By AARON GETTINGER
“This is a remarkable time,” says U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, 73 and in office for 27 years. “To be able to fight against those forces of darkness, those racist forces, those forces that are trying to tear the very fabric of our democracy apart — I’m enjoying just the fight against these people, everything that they’re about, including their attempts to create some kind of white, Aryan society.
“I’m fighting for the nation,” he continued, speaking at a late January interview at his campaign headquarters, 5401 S. Wentworth Ave. “I’m really relishing the fight, because I’m a fighter. I still have what it takes to fight.”
Rush’s life reads something like a survey of postwar African American history. He was born in Georgia and moved to Chicago in the latter years of the Great Migration with his mother after his parents separated. He grew up playing basketball on the West Side before serving in the U.S. Army for five years in the 1960s.
After work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and an honorable discharge, he became radicalized, rising in the ranks of the Illinois Black Panthers and cheating death after the assassination of Fred Hampton in 1970 before serving six months in jail in 1972 on a weapons charge.
He earned degrees from Roosevelt University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and, in 1978, McCormick Theological Seminary, 5460 S. University Ave. He was elected alderman of the 2nd Ward in 1983, fought on Mayor Harold Washington’s side during the Council Wars and got elected to Congress in 1992.
Rush ran for mayor in 1999 but lost badly to Richard M. Daley. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama miscalculated a weakness in 2000 and challenged him for his House seat. Rush has never let anyone forget how that worked out for him.
His congressional seniority affords him clout on the Committee on Energy and Commerce, though detractors scoff at his relationship with the telecommunications and energy giants (and, indeed, the fossil fuel interests have made donations to his campaign). A 2014 Office of Congressional Ethics report found that he did not pay $365,000 in rent for a political office. The Better Government Association reported in 2017 how Rush had been ordered to pay $1.1 million on a delinquent loan to his since-shuttered church in Englewood.
Amid all of this, Rush has become something of an elder statesman as the third-longest-serving incumbent member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Salivary gland cancer took his voice in 2008. He was escorted off the House floor in 2012 for giving a speech in a hoodie to make a point about the killing of Trayvon Martin (decorum bans head coverings). In 2017, he accused two Chicago policemen, later cleared of wrongdoing, of racially profiling him. He sometimes wears Pan-African-patterned shirts when he appears in the district.
Rush argues that he is the best candidate running to deliver jobs to the 1st Congressional District, which includes most of Hyde Park-Kenwood, several impoverished South Side neighborhoods and, ironically, some conservative southwest suburbs. He said the United States’ economic disparity along racial lines is his top concern in the campaign, calling it “a shameful indictment on our nation, our government and our public policy,” with both parties sharing blame.
Ahead of the presidential primaries, Rush stoked some dismay by endorsing former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Rush has stated that his endorsee presents the best chance for economic development, even though Bloomberg served in office as a Republican and endorsed President George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004.
But Rush said one cannot progress by looking through a rear-view mirror.
“At the end of the day in the African American community on the South Side of Chicago, our biggest challenge is economics,” he said. “My endorsement of Michael Bloomberg centers around one thing: his approach to the economic problems of the Black community on the South Side and across the nation. The fact that he came into Chicago and went Olive-Harvey College to talk about jobs — to me, that was just his pattern, and that was one of the things that I really like about what he’s doing.”
Bloomberg’s executive experience, as a mayor and as head of a self-named company also appeals to the congressman.
“He’s a self-made man,” Rush said, praising Bloomberg’s ability to finance a win over the incumbent president, who is also a billionaire. “His central message and my central message overlap one another. They fit like a hand in glove.”
Rush pulled up some window blinds and asked rhetorically how many of the businesses in the shopping center around his campaign office are Black-owned.
“He said he’s going to create 100,000 businesses in the African American community. That means something to me,” Rush said. “He is the only one out of all of them that said ‘I am going to invest in the next 10 years $70 billion.’ Just the fact that he made that commitment, he understands what the issues are.”
Rush recalled that Chicago once had dozens of black-owned banks; now it has one: GN Bank, 4619 S. King Drive. “Across the country, there are 23,” he observed. “Without a black-owned bank in a community, what is the capital transaction occur? You go in, you have to be super-duper clean, and you still might not be able to get the loan for the business expansion for the creation of a business or even a mortgage.”
Filed on the day the Democrats re-took the House majority, Rush’s RESCUE Act for Black and Community Banks would require the government to create an office dedicated to fostering black banks through federal resources. It has 14 cosponsors and, while it has not moved in its assigned committees for over a year, Rush says it can be prioritized.
