A generational fight roils Chicago Democrats as progressive challenger Kina Collins takes on longtime Rep. Danny Davis

Two years later, Collins is trying again to unseat Davis, who is seeking a 14th term in the Chicago Borough, but her prospects look very different. She has a more robust campaign infrastructure and, unlike her first primary, the consolidated force of national progressives in her corner.

At 31, Collins’ national profile has also grown. For years she was a respected advocate for preventing gun violence in her hometown of Chicago, and was invited last year to join a task force looking into the issue during then-President Joe Biden’s transition.

Justice Democrats, the group best known for recruiting New Yorker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress ahead of the 2018 election, has prioritized its campaign — big spenders to capitalize on what the group as best opportunity to build left power Democratic ranks. They helped secure a signature victory last month when Pennsylvania State Assemblyman Summer Lee won the open primary in the Commonwealth’s 12th District against well-funded opposition from the pro-Israel lobby.

The support of the activist community has provided credibility and resources that Collins lacked two years ago. Collins has outpaced Davis by more than $150,000, according to a recent report, even as a pro-Davis outgroup increased spending ahead of Tuesday’s election. A more competitive campaign has also drawn national Democrats, who have increased their support for Davis, who was first elected to Congress in 1996.

But even with a more permanent campaign infrastructure, Collins, like other progressive Democratic candidates challenging incumbents or seeking vacancies, has met opposition from the national party leadership. On Sunday morning, Biden endorsed Davis, calling the 80-year-old “an effective leader and lawmaker who has deep roots in his community,” with specific praise for Davis’ work bringing community health clinics to the district.

Biden’s other high-profile key supporter of this cycle, Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, lost his race to a progressive challenger. But the dynamic in Chicago is different. Davis is a staunch liberal with old, if largely dissolved, ties to the left base. His clash with Collins is less ideological and more generational — a dynamic that has sparked well-known debates about the role of top Democrats in a hard-fought primary.

In a recent interview with CNN, Collins blasted party leaders on Capitol Hill for their active support for Davis in this safest of blue counties. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, have both traveled to Chicago to rally support for Davis.

“I’m the youngest black woman in the state to run for this seat. Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party. And throughout this primary, the Democratic leadership has sent a very clear message that not only do we not want you in the party, but we will devote resources to preventing you from coming into the party,” Collins said.

Her efforts, Collins said, in a district where no Republican is running, are symbolic of a broader division between the Democratic Party and voters, and cited recent House Representative support for Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, the only Democrat against Abortion in Texas House; Cuellar narrowly won his primary runoff earlier this month.

“It lacks the pulse of what’s happening in the country,” Collins said. “And that’s going to come back and bite us in the medium term.”

In an interview, Jeffries dismissed the suggestion that black women candidates would not be endorsed by party leaders, citing his work with Rep. Lucy McBath of Georgia, Lauren Underwood of Illinois and Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, among others — in Congress and down the board ballot, in the races of his home state.

He also noted Davis’ esteemed and longstanding progressive credentials and work to “push the boundaries of change throughout his legendary career.”

In an interview, Davis told CNN he took Collins’ challenge seriously, but questioned her good faith, addressed the benefits of his seniority on a panel that rewards it with power, and said he had never heard of Collins , until she faced him for the first time two years ago.

“She has a very creative imagination. And I think she’s making up all these things that she says she’s done,” Davis said, dismissing his rival’s well-documented record before fuming at her own criticism.

“She was trying to portray me as someone[who]when I hear her characterization, sometimes I have to wonder who she’s talking about,” Davis said.

A leader who can address gun violence

As crime becomes a growing problem before the Midterms, the 7th Circuit has become a hot spot in the Chicago area. According to the City of Chicago’s Violence Reduction Dashboard, two of the four “summer safe zones” the city has identified for additional action are within its borders, including in the Austin and West Garfield Park areas. A variety of city agencies allocate resources to “summer safe zones” to respond to high levels of violence.

Both candidates have personally felt the pain of gun violence in the city. Collins said her activism was inspired when she witnessed a murder in her neighborhood as a child. Knowing both the shooter and the victim, she served as executive director of nonprofit gun safety organization One Aim Illinois from August 2020 to April 2021.

In 2016, Davis’ 15-year-old grandson, Javon Wilson, was shot dead.

“I know how it feels to have a loved one whose life has been needlessly wiped out for no apparent reason,” Davis said in a 2019 testimony before the Oversight Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, of which he is a member. “I have attended the funerals of so many children in my community whose wonderful lives have been disrupted by gun violence. I feel the devastation.”

But in an editorial earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune described Collins as “one of Chicago’s leading anti-gun violence activists” and, although calling it a “close call,” supported her over the incumbent and a third candidate, Denarvis Mendenhall.

“We have admired Congressman Davis for many years and have supported him in the past. But we also admire Collins’ energy, passion and activism, especially on an issue so pressing in the 7th Precinct – gun violence,” the Tribune executive wrote.

That message – that it might be time for “new blood,” as the Tribune put it – was at the heart of Collins’ campaign. Just over a year ago, when she announced her plans to run again, Justice Democrat Executive Director Alexandra Rojas commended Collins for her aggressive advocacy of Medicare for All and her work, “elected officials following the murder of Laquan McDonald to be held accountable”. A black teenager was shot dead by a white police officer in Chicago in 2014.

“The people of this district are poised for a new generation of leaders,” Rojas said, “who will show up in Congress every day fighting for the change their community needs.”

Collins has attempted in her ads to illustrate her close ties to the city while criticizing Davis for not casting votes on the Hill. For his part, Davis brushed off the question about the votes, saying he’s never missed a significant vote in his long career, which he estimates has cast more than 15,000 of them. According to GovTrack, Davis, who has served in Congress since 1997, missed 1,012 of 16,410 roll-call votes, or 6.2%.

“For years and years and years, you couldn’t find a person in the city of Chicago more actively involved in public activities than Danny Davis,” he said.

But Collins says the problem goes deeper, and that throughout his tenure and gained influence in Washington, Davis has not been aggressive enough in supporting reproductive rights and climate change legislation, and has ceded too much rhetorical ground to the right-wing Chicago treat like a “punching bag”.

“We know that gun violence is a byproduct of poverty and many of the issues that we deal with,” Collins said. “So, aside from the absent leadership, the district has an opportunity to elect a qualified candidate who is anti-business and pro-people.”

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