A young Chicago progressive is challenging an established liberal for Congress in a race that reflects Democratic Party divisions

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On a recent Sunday afternoon, 31-year old Kina Collins strode up the front steps of tidy bungalows in the Galewood neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side to introduce herself to voters in the hopes they will make her their next representative in Congress.

Repeatedly referring to their current congressman, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, as a “25-year incumbent,” Collins encouraged the voters to open their minds to the idea she could — and should — do the job.

“He’s been my representative since I was 5 years old,” Collins recited to the voters as they stood on their front stoops. “We know that it’s time for a change.”

Challenger Kina Collins hosts a discussion on abortion access and reproductive rights at the Kehrein Center for the Arts in Chicago on May 16, 2022. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis addresses the congregation at New Galilee Baptist Church during a campaign stop on May 29, 2022, in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Just a few hours later that same day, the 80-year old Davis slowly walked into a hotel in the South Loop flanked by West Side Democrats City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin and her husband, Ald. Jason Ervin, 28th, as well as U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries from New York, the second-highest-ranking Black lawmaker in Congress.

With his famously deep baritone voice, Davis touted his long record of work in Congress, but it was also obvious that his young opponent wasn’t far from his mind as he dismissed Collins as “some young lady who has never done anything that I’m aware of except talk.”

“If anybody tells you that a rookie is as good as a great veteran, they must be out of their mind!” Davis intoned. “They have to be bordering on insanity.”

The contrasting scenes playing out almost daily in the 7th Congressional District race highlight the ideological and generational divide facing the Democratic Party in Illinois and across the nation. Two major candidates — one younger and more progressive; the other an establishment politician who had been at the forefront of liberal politics but whose time might be coming to a close.

And the backing the two have received from others helps spell out the dichotomy.

Collins is endorsed by several progressive groups, including Justice Democrats, a leading left-wing political action committee that backed U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in 2018 and Marie Newman in Illinois in 2020. Davis, meanwhile, works closely with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team, a message underscored by Jeffries’ presence on a series of visits to city churches.

“I’m going to go back to Washington and tell the world I’m a Danny Davis Democrat!” Jeffries proclaimed.

Heading into the final weeks before the June 28 primary, the contest between Davis and Collins features two Chicago West Siders seeking to represent a district that stretches from the west suburbs of Westchester, Bellwood and Oak Park through the city’s West Side and east to Lake Michigan, encompassing Streeterville and downtown, before darting south to include parts of the South Loop, Bridgeport and Englewood.

The district highlights the deep inequities that often characterize Chicago, demonstrated by significant gap in life expectancy in two neighborhoods within the district: 90 years for Streeterville and 60 years for Englewood.

Much of the heart of the 7th District hasn’t changed with redistricting, and since 1997 the district has been represented by Davis. Originally from Arkansas, the child of sharecroppers, Davis was a Chicago alderman and key ally to Mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s before being elected to the Cook County Board.

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis leaves Greater Rock Missionary Baptist Church with U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, right, for another campaign stop on May 29, 2022, in the Lawndale neighborhood. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Challenger Kina Collins, left, campaigns door to door with her manager, Isabel Alter, on May 29, 2022, in Chicago’s Galewood neighborhood. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Davis entered Congress after U.S. Rep. Cardiss Collins, the Midwest’s first female Black congresswoman, retired from the seat following 24 years in office. Kina Collins is no relation to Cardiss Collins.

Kina Collins grew up in the 7th District. Her father was a factory worker and her mother a crossing guard and certified nursing assistant. She organized protests after white Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke murdered Black teenager Laquan McDonald and she has been an anti-gun violence activist. Collins also spent parts of the past two years leading community cleanups and doing activist work that helped deepen her connections in the district, work that may benefit her as concerns over Roe v. Wade being overturned have been heightened.

In 2020, Collins challenged Davis but garnered only about 14% of the vote in the Democratic primary among four candidates.

This time, she’s been able to raise more money, including from the Justice Democrats organization, and the field is smaller as the only other challenger is Denarvis Mendenhall, who is running a mostly phantom campaign.

In the last fundraising quarter, Collins outraised Davis — $127,570 to $66,840 — though Davis still maintained a cash-on-hand advantage of $543,981 to Collins’ $125,217.

Nodding to 2022′s more competitive landscape, Davis supporter Anthony Oliver warned the crowd at the congressman’s South Loop rally that Collins is a serious challenger.

“A lot of people don’t believe this is going to be a race but this is a race,” Oliver said. “He is in a race! I don’t know how many people know this man is in a race with this young lady … for the first time, she’s backed by somebody in this race that has money to compete.”

