HYDE PARK — Democrats in the packed race for retiring Rep. Bobby Rush’s South Side seat largely agree on hot-button national issues like cutting health care costs, reducing fossil fuel dependence and curtailing gun violence.
With few differences in their end goals, more than a dozen candidates shared their legislative strategies and touted their political experience — or lack thereof — at a 1st District candidates’ forum Monday night.
Violence prevention worker Ameena Matthews, community organizer Jahmal Cole, pastor Chris Butler, teacher Kirby Birgans and workforce development professional Michael Thompson announced their plans to run against Rush before the longtime congressman announced in January he would not seek re-election.
Rush endorsed Karin Norington-Reaves, the former CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, days after she announced her candidacy in January.
Others in the running include state Sen. Jacqueline Collins, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and Jonathan Jackson, a civil rights activist and son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The Republican primary race is between Army veteran Eric Carlson, gun store owner Jeff Regnier, former 7th Ward committeeperson Philanise White and Geno Young. A Republican has not held the 1st District seat since 1934.
In-person early voting for the Illinois primaries kicks off Thursday, while Election Day is June 28. For how to vote in the upcoming election, click here.
Fourteen of the 17 announced Democrats appeared at Monday’s 1st District forum. They were split into two groups based on their fundraising and past political experience, Indivisible Chicago organizer Esther Peters said.
The candidates in the first group — Matthews, Birgans, Butler, Thompson, Steven DeJoie, Cassandra Goodrum and Robert Palmer — got one hour in total and were given fewer questions to discuss. The rest of the candidates shared two hours of discussion.
Birgans and Butler denounced the forum’s setup, saying it favored the candidates with more clout. They called on voters to consider candidates with less political experience or establishment backing.
“I don’t think that we necessarily need in Congress another graduate from a dysfunctional local body,” Butler said. “We don’t need another dynasty. … We don’t need [the] independently wealthy in Congress; we have plenty of that.”
The Candidates’ Platforms
Kirby Birgans, a science teacher, is running on a wide-ranging platform centering reproductive freedom, women’s rights and criminal justice reform. An openly gay candidate, he vowed to protect LGBTQ+ rights.
Birgans announced his support for Medicare for All in his opening statement Monday, and he spoke to his desire for higher taxes on corporations and changes to campaign finance laws.
Big businesses “must get their hands out of our political system,” Birgans said. “I will not take money from corporations; I will work for the people.”
Chris Butler, pastor of Chicago Embassy Church Network, railed against the role of money and clout in politics in his opening statement. He’s running in support of ranked choice voting, collaborations between police and community-based violence prevention workers and paid parental and family leave, among other issues.
Butler was one of two candidates at Monday’s forum to voice his opposition to repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bars Medicaid, Medicare and other federal funds from being used on abortion unless it would save a woman’s life or the pregnancy stems from incest or rape.
“I believe that we need to secure the right to choose when we become a parent by actually passing health care, housing, income equality — those types of things,” Butler said.
Jacqueline Collins currently represents a state Senate district stretching from the western suburbs through South Side neighborhoods like Ashburn, Auburn Gresham and Greater Grand Crossing.
Collins touted her efforts over nearly 20 years in the Illinois Senate, including her co-sponsorship in raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. Economic, social and racial justice have been the central themes of her political career and extend to her campaign, she said.
“I have a very strong work ethic, and based on that, I want to take that ethic to Washington, D.C.,” Collins said.
Steven DeJoie is a consultant and former owner of DeJoie’s Bistro in the West Loop. Violence is “the most important problem we have right now,” which requires youth mentoring and vocational training to address, he said.
Last year, DeJoie headed up a months-long Community First Safe Passage Initiative on the South Side, which united neighbors to try to prevent carjackings. If elected, he would also champion efforts to address homelessness by increasing mental health services, he said.
“The most important thing is the optimism we need to re-instill in the office and in our politics and in our government,” DeJoie said. “I want to restore that optimism to this office and to the community.”
Reproductive rights and voting rights are under attack, and gun safety is a major concern, Dowell said. She vowed to bring the “same energy” to Congress that she has spent advocating for her “marginalized” South Side communities in City Hall.
The 1st District hasn’t gotten “the resources that we need to get from Washington,” Dowell said. “We haven’t received our fair share of programs and services.”
Cassandra Goodrum, an attorney and professor of criminal justice at Chicago State University, said community input would be crucial to her time in Congress if elected.
