Rush, Gad, Emmons debate health care, gun violence and economics at candidates forum

Sarah Gad and Robert Emmons listen as Rep. Bobby Rush responds to a question during the forum among candidates for Rush’s 1st District seat. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff writer

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st) and two of his three challengers met Jan. 23 for a campaign forum in Hyde Park, with the congressman touting his longevity, Sarah Gad highlighting her commitment to criminal justice reform and Robert Emmons Jr. pledging to tackle gun violence should voters send him to Washington. Candidate Ameena Matthews missed the event due to illness.

Indivisible South Side, a left-wing advocacy group, organized the forum and chose the questions, which were provided in advance to the candidates in the district which which encompasses much of Chicago’s South Side, including Kenwood, Hyde Park and Woodlawn, and extends to the southwest suburbs. An overflow crowd watched at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, 5650 S. Woodlawn Ave.

Rush, 72, made mention of his own age in his opening statement, noting that, as a younger man, he had served in the U.S. Army, organized a free breakfast program with the Illinois Black Panthers and subsequently campaigned for a number of independent Democrats for local, state and federal office.

“My life has been a life that is inclusive, involved. It hasn’t been from behind; it’s been in front,” said Rush. He said he is “still as active as I’ve ever been” and is seeking another term because he enjoys the job and is accomplishing things — including, he said proudly, the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Emmons briefly described his role as a “social innovator” in nonprofits before talking about going to college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a childhood friend from the South Side, who later dropped out and later died by gun violence.

“As unfortunate as it was, statistically speaking it was predictable, and it was predictable because he was living in a society that failed him at every single turn,” said Emmons, identifying the U.S. economic, educational and criminal justice systems as having failed his friend. He proposed federal access to physical and mental health care, fixing environmental issues, universal pre-kindergarten and transportation access to solve nationwide gun violence.

Gad said 1st District voters encouraged her to run for the job a year ago, inspired by her life story and her capacity for change. She is a former medical student and opioid addict who turned her life around after being incarcerated and brutalized in jail; she was admitted to the University of Chicago Law School and has founded two nonprofits to help the homelessness and addicted. She said her personal experiences have showed her “there is a massive disconnect between who we’re supported to be as a nation and what we actually are.”

“I, like many of us, have been discounted as one of the down-and-out,” she said, adding that she is running “to empower those who have made mistakes to keep pushing forward instead of being left behind like I was, and to ensure that those who harm us are held accountable, regardless of what uniform they’re in.”

Asked about ameliorating the economic disparities between the North Side and the South and West sides, Gad said investments in public transportation would give people access to jobs, but she also endorsed reparations and took the criminal justice system to task for disproportionately targeting people of color, whose records “(leave) them permanently marginalized,” unable to find work or housing or reengage with society. Emmons echoed her on reparations and public transportation investment.

Rush said private sector investment and the struggles Black-owned businesses face can be dealt with by federal involvement, citing his membership on the Energy and Commerce Committee which does oversight on telecommunications, consumer protection and interstate and overseas commerce.

“Medicare for All,” a national program that would guarantee health insurance for every American, has the support of both Emmons and Rush; the congressman specifically noted his long-term advocacy for it and legislation he said would lower the cost of drugs.

Gad said life without health care is “a living nightmare” and said she supports ultimately creating a single-payer system, but she said current Medicare for All proposals are not feasible, given existing issues in the Medicare system. She proposed reforms providing for more primary care doctors, better management of chronic diseases and billing practices, promoting healthier living and forcing the Food and Drug Administration to better monitor agriculture.

On gun violence, Emmons said that Congress needs allocate money to anti-violence community organizations and repeal the Dickey Amendment, a 1996-passed provision that precluded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence. Congress, meanwhile, included earmarked funds to do that in this year’s omnibus spending bill, though the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact project said the effect of it is not clear.

Gad cited a Rand Corporation study that found that restoring Pell Grant eligibility to those who have been incarcerated brings down violent crime recidivism by 44% and called again for creating “pathways to success for people who’ve been in the criminal justice system.” (Rush and Emmons also endorsed restoring Pell-eligibility.) She said law enforcement needs to be de-militarized and called for gun safety legislation providing universal background checks, mandatory mental health assessments, a buy-back program and reinstating a federal assault weapons ban.

Gad said she would support “comprehensive climate change legislation like the Green New Deal,” which she said would benefit the South Side, chronically affected by air pollution. She said Rush has not used his Energy Committee membership to better advocate for his constituents in this area.

Rush stressed realism — “This green economy has to be a jobs-producing economy” — touting his own draft Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s (CLEAN) Future Act, which advocates the goal of a 100% clean economy by 2050 (details of the legislation have not been released). He also noted his support for legislation to create a comprehensive education and training program for jobs in renewable energy, energy efficiency or grid modernization.

Rush’s campaign contributions (per the Federal Elections Commission, he has received $5,000 donations from Duke Energy, the Edison Electric Institute and Dominion Energy — all of which use coal-generated power) came under attack. Emmons boasted that his campaign runs without contributions from corporations or the fossil fuel industry. He also said that the world cannot wait until 2050 for the U.S. economy to become carbon-neutral, suggesting 2030 as a target date, which the congressman called a pipe dream.

“I’ve been in Congress for 27 years, and for 20 of those 27 years, the Republicans have been in control,” Rush said, arguing that the Green New Deal would not pass the GOP-controlled Senate or become law under Trump. But he did stress the need to elect more Democratic senators and beat the president.

Gad said housing should be a human right and that more should be done to “empower federal, state and local governments to fully enforce the Fair Housing Act” and to appropriate more funding to fair housing initiative programs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has seen its budget slashed under Trump. Emmons said that reparations should include debt-reduction components to address the inequities of the housing market for people of color and expressed openness to federal rent control legislation.

Gad admonished the congressman for his voting record (in the 115th Congress, from 2017-2019, he missed 22.1% of votes) and took him to task for missing a congressional hearing on reparations, though he has long supported it. He countered that his wife had died over that time and that he missed work due to a fight for cancer.

Both challengers attacked Rush for endorsing former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire financial services, software and media magnet, for president. Emmons said he is endorsing politicians with tough-on-crime histories, but Rush countered that Bloomberg has a plan to create 1 million Black homeowners and said every Democrat running for president has apologized to the Black community for past stances on criminal justice.

When a constituent brought up that Rush has had no listed town hall meetings since 2014, the congressman countered that he has had “stakeholders’ meetings” in the district since the years on issues from women’s rights to immigration reform to the ongoing erosion of the south lakefront. Emmons said he would have twice-yearly town halls if elected, and Gad said she has continuously engaged with voters since launching her campaign.

“I believe that my role as an elected official is to be somebody who echoes the voices of my constituents 100% of the time,” she said. “My job as an elected official is not to perpetuate my moral interests and needs.”

Gad said she was open to universal basic income. Rush said he supported its principles but would want to see legislation first, and Emmons said he supports it “in spirit” but worried about eroding supplemental resources for poor people should it be established.

In closing, Rush said he was committed every day to dealing with the economic issues and social dysfunction in the Black community, though jobs, business development and health care.

“These are the things that I think about when I wake up in the morning,” he said, and “when I’m tired and go to bed.”

Emmons said now is a time for compassion, love and resilience for the 100,000 Americans who die from gun violence every year, saying that his campaign is “about peace and prosperity in our communities.”

Gad recalled three-and-a-half months living in Washington that made her think she is prepared to advocate for the 1st District, in large part because of the ineptitude of incumbent lawmakers, including her opponent.

“If there was one thing that was abundantly clear to me, it was we do not have representation in D.C.,” she said.