Illustration by Robin Carnilius [The TRiiBE]

New Faces is a monthly political column series on The TRiiBE by Derrick Clifton. With thorough reporting, interviews and analysis, Clifton offers insight into emerging issues and trends during the 2020 election season.

Yard signs. Mailers. Random phone-bank texts from election campaign volunteers that make you wonder, “How’d they get my number?” 

These are reminders that it’s the season for the 2020 Democratic and Republican Party primaries, for U.S. president, state and federal representatives and several other important local elected offices. 

Come March 17, voters in Illinois have yet another opportunity to consider the issues they care about most, and decide who may be the best choice from their political party. Then, on Nov. 3, the entire nation votes in the general election.

Depending on where you live in Chicagoland during this election cycle, your range of choices might even include a young Black candidate pounding the pavement for their first primary election win for U.S. Congress or the Illinois legislature. And a number of them told The TRiiBE why they’re up for the challenge.

These candidates share some things in common: Upbringings based in Chicago, ideas that call into question the outsized influence of money in politics, and a focus on the major issues of health care, gun violence and the environment. They also see opportunities for millennials to be more adequately represented in halls of government, and to challenge elected officials who they believe are out of touch.

“Congressman [Danny] Davis rarely campaigns because he leans on name recognition, especially on the West Side” said Kina Collins, 28, an Austin native running in Illinois’ 7th congressional district.

The 7th district, where Davis has served for nearly 24 years, includes a broad range of neighborhoods and suburban areas that span westward from downtown Chicago — including River North, West Garfield Park, Lawndale and Oak Park. Davis has won virtually every primary and general election challenger in a landslide since 1996. Black residents make up 59% of the district, with white residents making up about a third.

“I’m under 30, working class, Black and a woman,” Collins said, noting that Illinois voters don’t usually have an opportunity to consider a candidate with her intersections of identity. “We knew it’d be exciting for an electorate to see that.”

Kina Collins | Photo courtesy of Kina Collins [Facebook]

Collins has experience as a political organizer on gun violence issues, and working with various national and local organizations, including the Physicians for National Health Program (PNHP), a coalition of 20,000 members and physicians in support of Medicare for All. Addressing equitable access to healthcare fueled the decision to run, she said.

One of her projects at PNHP, Collins said, involved creating a power ranking of congressional leaders who take thousands of dollars in campaign donations from for-profit healthcare insurers and corporate Political Action Committees (PACs).. 

During her efforts to follow the money, Collins said Davis has apparently accepted high amounts of these donations in previous election cycles. For example, according to, Davis’s donations from pharmaceutical and health product PACs reached about $40,000 during the 2014 and 2016 elections. During the 2018 election, he received nearly $42,000 from insurance PACs, but it’s not clear which types of insurance companies that amount includes. 

The donations might otherwise suggest being beholden to the donors’ interests, even though Davis co-sponsors a Medicare for All bill that remains stalled amid divisions in Congress. Collins pointed to the 30-year life expectancy gap in the district between Black and white residents, and said her support of Medicare for All is part of the solution.

“It’s the water we drink, the air we breathe. The bullets flying are a public health issue,” Collins said. “A lot of elected officials have become complacent in understanding the economic realities of people working paycheck to paycheck. It’s a life or death issue for people in the district I live in.”

Members of the U.S. House and state representatives have similar duties, even though they act in different levels of government. Among several duties, these officials are elected to address concerns from the people in their district, advocate for their interests, educate them on key issues, and to write, sponsor and vote on bills accordingly. When incumbents have challengers, voters have an opportunity to hold their leaders accountable, consider what they care about most, and decide who may be the best choice to get results.

Just outside of Chicago in the areas of Naperville, Lisle and Wheaton, the healthcare issue hits home in a different way for Ken Mejia-Beal, 35, a candidate for the Illinois House in the 42nd District. He lost six close friends to AIDS before he turned 30, which compelled him to volunteer with organizations focused on addressing HIV and chronic illnesses. Mejia-Beal, who comes from a finance background, continued gaining experience working with political campaigns and learned even more about disparities in access to health care and economic opportunity. And with time, he said, his sadness turned into action.

Mejia-Beal is running unopposed in the Democratic primary for a November challenge to Republican incumbent Rep. Amy Grant, who first entered office in 2018 after a close race. He told The TRiiBE that he didn’t have a desire to run for public office until the day Grant voted against House Bill 2665, which expands access to PrEP medication for HIV prevention. The Youth PrEP bill, which he’d advocated for with state legislators, still passed and became law.

“Poverty shouldn’t be a death sentence and that’s what it is in this country,” Mejia-Beal said, because people without healthcare can’t see a doctor until something is wrong. 

From there, Mejia-Beal said things got personal, even amid political tensions over what a better healthcare system could look like, because he believes it’s important to ensure anyone with a chronic illness can access proper care.

