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Illinois’ 1st congressional district is the heart of Black Chicago’s political power. Since 1929, the office has been held by a Black man, starting with Oscar Stanton DePriest’s tenure in the late 1920s and ‘30s through Rep. Bobby Rush, who has held the seat for nearly 30 years. 

In January, Rush announced he would not be running for re-election. Fast forward to May, where there are currently 21 candidates vying for the coveted seat in the June 28 primary, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections website. The deadline for candidates to add their names to the final ballot was March 14.

On the evening of May 10, 16 1st congressional district hopefuls gathered at Freedom Temple Church of God in Christ in the West Englewood neighborhood for a forum organized and sponsored by four organizations: Voices of West Englewood, IL Muslim Civic Coalition, Neighbors Who Vote and Indo-American Democratic Organization. 

The forum was an opportunity for district residents to engage and learn about the candidates, their policy stances and their visions for the future of the district. During the forum, candidates were asked six discussion questions about economic development, criminal justice and policing, racial equity, women’s rights, mental health and healthcare. Rep. Rush was presented with a bouquet of flowers for his years of service. 

As a congressman, Rush introduced many pieces of legislation. During his freshman term in 1993, he focused on issues that centered on low- and middle-income families and communities. He authored legislation around postpartum depression, along with women’s health and prescription drug offsets that were included in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Affordable Care Act). He’s long been a gun violence advocate. 

One of Rush’s more recent legislative successes is the passage of the Emmett Till Antilyniching Act. The bill was signed into law in March and designates lynching as a hate crime. The first anti-lynching bill was introduced in Congress in 1900 by Rep. George White (R-N.C.), the only Black representative at the time. 

The 2022 Illinois primary will take place on June 28, and the general election is on Nov. 8. 

Some of the most talked-about names in the running attended the forum, including Democratic candidates Rev. Jesse Jackson’s son Jonathan Jackson, Illinois state Sen. Jacqueline Collins (D-16), Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), My Block, My Hood, My City founder and community organizer Jahmal Cole and Kimbark Beverage Shoppe owner Jonathan Swain, who also happens to be co-founder of the Hyde Park Summer Fest. 

Other attendees included Democratic candidates Kirby Birgans, Rev. Chris Butler, Steven DeJoie, Marcus Lewis, Karin Norington-Reaves, Michael Thompson, Cassandra Goodrum, Charise Williams and Robert Palmer, along with Republican candidates Eric Carlson — one of two white candidates in the race — and Geno Young.

Initially, 18 candidates were confirmed to attend the forum. But two of them — Nykea Pippion McGriff and Dr. Ameena Matthews — did not show up.

The significance of Illinois’ first congressional district

U.S. representatives are elected to two-year terms and serve the people within their designated congressional district. They also introduce bills and resolutions and offer amendments and serve on committees. There are 435 members in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

So why is the Illinois 1st congressional district seat so important to Black Chicago? Veteran media and political consultant Delmarie Cobb said it is significant because the district, at one point, represented the majority of Black Chicago, the once-thriving Black metropolis from 31st Street to the north, and south to 51 Street, east to Cottage Grove Avenue and west to the Dan Ryan Expressway. The heart of the Black Metropolis, a.k.a Bronzeville, was between 30th and 35th, and 43rd Street and 47th Street between State Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. 

Bronzeville was home to 300,000 residents at its height between the 1920s and 1950s. Black people were forced to live within its bounds due to racist restrictive covenants that forbade them from living in majority-white neighborhoods. 

“We had everything that downtown had. We had department stores, restaurants, nightclubs and businesses of all kinds. We had hotels, all of which were Black-owned, at one time in this community. So to have a Black man represent all of this on every level was so important,” said Cobb, a fourth-generation Bronzeville native.  

Today, the Illinois 1st congressional district includes most of the South Side of Chicago, beginning as north as some portions of the Kenwood neighborhood and stretching southwest to Joliet, Ill. About 50 percent of the district is Black. Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.), who represents Illinois’ 2nd congressional district, currently has the highest percentage of Black people in her district, at 57%

Dr. Robert Starks echoed Cobb’s thoughts and added that the 1st congressional district is significant because of Oscar Stanton DePriest, who was the first Black man elected to Congress in the 20th century. DePriest served three terms in Congress. Starks is the professor emeritus of Political Science and the Harold Washington Institute for Research and Policy Studies director at Northeastern Illinois University’s Center for Inner City Studies.