Again, he praised the cardinal importance of congressional seniority, scoffing at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) for her outsized national stature for a freshman.
“She might have a lot of Twitter followers, but you can’t tell me one law that she’s passed,” he said. “Congress moves slowly, independently, and you have got to spend your time before you move legislation.”
Rush observed that two whole decades of his Washington career have been under a Republican-controlled House — but today, he can call hearings, like one he held in October at Kennedy-King College on gun violence as a public health threat, thanks to his seniority. Committee oversight allows him to shape the federal bureaucracy’s functions towards his aims.
But if he were to tell constituents that his priority was combating climate change rather than jobs creation, Rush said he would be laughed off the street. But he said the energy sector can and should create jobs in places like the 1st District, especially in times that demand investment in clean energy. Millions of federal dollars could be spent to get U.S. properties up to federal energy efficiency standards, for instance.
“My question is, who is doing all this efficiency work? And why don’t we have minorities? And I asked the head of this bureau, how many minorities have contracts with this federal agency to do energy work?” he said. “They could not answer the question.”
“It’s my job to sit there,” he continued, “and demand, plead, cajole, kick, scream — whatever I have to do — to make sure that minorities also get a part of this thrust towards energy efficiency.”
On Jan. 28, Rush introduced the Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s (CLEAN) Future Act with the Energy and Commerce and Climate Change Subcommittee chairmen, setting 2050 as the goal for the U.S. to be a net-zero greenhouse gas polluter.
The legislation would require electric utilities to obtain all their electricity from clean energy sources by 2050 and mandate that they start increasing their supply of clean energy by 2022. It would help integrate clean and renewable resources into the nation’s power grid while also investing in its infrastructure, with grants for grid modernization, resilience and storage. National energy savings targets would be implemented into model building energy codes.
It would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to set new stringent emissions standards for vehicles with measures for the adoption of low- and zero-carbon transportation fuels. Standards would be increased for industrial efficiency and de-carbonization. Environmental justice considerations would be worked into approval processes for state clean and hazardous waste disposal plans.
“Some people may have some problems with 2050, but that’s realistic,” Rush said. “We’re probably going to agree on the target. We might have a little disagreement on nuclear and coal, some of the specifics, but I want this to be an economic development also, not just an environmental effort.”
At the congressional candidates’ Jan. 23 forum, Rush said the Dickey Amendment, which prevents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from studying gun violence, has been effectively repealed. In the interview, Rush observed that money was designated for such research in Congress’ passed spending bill, which President Donald Trump signed on Dec. 20 and called it “a great beginning.”
“I understand the violence,” said Rush, who lost a son to a shooting in 1999. “When I see young children being killed because of some stray bullets, that bothers me. That hurts me. And I live in a community where gun violence is so omnipresent. I live in a community where, on Saturday afternoons from the hours of 11 to 2 in the afternoon, you have more young people in attendance at funerals than any other activity.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported at a December meeting Rush organized that they need federal funds to protect the Chicago shoreline, which has been steadily eroded this year by record-high Lake Michigan levels. Rush said he subsequently began work on getting the agency the money it needs to study the issue.
He said the Great Lakes have been ignored by federal policymakers, but he said he is discussing federal policies that could function as an economic engine there with Toledo-based Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, and retiring Northwest Indiana Rep. Pete Visclosky (D), who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.
Rush’s primary opponents have attacked him for his voting record in Congress; in recent years, he missed numerous votes to care for his ailing wife, Carolyn, who died in 2017. He said his attendance record would improve, again proclaiming his love of the job. He furthermore said the late, long-serving Rep. William Natcher (D-Ky.) told him as a freshman to miss his first vote, so as not to become committed to never missing one. He observed that many votes are procedural and said proudly that he returns to the district most every weekend.
Then Rush brought up opponent Sarah Gad, who challenged his petitions in an attempt to get him kicked off the ballot. While the Illinois State Board of Elections upheld a few of her challenges, it did not revoke enough to remove him. He observed that Gad did not come to the Jan. 9 meeting when the decision was announced.
“You talk about absenteeism: this was recent,” Rush said. “She used taxpayers’ money and time and wasted it on this spurious, specious challenge.”
Though his new wife, the Rev. Paulette Holloway, says he only sleeps three to four hours a night, Rush said his health and his prayer life are good. Even with his difficulty speaking, “Zeal is what I communicate,” he said. “I might not have the strength of voice, but I’ve got the fire in the belly.”
“Moses,” he observed, “was 80 when he was called to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt.”