“For me, it wasn’t the disease that sparked me to run, it’s ‘this is a chronic illness,” he said. “If it was diabetes and insulin, I’d still be running. Lupus medication? I’d still be running. Heart medication? I’d still be running. State elected officials should be trying to keep us healthy to the best of our ability.”

The 2020 election cycle includes a number of interesting firsts. It marks the first time that the youngest millennials meet the age requirement (25) to run for the U.S. House, and the first time someone born in 1990 can run for U.S. Senate. Now, virtually anyone born through the end of that decade meets the age to vote for president, or even run for the Illinois state legislature, if they’re over 21.

Ken Mejia-Beal | Photo courtesy of Ken Mejia-Beal [Facebook]

Nationally, one in four votes during the 2018 midterm elections were cast by Millennials and Gen Z, ranging from the birth years of Beyonce (1981) to Willow Smith (2000). It complicates the conventional narrative that younger people don’t care enough about politics.

“For me, it’s not about a difference between old and young, it’s about old ideas proven ineffective, and new ideas that will work,” said Robert Emmons, 27, a candidate for Congress in the 1st District against incumbent Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). It covers parts of Cook and Will Counties, along with much of the South Side of Chicago and extends into the city’s southwest suburbs. 

Emmons has worked as an organizer and as a strategist for initiatives to address climate change and community development, with organizations such as the Obama Foundation and UNLEASH. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago, after moving from New Jersey, and says he routinely heard school announcements about fellow students who lost their lives to gun violence. 

From there, and through college at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Emmons worked on issues including student debt relief, increasing minimum wage to a living wage for workers, and various efforts to build safer communities. In 2015, he lost a close friend to gun violence, which he said further ignited his passion to do the work.

Robert Emmons | Photo courtesy of Robert Emmons [Facebook]

“When you think of gun violence, healthcare, jobs and access to job training, all these issues disproportionately impact Black men under 35 years old. But not a single member of Congress fits these demographics,” Emmons said, noting that he believes Rush, 73, has lost proximity to the district on a number of issues. One of those issues is climate change. 

In a Chicago Tribune 2020 candidate questionnaire, Rush responded to a question about measures to combat climate change. He said he has “voted for legislation that would institute a cap on emissions” and is also “proud to have led hearings on energy efficiency standards and to reduce carbon output by some of our nation’s biggest polluters.”

Emmons cited Rush’s support for policies such as the CLEAN Future Act, which aims to ensure that the U.S. “achieves net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” according to a January press release from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. However, Emmons said that doesn’t urgently address climate change in ways that are in alignment with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which indicates that countries need to substantially decrease carbon emissions by 2030 to prevent irreversible damage from climate change.  

As for the issue of healthcare, Emmons supports Medicare for All (as does Rush, who is a co-sponsor of the stalled U.S. House bill). In addition, Emmons’s platform calls for funding violence interruption programs nationwide, an end to mass incarceration, and the passage of a Green New Deal to create jobs that address the impact of climate change.

“This district is eight times more likely to have asthma as a result of climate change,” Emmons said. “I’ve told Rush to his face several times that I respect him, and part of respect is challenging him.”

Of course, challenging incumbents can prove difficult at any stage, which isn’t lost upon Anthony Clark, who’s also running in Illinois’ 7th congressional district for the second time in a row. In 2018, he lost to Davis in the primary with 26 percent of the vote, a larger share relative to other challengers in the district’s recent elections. 

Clark, 37, told The TRiiBE that other young people considering a run for public office should keep in mind that it may take trying multiple times before they ultimately win. But he also noted that elected leaders often don’t take enough issue with low voter education and low turnout, because those factors could benefit incumbents who seek another term.  

“Jadedness in our community and the preoccupation with surviving often prevents people from really being able to do the research and understand how issues at a national level impact us locally,” said Clark, a school teacher and social welfare activist, who has built a following of more than 20,000 Twitter followers since the last election cycle. 

Anthony Clark | Photo courtesy of Anthony Clark [Facebook]

Clark, a democratic socialist who also supports Medicare for All, said he’s visited with many residents who said their experience with political outreach has often looked like their pastors telling them who to support, or remembering a familiar name or yard sign — even if they’ve never directly interacted with someone running for office.

“You lose count of the people who open the doors and say a politician has never spoken to me, or been in the building,” Clark said. He’s been making an impact — the Chicago Sun-Times endorsed him in his congressional race.

Yet winning isn’t the only way the candidates have defined success for themselves in 2020. Regardless of where the votes land, there’s optimism that their runs for office may help people in their communities learn more about what it means to be politically engaged, and how they can come together to build momentum towards lasting change.

“Every door that we knock to people who haven’t been spoken to and helping them move forward … that’s a victory,” Clark said. “This is bigger than one race or candidate, it’s about a movement.”