’t think that women should be trying to play football with the Bears.”
Beyond concerns about the general malaise of a long incumbency, Davis must now contend with scrutiny over his use of state and federal campaign resources. As the Chicago Tribune noted earlier this month, Davis uses both his federal and state committees to fundraise, “raising questions about whether he has used his local campaign fund to augment his federal reelection bids.”
Part of Davis’s job as a state party central committee member is to recruit candidates and help them run for office, which provides an entirely legitimate reason for “campaign work” spending from Davis’s state committee.
Federal campaign finance regulations prohibit the transfer of assets between federal and nonfederal committees, and there is no evidence the two Davis committees have engaged in such transfers. Some spending from both committees goes toward shared causes: Davis’s state committee appears to have paid for ads promoting his federal office, and both committees pay for some of the same staff and shared office space, according to disclosures filed with the state board of elections.
An ad paid for by the state committee in September did not specify Davis’s role on the state committee but rather highlighted his work in Congress to assist in expungement for nonviolent offenders. While the ad contained a passing reference to state law, its focus was on constituent services carried out by his federal office.
Davis’s chief of staff, Tumia Romero, did not respond to specific questions about why the state and federal committees simultaneously paid the same staffers, how they distinguished which work was for which campaign, or why the state committee purchased ads promoting Davis’s federal office.
As a Davis staffer since 1998, and his chief of staff since last June, Romero fields press inquiries for his congressional campaign, which is permitted as part of her role as senior congressional staff so long as it’s not on the same time or in the same space as congressional work. She said she was speaking to The Intercept from her car in order to be able to conduct campaign work outside of the congressional and state committee office.
“As you know, federal campaigns are not allowed to support local efforts, but local efforts can support federal,” Romero said. She then corrected herself, acknowledging that “it’s the reverse.”
Candidates seeking more than one possible office at the same time face the additional burdens to “be very careful in their allocations,” said Beth Rotman, money in politics and ethics program director at Common Cause. “Here, that would be demonstrating in Illinois, and also federally, that the candidate is complying with two sets of rules at the same time. … You have a higher burden, because you can essentially make a mistake in either direction.”
Davis’s state committee has raised significant funds via direct contributions from corporations and LLCs, which Illinois law allows but federal campaign finance regulations prohibit. Such contributions to Davis’s state committee including the GEO Group, a major for-profit prison company, along with medical, construction, and consulting firms.
“Some agencies are better than others at actually taking a look at whether campaigns are complying,” Rotman said. “Campaigns have to be very vigilant. It’s not necessarily the case that anyone is doing anything wrong.”
A 25-year incumbent, Davis is facing challenges from Kina Collins, an anti-gun violence advocate and organizer who ran unsuccessfully against him in the 2020 Democratic primary, and Denarvis Mendenhall, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who has worked for the Food and Drug Administration. In 2020, Collins raised just $100,000 and received 14 percent of the vote. This cycle, she’s raised more than quadruple that and has backing from Justice Democrats, Indivisible, and the Sunrise Movement. Last quarter, she out-raised Davis by almost 2-to-1.
Last week, the Federal Election Commission issued a request for additional information to the Davis campaign after it missed the June 16 filing deadline for Illinois pre-primary reports. The campaign received a similar request in May after missing the April deadline for its quarterly report. Mendenhall, who filed to run in March, has not filed FEC financial disclosures and has not received such a request.
Davis has backing from top Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth; Gov. JB Pritzker; and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Also on Davis’s side is a relatively new dark-money group spending to back several incumbents facing primary challenges from their left, aligned with House leadership and run by longtime Democratic operatives. Davis’s upcoming primary election is one of several this cycle in which the party and its major donors, joining forces with outside groups, have devoted significant resources to fighting progressive candidates.
His colleagues in the state party — Rush, Garcia, and Kelly — all have active state committees for their upcoming reelections. But so far this cycle, Davis’s state committee has listed far more contributions and expenditures than those of his colleagues. The committee offices for Kelly, Rush, and Garcia do not appear to share space with their congressional offices, as Davis’s does, nor pay staff who are also working on their current congressional campaigns. (Rush’s son, Jeffrey, has worked on Rush’s past congressional campaigns. He has been paid this cycle by Rush’s state committee for campaign work, but not his federal committee.)
Since 2018, Davis’s state committee has disclosed $370,000 in expenses, while Rush’s has listed $24,800, and Kelly’s state committee has listed just over $40,000, none of which included “campaign work.” Garcia’s state committee has been inactive for several years, and reactivated in May.