I certainly won’t predict that esteemed Danny Davis—he of the booming baritone and liberal politics—is going to lose his bid for an eighth term in Congress.
But as Ben Joravsky and I write in this week’s Reader, times are changing in his west-side district.
Put another way: it's never good when the incumbent has to spend time defending his association with the Reverend Moon.
His take on the matter: it's much ado about nothing. The Unification Church, he says, is more mainstream than most of us think. "They had a banquet downtown the other day, and the black preachers who were there was like a who's who of Chicago. I didn't go to it, but they ain't following no Moon. They ain't gonna drink no cyanide and shit."
But on to the matter at hand. After winning all of his previous congressional elections by huge margins, Davis has some legitimate opposition this time around. All three of them became peeved—and saw an opportunity—when Davis expressed interest in running for the U.S. Senate and then Cook County Board president, only to back down and say he wants to keep his current job.
We got into it a little in the paper, but this is the fuller version of what’s going on in the race.
One of his opponents is Darlena Williams-Burnett, a former Cook County commissioner who’s now the top lieutenant to Recorder of Deeds Eugene “Gene” Moore. She’s also married to 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett and enjoys the support of ward boss and secretary of state Jesse White.
Williams-Burnett says that while Davis has been distracted with running for other offices the district continues to struggle with the aftershocks of public housing redevelopment, which sent thousands of former tenants into other already-impoverished areas and spurred increases in violence. She says the district needs more affordable housing and business development, and she’s angry that public safety is so imperiled that working people feel like prisoners in their own homes. That’s why she believes it’s time to call in the National Guard.
“Ultimately the government is going to have to deal with this and it’s going to take more than the local police,” she says. “I’m under the impression that in certain neighborhoods where things are really bad we could use the national guard or some sort of force to keep things moving—to keep people off the corners. We can’t lock them all up, but we need some sort of enforcement.”
Next up is Sharon Dixon, three years into her first term as 24th Ward alderman. Dixon believes the district should have received far more in federal stimulus and foreclosure assistance funds than it has over the last year. She blames Davis for not working harder to get it. “I felt like that was a smack in the face.”
Also running is Jim Ascot, a commercial realtor who lost an uphill campaign against Davis in 2006. With little money and limited name recognition—along with the fact that he’s a white guy in a predominantly black district—he faces the longest odds. But he’s got a lot of energy and says he could bring people together to take on problems like the shortage of affordable housing and the deterioration of the CTA. “It’s about having the ability to step up and be a leader,” he says.
Davis argues that he’s done a good job by raising awareness of ex-offender issues, bringing money back to the district, crafting legislation to reorganize the postal service, and doing lots of politicking and legislative work on the health care reform bill.
Plus, he says, his opponents are full of it.
Davis dismisses Williams-Burnett as nothing more than the latest annoyance sent his way by Jesse White. “The 27th Ward, they have always been what we characterize as Democratic regulars, and I’ve always been characterized as an independent Democrat,” Davis says. “As a matter of fact, their organization ran a woman against me, I’ve forgotten which time it was, but they supported a woman against me. I forget her name.”
The Burnetts, he adds, “have an interest in politics. Not necessarily in public policy, but in politics.”
He also thinks Dixon is in over her head. “It’s pretty difficult to rationalize her running,” he says. “Of course, this is America, and everyone’s got an opportunity to run. She was just elected alderman by a 100-and-some votes, and I guess she might be running to try and increase the possibility of trying to be reelected. I guess. I don’t know what her claim is to fame, and I don’t know what her political ambitions are. I don’t know what makes her think she can possibly win an election to Congress.”
Davis is aware that Ascot probably doesn’t have a great shot of winning, and he speaks of him fondly. “Jim’s run against me before,” he says. “He’s a gentleman.”
The congressman is probably right in concluding he’ll hold onto his seat. But I also don’t think he can afford to blow his foes off.
Davis is loved by reformers because he doesn’t always cater to the local Democratic machine, but he’s also long past the days when he crusaded against it.
Plus, even if it’s not his fault, the west side is still deeply troubled—full of vacant homes and old factory buildings, empty lots strewn with trash, and unemployed men dealing on the corners. It's outrageous that so much of it has been neglected, by many of our elected officials, since the 1968 riots.
And the other candidates are running so they can build name recognition and go after Davis again in two or four years—or open the door enough so that even stronger candidates can step in. “I don’t want to say I don’t expect to win, because I’m very competitive,” says Dixon. “But this is also about me laying some groundwork in the Seventh Congressional District and letting the voters get to know me. If I don’t win this time I can come back again.”
Davis says there’s a ton more he wants to do.
Like what? I asked him.
“Retire," he says, then quickly adds: “Eventually.”