By ANDREW HOLZMAN
Even after a campaign season in which he made no appearances, Jesse Jackson Jr. won re-election to his seat as congressman for the second district, which includes a sliver of Hyde Park, with almost 80 percent of votes in the general election. Another South Side politician who represents far more Hyde Parkers, Congressman Bobby Rush (D-1), enjoys similar success and apparent permanence—he has pushed back challengers by wide margins since being elected in 1993 and became the only politician ever to defeat President Barack Obama when he carried the March 2000 primary for his seat with about 60 percent of votes.
Yet district-wide numbers may not tell the whole story for Rush, especially in Hyde Park, which has supplied him with some of his slimmest margins and most serious opponents.
The Fifth Ward, which Rush carried with just over 77 percent of votes in the March 2012 primary compared with almost 89 percent in the entire district, has provided the most significant numbers for his opponents. Many who have sought to unseat Rush in primaries have hoped to draw on this disparity, claiming that Rush represents some, but not all, of the First District. Most recently, Ray Lodato, a University of Chicago professor who challenged Rush in the spring primary, took up the mantle during his campaign.
“I wanted to see a congressman who would be much more active on issues that are important to the district, represent all of the communities in the district,” Lodato said.
While Rush represents nearly all of Hyde Park, the neighborhood is just a tiny part of the 1st Congressional District, which runs south and west of the neighborhood as far out as Mokena and Manhattan, Ill.
Rebecca Janowitz, the author of local political history book “Culture of Opportunity,” who supported Lodato in his primary campaign, though she declined to discuss her opinion of Rush, tried to explain the disparity.
“I think a lot of people in the Fifth Ward like what they see as a more inclusive style of politics,” she said, explaining that by “inclusive” she meant “racially inclusive.” “They’re trying to do other racially inclusive things and they think their politics should match that.”
Some Hyde Parkers who were asked about Rush, including George Washington and Michael “Harp” Bryant, immediately associated him with the Black Panther movement, which Rush helped bring to Illinois in the late ’60s. Only Washington saw that as negative, saying he believed Rush had since “cleaned up his act.” Jay Mulberry, also a Hyde Park resident, rejected the idea that racially-charged politics made Rush less popular in the Fifth Ward, saying, “I don’t see that he’s letting down white people with anything that he’s doing.”
Both Janowitz and Lodato questioned whether Rush’s wins in the district as a whole are the result of genuine approval of his work in Congress.
“I don’t like to use words like popular just because people voted for the only name they knew on a ballot” said Janowitz. “People voted for him because they showed up and voted.” She said that the number of votes for a candidate can be more telling than vote percentages.
Lodato called on concerns he had expressed during his campaign, saying, “I don’t think it’s enough to say that you did something 40 or 50 years ago,” and pointed out federal education funding and investment in public infrastructure as arenas in which he thinks Rush should be working harder.
“It’s hard to look at Bobby and see some popular accomplishment,” said Janowitz.
Mulberry, who described himself as a climate change activist, disagreed. “[Rush] takes a relatively active role on the House energy committee, pushing for action on climate change,” he said. He was less sure about Rush’s other legislative accomplishments, saying, “I don’t know how he is on creating new policy.”
Bryant also spoke positively about Rush’s specific accomplishments. “He’s a person that’s really concerned about the Black community,” he said. “He goes to bat for the Black man, trying to secure more jobs for the Blacks.” He mentioned a church program for Black youth that Rush supports.
Not everyone agreed with Bryant.
“It’s an attitude,” said Carla Stillwell. “It’s time for somebody interested in change and fighting for the underdog … he’s had his job too long.”
“He’s running on old popularity,” said Monique Green.
Even if some view Rush’s performance in Washington, D.C., as unsatisfactory, it’s undeniable that a strong majority of those who come to the polls, even in Hyde Park, choose to send him back. Lodato attributed this in part to a “media blackout.”
“I think we haven’t had a candid discussion in this district about what we want from our congressman,” he said. “I think part of it is the responsibility of the media, to cover campaigns when they occur.”
Lodato pointed to the Herald as an example of one newspaper that failed to adequately cover his campaign. A search of the Herald archives found one feature article on Lodato’s campaign manager.
State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-25), attempted to explain Rush’s winning record in broader terms. “In addition to scarcer media resources,” she said, “the problem for Ray was overcoming the perception that he stood very little chance of success in the contest. When Barack Obama earlier challenged Rush there was more media focus. But the challengers were sitting state senators and, at least with respect to Obama, showed a track record at being able to raise money.” State Sen. Donne E. Trotter (D-17) challenged Rush during the same election as Obama.
Janowitz “respectfully disagreed,” though her account was similar. “[Rush] was the only candidate with any name recognition in the last election. Most people did not see any kind of a race,” Janowitz said.
Stillwell, who disliked Rush, blamed herself for not having supported another candidate. “I didn’t know enough … it’s not the press’ responsibility for me to educate myself,” she said. “People get used to voting for who they get used to voting for.”
Hyde Parkers were clear and unanimous about one thing they wanted in a congressman: honesty.
“I would like to see an honest person in Congress,” Mulberry said.
Washington agreed, saying he wanted a representative who would “stop lying.”
Conversation about Rush was free and candid in the restaurants and coffee shops in Hyde Park compared to the scene at the offices of local politicians, who were reluctant to address questions about Rush on the record. A media contact for Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board and executive vice-chairman of the Cook County Democrats, said Preckwinkle was not able to provide an interview on the topic. The New York Times reported in 2007 that Preckwinkle had encouraged Obama to run against Rush. Alds. Leslie Hairston (5th) and Will Burns (4th) did not respond to requests or did not follow up on offers spokespeople made to schedule interviews, and a source who identified as having supported Lodato at events declined to comment out of concern over political retribution.