“It’s very important and symbolic of the African-American power and political power in the city of Chicago and, of course, the country, having notable people representing that district, like William Dawson and of course, [former mayor] Harold Washington,” Starks said. “So it’s very, very important and very representative of the African-American community in Chicago because originally, that district covered most of the African-American community in the city of Chicago.” 

Dawson served as a congressman from 1943 to 1970, following Arthur Mitchell. Cobb said Dawson was once considered the most powerful Black man in the country. He was the third African American elected to Congress in the 20th century and the first Black member to chair a standing committee, the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments (now the Committee on Government Operations).

Every week Mayor Richard J. Daley visited Dawson on his way home to Bridgeport, Cobb said. In addition, Dawson was aligned with Chicago’s Democratic machine. He advocated for integration in the armed services and supported equal employment opportunities for all and southern voter registration drives. He also sought appointments for Black people in federal civil service and the judiciary. 

“Many say that he was responsible for turning out the Black vote for [President] John F. Kennedy,” Cobb said. “John Kennedy was so appreciative of what William Dawson did that he asked him to be the [U.S.] Postmaster General for his administration. He would have been the first Black man to hold that post,” Cobb said. 

“William Dawson turned it down and said, ‘I can be of more help to my people in this seat than I can be as Postmaster General,’” Cobb added. Ralph Metcalfe was Dawson’s successor in the 1st congressional district. 

Metcalfe was an Olympic athlete before serving in the 1st congressional district from 1970 to 1978. He and Jesse Owens both took home gold medals for the 4 x 100-meter relay in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. While in office, Metcalfe co-founded the Black Congressional Caucus in 1971. 

During his time in Congress, Metcalfe introduced legislation to increase home improvement loans and federal housing programs to benefit low-income people living in the 1st congressional district. He fought to eliminate redlining, a technique used by mortgage lenders and insurance providers to withhold funds for home loans and insurance in low–income neighborhoods. He also co-sponsored the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, that provided federal funding for U.S. Olympic athletes and increased opportunities for people of color, women and disabled Americans to participate in amateur sports. The bill was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. 

Harold Washington served in Congress as the representative for the 1st district from 1981 to 1983. He was elected for a second term in 1983, but did not return to his post in order to run for mayor of Chicago that same year. 

During his short tenure in Congress, Washington was a member of the Education and Labor, Judiciary and Government Operations committees. Washington was elected the same year as President Ronald Reagan and was a vocal critic of his policies. 

Washington spoke against Reagan’s proposed spending cuts for social programs. He also condemned the president’s budget and tax proposals that would cause harm to residents in the 1st district. He was a staunch advocate for civil rights and affirmative action, helping to negotiate an extension of sections to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 during his tenure in Congress.

Who stood out at Tuesday’s forum?

There are many candidates for the Illinois 1st congressional district, and historically this district has elected a Democratic candidate going back to Arthur Mitchell in 1935. Mitchell was the first Black Democrat elected to Congress.

Below you will see how each of the 16 candidates stances on issues related to crime and policing, economic development and women’s rights. However, every candidate was not able to answer each of the discussion questions. If you click on each question, you’ll see a list of stances for the other candidates in attendance. We gathered their stances using their comments from the speed round of Tuesday’s forum and from their campaign websites.

Because of the number of candidates at Tuesday’s forum, we’re only able to highlight a few questions and responses to important questions related to the Black community.

Forum hosts Michelle Rashad, executive director of Imagine Englewood If Organization and Brandon Pope, an award-winning television host at WCIU-TV, posed six discussion questions to the candidates. Each candidate was given two minutes to respond.

(These responses have been edited and condensed for clarity).

Question: Our community is suffering from arguably opposite forces, over-policing and intolerable levels of violence. How do you reconcile the need for safety in the community without living in a police state that over criminalizes and over incarcerates poor people and people of color? And what can you do as a congressperson to solve that dichotomy?

Jahmal Cole: The Chicago Police Department (CPD) is under the consent decree. That’s a 10-year forcible plan for reform because [CPD] was found guilty of targeting Black and brown people. The city of Chicago [and] the CPD, agreed to this consent decree under the Obama administration. It’s failed to live up to its standards.

We got to make sure they’re properly trained. Stop giving people six figures in the middle of a pandemic, make sure they’re active participants in the neighborhood they serve and hold them accountable for their actions.

Kirby Birgans: Gun violence is a national health crisis and we must deal with this through the lens of a health-based approach. Like many others, I have lost family members to gun violence. 

In 2021, there were 800 homicides and 4,328 shootings. Our communities have been blighted with gun violence, and we’re losing our babies far too soon. 

