Democratic candidates running for the 7th District Congressional seat packed the second-floor auditorium at the Austin Branch Library, 5615 W. Race Ave. in Austin, on Jan. 30 for a forum that put the incumbent's long legislative record under scrutiny.
The forum — sponsored by the Northeastern Illinois Chapter of Americans for Democratic Action and Northside Democracy for America, the primary's three challengers — included Oak Park activist Anthony Clark, Austin activist Kina Collins and Streeterville attorney Kristine Schanbacher. Longtime incumbent Danny K. Davis was absent due to travel, according to Ira Cohen, a Davis spokesman who attended the forum in the congressman's place.
The political event, attended by roughly 100 people, was moderated by Oak Park attorney Richard K. Means, an ADA national executive board member and chair of ADA Northeastern Illinois.
From the outset, Cohen framed Davis' re-election bid as a continuation of his long record fighting for progressive causes and pushing progressive legislation. Cohen pointed out that Davis is a sponsor of the Green New Deal — the package of legislation designed to resolve the problems of climate change and economic inequality — and said he's been a pioneer in the community health movement, a predecessor to the current Medicare for All movement.
"What [Davis] is talking about is a total revolution of eliminating profit from healthcare," Cohen said.
Collins and Clark pushed back against Cohen's narrative. Collins said she was motivated to run after organizing doctors and medical students nationally in support of single payer healthcare and lambasted Davis for taking "$2.4 million in corporate money from mostly private insurers and pharmaceutical companies." Collins added that Davis had to be lobbied by National Nurses United to join the Medicare for All Caucus.
"It shouldn't be the fact that we didn't hear about Medicare for All … until I was on the ground with Nurses United, because you can't change policy until you change minds," Clark said. "I didn't see the congressman or his team door-knocking [on the West Side] and on the ground talking to people who have been ignored for generations."
Discussing immigration, Means pointed out that last year Davis voted for a budget proposed by President Donald Trump that allocated "$9 billion to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and $20 billion to border protection."
Cohen said that Davis' staff has had "more people come into our office for aid and immigration in a month than anyone at this table has in their entire careers," adding that there were some items in the spending package that Davis agreed with and others he didn't agree with.
"Nobody is going to get everything they want," he said.
Schanbacher, a human rights attorney who said she has won asylum for a transgender Mexican immigrant, blasted the incumbent for his handling of a 2019 incident at O'Hare, where children were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials because the girls were allegedly undocumented.
While Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who voted against Trump's budget, showed up to the airport, Davis didn't, Schanbacher said.
"[Davis] not only did not show up to the airport, he was silent," Schanbacher said. "After the fact, there was a letter signed by many representatives in the Chicago area regarding the deplorable conduct of ICE and Davis did not sign on to that letter. His actions have serious consequences. We need someone strong to protect our immigrants and he is not doing that."
Clark, who said that he was at the airport, called for the abolition of federal agencies like ICE and CBP, the dismantling of the border wall and detention centers, and the decriminalization of the border.
Collins urged candidates to expand the scope of the immigration issue to include African immigrants from places like Haiti who "get left out of the conversation of immigration in this country."
When it came to money in elections, there was a consensus among candidates that Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates for special interest groups to spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, should be overturned.
In an effort to demonstrate Davis' independence from corporate funding, Cohen said that the congressman has never been a prolific fundraiser and, as far as Cohen knows, does not spend his time "dialing for dollars." Cohen said that the little fundraising the congressman does participate in is in order to pay his dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The point opened Davis up to a criticism from Collins, who said the fact that Davis is "taking corporate PAC money and then paying the DCCC is problematic, because we know the DCCC is trying to stop the emergence of insurgent candidates coming in and shaping and shifting this party." Collins cited the example of Rep. Dan Lipinksi, a Democratic congressman who has come out against abortion rights.
The Democratic Primary election is on March 17.
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