Gun violence work, dissatisfaction with Rep. Rush draw Robert Emmons into 1st District congressional race

Robert Emmons during his interview with the Herald. (Herald staff photo)

Staff writer

Ask Robert Emmons who he is, and he’ll tell you: “I’m a social innovator, nonprofit leader and gun violence-prevention advocate, and I’m running for Congress make this the last generation to be faced with everyday gun violence by addressing its root causes.”

Ask Emmons why he is challenging Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st), who has been in Congress for about as long as Emmons has been alive, and he’ll tell you: “I don’t believe he is any longer proximate to the issues at hand that the 1st Congressional District is facing, and he’s proven that consistently.”

He is critical of Rush’s vote for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which has been linked to mass incarceration and overcrowding of prisons in the United States through 50 new federal offenses and three-strikes provisions.

“As research has pointed to, the 1994 Crime Bill has been proven to be ineffective, and, in fact, it has hurt our district extremely in militarizing and criminalizing Black and Brown, disinvested communities,” Emmons said.

Many Democrats voted for the bill — former Vice President and 2020 presidential front-runner Joe Biden wrote it; then-First Lady Hillary Clinton supported it — but Emmons said Rush’s support for former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley’s third-place mayoral campaign, which proposed drone and additional camera surveillance and $50 million for gang intervention], negated any good will.

“It means he hasn’t really learned his lesson in terms of how to reduce crime in an effective way — a way that expresses compassion and forward thinking,” he said.

Emmons supports the Green New Deal promoted by Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.); Rush, who serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, does not.

“While he takes money from the fossil fuel industry, all while the 1st Congressional District has some of the highest numbers of asthma … in the entire country, all while the State of Illinois has some of the highest toxic areas than any other part of the country — we have a sitting congressman calling an aspirational, environmental justice piece of legislation a ‘smash and grab,'” Emmons said, referring to a February interview Rush did with The Intercept.

“He’s out of touch. That’s why we’re taking him on, head on.”

No less a politician than former President Barack Obama once decided to mount a primary challenge against Rush, and everyone knows how that went. (“There’s something much greater and deeper than just numbers, and that’s the basic suicidal tendency of self-proclaimed independent Democrats in Chicago,” the Herald quoted Hyde Park political activist Sam Ackerman at the time.)

But with his focus on gun violence, Emmons thinks he has a chance.

“We are going to make this the last generation to be faced with everyday gun violence, and we’re not afraid to say something as bold and courageous as that,” he said. “We haven’t heard the congressman say anything like that, nor have we had the congressman commit to actions that would actually get us to that place.”

Emmons grew up in Mays Landing, New Jersey, near Atlantic City. He said his father, facing “inequity and racism,” moved from job to job to his family’s financial detriment. When he was 13, his parents sent him to Auburn Gresham to live with a grandmother.

He went to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, where he studied political science, participating in programs of the London-based Global Diplomatic Forum, the Generation Progress advocacy group and J Street, the left-of-center group advocating for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He enrolled downstate with two high school friends, and they all lived together their first year.

“One of my friends, he really struggled his first year of college, and the University of Illinois, despite his best efforts, told him he wouldn’t be a good fit,” Emmons said. His friend eventually returned to Chicago, where Emmons said he fell into poverty before being shot and killed.

Emmons dropped out of college, feeling immense guilt for not having been there to do have done something about it. He took a job in Milwaukee, where he met his now-wife. They moved to Columbia, South Carolina, in 2016, witnessing the political ascendency of President Trump in the early-primary state.

“For the first time in my life, I saw how problematic fear can be when you allow it to be your motivator,” he said. “I also had to look within myself to evaluate and interrogate the fear I had in myself.”

His grandmother and others encouraged him to dedicate his life to gun violence prevention. He started therapy; he and his wife paid off her student loans and moved back to Champaign-Urbana. After graduating, he took a job at OneGoal, a college-access program for low-income students.

“That began my new thinking on gun violence prevention and its root causes, like education, like college persistence, like free college with an equity-based lens, like working on environmental justice and health care,” he said. “If you look at our policies, we mention guns a little bit, but we look at root causes way more than we ever talk about guns.”

“I believe in the right to bear arms, but what I’m asking you to also arm yourselves with is rationality, forward thinking and compassion,” he continued. “Right now, I’m a gun violence-prevention advocate — with an emphasis on prevention. Any law-abiding citizen, with or without a gun, should be a gun violence-prevention advocate, because that’s the exact reason why you want a gun, to prevent violence. You want to ensure your family is safe. I want to make sure my families and my communities are safe, too.”

He wants the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to classify gun violence as a public health epidemic, which was encumbered by a functional ban on conducting research into gun violence from 1996 until last year. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (R) clarified that the CDC can conduct research into the issue, but federal dollars have been slow to flow to such research.

“From there, you begin to have research-based evidence that proves that gun violence is contagious, and it is a disease,” Emmons said. “You can allocate funding to go directly towards eradicating said disease.”

As a congressman, Emmons said he would allocate funding towards active, evidence-based community organizations like Good Kids Mad City.

“We want to help them scale their operations to move our communities forward,” he said.

And he wants to help develop comprehensive gun violence-prevention legislation. He expressed support for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban. He said he was unable to comment on the law that requires Illinois gun dealers to have state-issued licenses.

“When you look at a lot of the progressive issues I fight for — that we as progressives and Democrats fight for, like health care, like criminal justice, like education — all of these things disproportionately impact Black men under the age of 35, yet we don’t have a single member of Congress [who] fits that demographic,” Emmons said when asked why he is seeking federal office as a young, first-time candidate. “That means we’re missing a key voice in Congress right now, one who is from a disinvested community and can speak not just having studied these issues, but having lived and is currently living through these issues.”

“I’m committing our campaign and I’m committing myself as an elected official to being that voice and the voice of the entirety of the 1st Congressional District,” he said.

The whole district, which spans from the South Side to conservative southwestern suburbs? Yes, Emmons said, touting his endorsement by Will County Board Member Amanda Koch (D) as well as his yet-to-be-released transportation accessibility plan.

“Folks out in New Lenox also care about health care and education — and, believe it not, they also care about gun violence prevention,” he said. “They care about what’s going on 20 miles north of their homes.”

Should Trump be reelected, Emmons pledged support for impeachment, though he cautioned that no constituents named the President among their top concerns. He said he wants to diffuse his policies to the millions of Americans who think like the President.

He supports Medicare for All. He readily admitted to not knowing how to pay for it, though he promised to work with economists, congresspeople and constituents to come up with a framework.

With a current campaign staff of 13, Emmons proudly noted his refusal to take donations from political action committees and lambasted Rush for taking money from “corporate PACS and the fossil fuel industry.”

“The 1st Congressional District is an extremely safe Democratic seat, in which case he should be way more vocal than he has been,” Emmons said. “I think at one point in his activism, he was progressive. To me, gun violence prevention is a ‘Free Breakfast’ program. So, I would ask the people of the 1st Congressional District: When was the last time Bobby Rush supported a Free Breakfast program?”