Goodrum would implement “district clubs” for residents to share input on issues facing specific areas of the district, she said. Her other policy priorities include boosting voting protections, granting disability benefits to people with long COVID and increasing support for people returning from incarceration.
“Our campaign slogan is to engage, educate and empower for peace,” Goodrum said. “We keep talking about all of the violence within our community, and now it’s time for us to actually teach peace as a way [to] cure some of the violence.”
Jonathan Jackson — an activist, businessman and third child of Jackie and Jesse Jackson — said Monday he’d work to draw new industries to Chicago to address job and population losses. His platform features a host of other issues, including declaring housing a human right and investing in high-speed rail.
Jackson blamed guns acquired out of state for driving the city’s violence. He said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives needed to crack down on illegal gun sales.
“These guns are being smuggled in here across state lines,” Jackson said. “We can put an end to that.”
Ameena Matthews, who for nearly two decades has worked as a violence interrupter, was the first to announce her candidacy for the 1st District seat in July.
Matthews is running on a platform prioritizing health care, housing, community development, criminal justice and climate change. She also supports passing the Equality Act to secure more protections for LGBTQ+ Americans. President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass the act in his State of the Union address.
“We cannot allow the same politics as usual to go on, because the 1st District is the most enriched in Chicago’s history,” Matthews said.
Karin Norington-Reaves named the district’s two most pressing issues as economic development and violence — and “one provides the solution to the other,” the Rush-endorsed candidate said.
Norington-Reaves led the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, a nonprofit job placement and training system, before stepping down in March to focus on her Congressional campaign. Her platform includes support for banning civilians from owning military-grade weapons, a universal basic income and a permanent expansion of the Child Tax Credit program.
“We need economic development, job growth and quality job creation to solve so many of the problems we are being faced with,” Norington-Reaves said.
Robert Palmer, a high school teacher with coaching experience in baseball and in the Special Olympics, said he’s running against a political culture that sees politicians only engage with voters when they’re looking for reelection.
Crime — particularly carjackings — can be addressed with more economic and educational opportunities for youth, Palmer said. He also voiced support for reparations to Black Americans, saying “it’s long overdue,” and joined Butler in opposing a repeal of the Hyde Amendment.
“Because I have an innate ability to connect with people and to connect with the youth, I would like some of the businesses to start mentorship programs, where we teach youth a trade or teach them to become entrepreneurs,” Palmer said.
Nykea Pippion McGriff, the first Black woman president of the Chicago Association of Realtors, said she’s spent her career advocating for the American Dream of homeownership and wealth-building and would continue to do so in Congress.
Pippion McGriff, whose son, Xavier Joy, was shot and killed in 2017, has called for more grief and trauma-informed counseling for victims of gun violence. With rising food prices and supply chain issues, it’s also crucial to for the federal government to support local food producers, she said.
“Having a healthy food economy means more jobs in the south suburbs, and better quality and healthier food for all of our kids in Chicago,” Pippion McGriff said.
Jonathan Swain, owner of the Kimbark Beverage Shoppe in Hyde Park and founder of the Hyde Park Summer Fest, said the 1st District needs a congressperson who will “center the community’s voice” in policy decisions.
Boosting access to preventative care and increasing education funding are among Swain’s policy goals if elected. While he advocated for policies like eliminating student loan debt and reparations for Black Americans, he also said those are unlikely to pass if voting rights aren’t protected and “more open-minded folks” aren’t elected to Congress across the nation.
In the past 20 years, “we’ve had forum after forum — and election after election — talking about the issues, but the problems have seemed to get worse and worse,” Swain said.
Michael Thompson is a workforce development professional running on a platform spotlighting education, jobs and public safety. Thompson said he wants to bring more federal support to “community champions” like high school teachers, social workers, coaches and faith leaders as a congressperson.
The two biggest issues facing the district are a lack of jobs and violent crime, Thompson said. Nationally, runaway inflation and the “erosion of our democracy” by economic and inequities top his list of issues.
“On a personal level, I believe in the spirit and the potential of this district,” Thompson said.
Charise Williams, who was last employed as deputy director of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, said she’ll draw on her experience in using government funds “equitably” if elected.
Williams’ platform includes plans to boost funding for violence prevention programs and bring resources to independent farmers. She also wants to focus on “highway-centered” infrastructure projects that would ease congestion, as well as repair and replace bridges in the district.
“We have historically been ignored through federal funding and resources that traditionally go to other parts of our state and have, for whatever reasons, not come to our communities that need it the most,” Williams said.
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