But, Oliver said, Davis — who is often referred to by his initials “DKD” — deserves to win due to his seniority.

“They talk about DKD too old … but they don’t understand that seniority in Congress wins the day!” said Oliver, who used to be executive director of StreetWise, the Chicago news magazine that provides a source of work and income for people experiencing homelessness or other financial difficulties. “The older you are, the stronger you are, the more successful you are, the more you can bring home and what he has brought home to the 7th is unparalleled to anybody.”

What exactly Davis has brought back to the 7th district has been an issue over the years. Many of the neighborhoods and west suburbs have struggled for generations, long before Davis took office, but improvement also has been slow-going.

Davis’ campaign notes the congressman sponsored the Second Chance Act in 2007, a law that provided more than $680 million in funding that assisted an estimated 164,000 men and women across the nation by supporting organizations that provided services to those released from prison. Much of his literature also cites legislation providing federal grants to stem violence, and support disability programs and job training.

But mostly Davis’ message leans on familiarity. Across the district, campaign signs Davis’ workers have planted in people’s front yards or on storefront windows on the West Side declare: “He’s someone you know.”

Collins, meanwhile, pushes a progressive agenda that seeks to be more aggressive in advocating for legislation that moves beyond what Davis and his more established Democratic colleagues in Congress have done over the past few decades.

She supports the “Green New Deal,” Medicare for All, making law enforcement more accountable, abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and ending the filibuster in the Senate and passing the Women’s Health Protection Act.

Still, Collins and Davis often share similar messages on many issues. Both frequently decry Chicago’s gun violence. Noting that America is too loose with guns, Davis said his 15-year old grandson Javon Wilson was killed by two individuals after a “little argument.”

“They had a swapping program where they swapped clothes with each other. ‘I’d wear your gym shoes for a week, you’d wear my jacket for a week.’ They had a little argument but one of the kids had a gun,” Davis said. “If he had not had a gun, it would’ve been nothing more than an argument but because one had a gun and he used it, now he’s in the penitentiary for (30) years and my grandson is in the grave for the rest of time.”

While Collins campaigned, one potential voter asked her what her stance on gun control was and she recalled witnessing a shooting when she was a child in front of her home and knowing both the gunmen and the victim. She said she supports banning assault rifles and pushes for universal background checks. But economic assistance and mental health support are also vital, she said.

“What we’re dealing with in the district is everyday gun violence. The root cause of that is poverty,” Collins told the resident. “Until we start striking at the root cause of that and investing in prevention, we’re going to continue to see this everyday gun violence.”

As critics have focused on Davis’ history, questions also have been raised about how he spends his campaign cash. Most notably, Davis not only collects contributions for his federal campaign fund to spend on reelection to Congress, he also still collects — and spends money out of — a local campaign fund even though he hasn’t run for a local office since he unsuccessfully ran for Chicago mayor in 2011.

Rules governing local campaign funds are much looser than those for federal campaign funds, including allowing corporations to contribute. Federal and state campaign records show Davis pays campaign workers from both accounts, raising questions about whether he has used his local campaign fund to augment his federal reelection bids.

But Davis said that in addition to his work as a congressman, he’s also an elected member of the Democratic State Central Committee, which governs the state party, and money from the local funds can be used to pay for state central committee work. He said he doesn’t use one fund to augment the other but often gives people jobs and work to help them financially when they’re facing tough times.

“I use them to kind of help people and if that adds to their feeling about me, I guess it probably should, some of them it don’t,” Davis said. “I’ll give them $50, $60 and they walk out the door and call me a m———–. ‘Ain’t nothing I can do with no $50.’ But they never give it back.”

Though Collins frequently criticizes Davis, she has also struck a gentler tone in the district where many of the older voters have a sentimental attachment to their longtime representative. But, she said, she’s seen a subtle shift while campaigning. In 2020, Collins said, older Black men wouldn’t even talk to her but they’re now giving her more time.

Reflecting the careful balancing act, Collins told several voters, “I respect congressman Davis but it’s time.”

During a recent League of Women Voters appearance, Collins said, “This year, people in our district in the Illinois 7th (District) have a choice. They can vote for the district as it currently stands or they can fight for the district we should be.”

“This pandemic has exposed to us that these urgent crises that are breaking out require urgent leadership and the fact is, we have not felt the presence of congressman Davis,” Collins said. “We deserve a fighter in Congress and I know I can be the candidate to do that.”

For his own closing statement, Davis ran through a litany of rankings — ranging from “100% civil rights voting record” to “100% labor record from the AFL-CIO” to “human rights 97%” — and ended simply, “I stand on my record.”

gpratt@chicagotribune.com

via Chicago Tribune

June 8, 2022 at 07:11AM

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