Our politicians have chosen to militarize our streets and use private prisons to fix this. People who want to end gun violence know that street outreach, coaching and counseling, workforce development, advocacy and provision and policies will fix this.

(Reporter’s note. In 2021, there were 797 murders and 3,561 shootings, up from 3,258 shootings in 2020, according to CPD. So far in 2022, there were 194 murders, down six percent from 2021. There have been 779 shootings, down 13% from 2021.)

Question: What are your specific plans for economic development in the first district, especially in its most underserved areas?

Ald. Pat Dowell: I believe that it’s important that we invest in the dreams of our young people to do cutting-edge projects. For example, cybersecurity, eSports access to XS Tennis and things that are new to our community, but give people an opportunity to start a business that’s on the local level and [also] get Indigenous people involved.

We need to create more disposable income for working families at the higher level. We have to invest in cutting-edge new technologies and industries that will be endemic to the 1st congressional district. That means projects related to energy, electric vehicle maintenance and electric charging of cars. It also involves things like transportation and investing in the transportation modalities within the 1st congressional district, which is the heart of the transportation network in Illinois. 

Lastly, projects like a third airport for the south suburbs that needs to be focused on, and we need to invest in that. We waited too long. That’s going to create opportunities for people that live not only in Chicago but in the south suburban areas. 

(Reporter’s note: Since the 1970s, there’s been discussion around a third airport outside of Chicago. As recently as 2020, the calls for a third airport have come up again. The proposed third airport was brought up in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s 2019 budget for the state). 

Jonathan Swain: It starts with creating living wage jobs and that happens in two different ways. We need to create larger engines that will drive our economy, things like the south suburban airport. If you want to lift a big plane, you need a big engine. We have a big plane to lift on the South Side, and in the south suburbs, we need a big engine.

In addition, we need to push the Green New Deal, and create new economies around energy [and] natural resources. The second thing is we need to relook at the Small Business Administration (SBA). The truth of the matter is for every Black business that has more than one employee, there are 20 that don’t. Yet the SBA is geared toward businesses with $250 million revenue and over 500 employees. We need to bring that down to folks in the neighborhoods to grow our small enterprises to one, two and three employees.

Karin Norington-Reaves: My vision for this district when it comes to economic development is quite simple. It is about the collaboration between the public, private and philanthropic sectors. For the past decade, I have served as the chief executive officer of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership

We’ve put over 100,000 people to work during that time, and the reason that I know that these collaborations work is because we’ve done it time and time again. This is about creating hyperlocal economic agents within our communities. My vision is that we create policy councils that advise around various issues such as economic development, workforce development, violence reduction and education and get that feedback from the community, but partner with the private sector to identify the areas in which there is a need for job creation, and create that talent pipeline, right in our own communities.

Rev. Chris Butler: One of the major policies that I’ve supported is a guaranteed income. The idea behind a basic income guarantee is that every individual in the 1st congressional district and every individual in the United States would have access to a basic level of income coming in every month. There are ideas in this community right now that folks don’t have access to capital, to make those plans and visions come to pass.

I say let’s transform this economy, rebalance it toward working-class families and individuals who make up this district and watch what the people will do when we put the resources in the hands of the people.

Question: There’s a shamefully long list of ways women are subjected to violence, abuse and death in our society at higher rates than men. Everything from domestic violence to Black maternity mortality rates to restrictions on legal abortion to unsolved the murders and disappearances of Black women and girls right here in the 1st district. Please explain with some specificity how you would work to improve and ensure the health, safety and life of women and girls in the 1st district.

Cassandra Goodrum: We do not have a birthing center within certain neighborhoods in the 1st district. They closed the birthing center at Jackson Park. Women were being told to go all the way out to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. So first we have to understand that we have to have the resources and the care for the women right here in the community. It’s not just the care for the women. That is how we will stop the genocide because if we are not caring for the newborns and those who have not yet been born, how can we expect anybody to value the lives that come after that? So with that being said, I am pro-choice. I believe we have to codify a woman’s choice to decide what to do with her body, with her pregnancy and with her life. To that end, I absolutely believe we should codify Roe vs. Wade. 

Charise Williams: The doctor’s room is not large enough for me, the doctor, and the government. I am pro-choice. This is who I am. I stand on this and in terms of federal legislation, there are a couple of things we can do. We can make Illinois a safe haven for abortion rights so that women do not have legal and unhealthy options. We can find organizations already doing this work.

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.