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Longtime Illinois politician Bobby Rush to retire after 15 terms in Congress

The former Black Panther who once beat Barack Obama by 30 points in a congressional primary race has decided not to seek reelection in 2022.

CHICAGO (CN) — Bobby Rush, a veteran of Chicago politics who has represented Illinois' 1st Congressional District since 1993, announced that he will not seek reelection this year after serving 15 consecutive terms.

"After nearly three decades in Congress, I have been reassigned. While I will not be running for a 16th term, let me make it clear that I am not retiring — I am returning. I’m returning home, returning to my church, and returning to my family and grandchildren," the 75-year-old Rush tweeted Tuesday morning.

Rush reported New Year's Day that he had tested positive for an asymptomatic Covid-19 infection, but did not mention if this had any bearing on his decision to step down. Instead, he told the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday that he chose to not seek reelection after having a talk with his 19-year-old grandson.

"I don't want my grandchildren... to know me from a television news clip or something they read in a newspaper," Rush told the Sun-Times.

His office did not return requests for comment from Courthouse News.

Rush is also a devoted Christian and said Tuesday that he intends to stay active in his faith and his community moving forward.

"My calling to a life of service is stronger than ever. I will remain in public life, fighting for equity and justice for and within my community — with the gospel of Jesus Christ and with the learned tools I have gained in a lifetime of public service," Rush said in another tweet.

Rush's political career began in Chicago before his election to Congress in 1993. He was active during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, becoming a founding member of the Chicago chapter of the revolutionary socialist Black Panther Party in 1968. He has said that he considered Fred Hampton – another founding member of the chapter whom Chicago police famously killed during a raid on his apartment – his "best friend and comrade."

Following Hampton's murder, Rush ran for election to the Chicago City Council twice. He lost to 2nd Ward incumbent William Barnett in the 1975 aldermanic election, but went on to win the seat in 1983. He would serve as alderman for 10 years before winning his election to the U.S. House of Representatives 1st District seat in 1992 as a member of the Democratic Party.

Rush's history with the Democratic Party has been tumultuous. Following the death of Harold Washington, Chicago's first Black mayor, in 1987, Rush broke with other Black leftists in the city by not joining or supporting the short-lived Harold Washington Party. Instead he more closely aligned with the Democrats, eventually serving as the Illinois Democratic Party's deputy chairman. It was a pivot that earned him the ire of the city's progressive currents.

''Here was a Black Panther who was as much anti-establishment as you can get, who years later becomes establishmentarian,'' Chicago political activist Lu Palmer said in 1990, according to a contemporary Chicago Tribune article.

At the time, Rush defended his embrace of the Democrats by saying the party's stances on racial and social equity had evolved since the civil rights era.

''I'm not going to be beholden to the Democratic Party if it flies in the face of the interest of the African-American community,'' the Tribune quoted Rush as saying in 1990. ''I think the difference between the Democratic Party (before Washington`s 1983 election) and post-1983 is that the party realizes the power of the African-American vote. Prior to 1983, they disrespected it."

True to his word, Rush's politics have at times bucked the Democratic Party mainstream, including its embrace of famous liberal figures like Barack Obama. He beat Obama by 30 points in a 2000 primary challenge after disparaging the then-young Illinois state senator for his relative lack of activist bona fides.

“He went to Harvard and became an educated fool,” Rush told the Chicago Reader in 2000. “Barack is a person who read about the civil rights protests and thinks he knows all about it.”

Rush went on to endorse Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary race over his close friend Hillary Clinton.

In another show of defiance, Rush wore a hoodie onto the House floor in 2012 to protest racial profiling and the fatal shooting of Black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida. It was a violation of congressional dress code that saw him escorted out of the room.

"Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum," Rush said before being led out.

However, Rush's voting record and his appointments to influential positions such as chair of the Congressional Subcommittee on Energy show how he has also grown more aligned with the Democratic Party since 1993. In his first term as the 1st District representative, he voted against the party about 8% of the time, and almost 10% of the time in his second term. In his two most recent terms, he voted against the Democrats only 1% of the time.

He has even pulled to the right of the Democratic establishment at times, such as in the 2020 presidential election when he endorsed Mike Bloomberg over Joe Biden.

Samuel Hogsette, an activist and historian who wrote his PhD dissertation on Rush's career, stated in the dissertation abstract that Rush is a political figure defined by the tension between radicalism and establishment liberalism.

"After examining key sources and conducting oral histories I concluded that Bobby Rush was a complex subject that is not easily categorized. Neo liberal? Political Hack? Man, of the People? Pragmatic Politician? Bobby L. Rush embodies elements of all these categories" Hogsette wrote. "Operating on the far left of the Democratic Party, Bobby L. Rush is a former Black Panther Politician who often acts like a Neo Liberal Negro."

Hogsette said that above all Rush was a pragmatist, concerned with his own political viability. Though Hogsette praised some of Rush's actions as a political organizer, he also dismissed actions such as wearing a hoodie on the House floor as "symbols over substance," which he said would not actually endanger Rush's position.

"He's an enigma," Hogsette said in an interview Tuesday. "If you look at his record, he supported the [1994] crime bill... but he's also done some good community service work in Englewood. So he's a bit of an anomaly."

Rush's abdication leaves an open seat for the upcoming midterm elections, which are looking tenuous for Democrats nationwide. Under Illinois' new congressional map, which will take effect this election cycle, the 1st District will no longer consist primarily of Chicago's central South Side and the city's near southwest suburbs. Though it will retain some South Side neighborhoods, it will also stretch further south into the far suburbs and include areas at the northern edge of rural central Illinois. The rest of the 1st District's current territory will be split between the new 4th, 6th and 7th Districts.

The campaign for the new 1st District is already crowded, with six confirmed candidates all running for the seat. Five are Black Democrats and one is a white independent running under the Illinois Pirate Party.

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