GRAND BOULEVARD — Rep. Bobby Rush’s congressional career will end next year, after he’s spent three decades representing South Side and suburban communities.
Rush, 75, said at a news conference Tuesday he’ll remain a public figure and fight “for equity and justice” in his community when his 15th term in the House of Representatives ends next year.
“I want to be so crystal clear to anybody who is confused: I am not retiring, I am returning,” he said. “Therefore, I will not be running for a 16th term in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
Rush will focus on pastoring the Beloved Community Church of God in Christ, he said. The church got its start as a Bible study group after Rush was ordained as a minister in 2002, according to the Tribune.
Beloved Community Church of God in Christ holds services at 352 E. 47th St. in Bronzeville, its most recent stop after a failed effort to move the congregation into an Englewood church building.
“The one thing that I am certainly cognizant of and want to change is that I can’t be an effective pastor of an effective church, and be effective in public service, all at the same time,” Rush said. “Right now, my priorities are the church and the power of the gospel in Jesus Christ.”
Rush’s departure ensures Illinois will have a new 1st District representative for the first time since 1993. He’ll endorse a candidate in the coming weeks.
“I’m going to decide for myself who I want to present to the good people of the 1st Congressional District, who have given me the privilege and opportunity to serve them for 30 years,” Rush said. “I am so glad I am not leaving at a low time; I’m leaving on a high note. I think that my appeal to my voters … will have some effect on their decision.”
In the months before NBC 5 first reported Rush’s expected retirement, several hopefuls announced they would vie for Rush’s seat.
The election race includes activists Jahmal Cole and Ameena Matthews, teacher Kirby Birgans, pastor Chris Butler, Dee Nix and Michael Thompson.
At least 20 incumbent politicians could enter the race for Rush’s seat following his departure, Politico reported Monday.
They include Alds. Pat Dowell, Roderick Sawyer, Michelle Harris and Stephanie Coleman; state representatives Marcus Evans, LaMont Robinson and Kam Buckner; and state senators Robert Peters, Elgie Sims and Jacqueline Collins.
Rush’s son Flynn, who in September announced his bid for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, is considered a “wild card” to run for the seat, according to Politico.
Born in Georgia in 1946, Bobby Rush’s family moved to Chicago during the Second Great Migration. He enlisted in the Army in 1963 and became active in the struggle for civil rights while stationed in Chicago.
Rush went AWOL from the Army in 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, according to the Los Angeles Times. He later received an honorary discharge from the service.
Also in 1968, Rush helped launch the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. He served as deputy minister of defense for the chapter, and he became its acting leader after Chicago police assassinated chairman Fred Hampton in 1969. Rush left the Panthers in 1974.
The Illinois Black Panthers sought to organize a “Rainbow Coalition” of low-income people without regard for their race. The party provided a model for Rush as he approached congressional politics, he said.
“When I went into Congress, I saw Republicans, I saw Democrats — but I saw human beings,” Rush said in a 17-minute video broadcast Tuesday. “I saw Blacks, I saw whites, I saw Latinos [and] Asians, but I saw human beings.”
As representative, Rush pushed for the release of secret FBI files about the assassinations of Hampton and Mark Clark, and on Tuesday he called for the FBI to remove former Director J. Edgar Hoover’s name from its headquarters.
“Let’s see how many Americans that J. Edgar Hoover had killed,” Rush said.
After leaving the Panthers, Rush earned degrees from Roosevelt University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and McCormick Theological Seminary.
Rush became 2nd Ward alderman in 1983 — the same year Harold Washington was elected mayor of Chicago — following an earlier City Council run that ended in defeat.
Rush served as alderman for nearly a decade before winning his congressional seat in 1992. He narrowly defeated incumbent Charles Hayes in that year’s Democratic primary before easily winning the general election in the deep-blue district.
A Black man has represented Illinois’ 1st District since 1929. Rush’s predecessors include Oscar Stanton De Priest, the first Black person elected to Congress in the 20th century; Arthur Mitchell, the first Black Democrat in Congress; William Dawson, the first Black person to chair a congressional committee; and Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor.
Rush highlighted his efforts in Congress around infrastructure, gun violence prevention and social justice in a recorded interview broadcast during Tuesday’s ceremony.
Among the achievements Rush touted:
- His advocacy for justice in the case of Joseph Gould, a Black man experiencing homelessness who was killed by white, off-duty Chicago police officer Gregory Becker in 1995.
- The 2008 passage of the Toy Bill, which banned lead in toys and boosted funding for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
- Legislation to study postpartum depression and support people experiencing it. The legislation was named after Melanie Blocker Stokes, a Lake Meadows Apartments resident who died by suicide in 2001 weeks after giving birth. The bill passed into law without funding in 2010 as part of the Affordable Care Act.
- Rush’s 2012 protest after George Zimmerman killed Black teenager Trayvon Martin. Rush wore a hoodie on the House floor in honor of Martin before being escorted out of the session for violating a rule barring hats.
“I brought some bacon home — a lot of bacon,” Rush said of his efforts to secure federal funding for infrastructure projects like the 95th Street Red Line station and upgrades to the interchange of Interstates 57 and 294.
Rush, whose speech became slower and raspier after a battle with cancer in his salivary gland in 2008, made light of the epithets “Bobby Hush” and “Congressman Mumbles” in Tuesday’s video.
“Am I hurt by that? Yeah, my vanity is hurt; my flesh is hurt,” Rush said. “… But people who dismiss me, I have found that it’s always been to my advantage. I have had some of my best battles and some of my most glorious victories against people who underestimated me because of my speech pattern.”
Among the battles that remain before Rush leaves office: passing anti-lynching legislation named after Emmett Till. Tuesday’s news conference was held at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, the site of Till’s open casket funeral in 1955.
“I’ve got a year or more remaining, and I’m going to get this bill passed,” Rush said.
As congressperson, Rush has “repeatedly failed to pay federal, state or local taxes on time,” according to the Better Government Association. Along with his second wife, Carolyn, he was sued over home mortgages and unpaid property taxes in 2010.
Rush was also found liable for more than $1 million in loans given toward Beloved Community Church’s failed church expansion, and a judge ordered his congressional paychecks garnished in an effort to pay back the loans.
Rush missed more votes than any other representative between 2007 and 2015, a period during which he and Carolyn experienced severe health problems.
The House ethics committee found in 2018 he broke the law by accepting rent-free office space as a gift for more than two decades.
Despite these incidents, Rush has been re-elected 14 consecutive times with few serious challenges. His only election loss in the last 30 years came in 1999, when he ran for mayor against incumbent Richard M. Daley.
When then-state Sen. Barack Obama ran for Rush’s seat in 2000, the future president was decisively dealt the only election loss of his career.
“I always knew how great a speaker Obama was, and frankly I thought he was more handsome than I am,” Rush said. “Therefore, I knew how to develop a strategy of never engaging in a debate with him” during the 2000 campaign.
Before Obama entered the 2008 presidential race, he asked Rush whether he should run, Rush said.
“I gave him advice from my heart and told him, ‘Go out. If you don’t do it now, you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting that you didn’t do it, wondering if you could win or not,'” Rush said. “I think that was sound advice, as we know the outcome of that.”
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