One of the most frequent questions I get when I’m out campaigning for Congress in the 1st District of Illinois is, “Why do you want to go to Congress? What do you want to do differently than the 30 year incumbent of the same political party?”
I usually respond to this question by pointing potential supporters to the reality that Congress was not conceived of as a place for two behemoth political superstructures to decide life for all of us. Congress is a place for leaders who bring a clear set of values and a deep commitment to the people of their District to bear on issues of national importance. I tell them that I believe we need more than a “good Democrat” in Congress, we need an active, engaged advocate for the families and communities that make up this historic District.
But sometimes concrete examples help to make these kinds of ideas real. So as we close the book on the year that was 2021, I’d like to share 10 moments in which I think a Congressman from IL-1 could have made a difference…and didn’t.
#1: Covid As Culture War
Perhaps no single issue has colored our political discussions this year more than Covid-19. From the real human costs of sickness, hospitalization, and death, to the development and deployment of vaccines and other treatments, to the host of policies and programs enacted to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic, Covid has been everywhere. That’s why it is a real shame that such a health crisis was turned into another front in America’s sprawling Culture Car, the “progressive” side devoted to social restrictions, vaccination mandates, and the near infallibility of Dr. Anthony Fauci and the “conservative” side similarly devoted to opposing restrictions, pushing therapeutics, and demonizing the public health infrastructure.
Imagine if the Congressman from a predominately (but not exclusively) Black District in the middle of America were consistently and publicly injecting reason into the discourse. Imagine if the Congressman reminded “Progressives” that the most vaccine hesitant community was the African American Community and that blind, uncritical trust in government bureaucrats like Dr. Fauci has rarely proven helpful for poor and working class Americans. Then imagine that the same member of Congress used the credibility created in those comments to push for reasonable restrictions and debunk unfounded Covid conspiracies that put lives in danger. It wouldn’t have fixed everything, but I believe it would have made a difference.
#2: Punting On The Hyde Amendment
The Hyde Amendment is a legislative provision that has been in place since 1976 that prevents federal funds from being used to pay for abortions except to save the life of the mother or when the pregnancy arises out of rape or incest. President Biden introduced a budget in 2021 without the Hyde Amendment for the first time since its adoption. Now, I admit that pro-life Democrats are in the minority within our party, but as a Black man in America, I also know that minorities matter. A pro-Hyde voice within a Democratic Party that seems to be moving from a “pro-choice” position to a radically pro-abortion position could have at least signaled to voters on the margins in places like Virginia and New Jersey that there is room for them inside our party. And perhaps such a voice could have created pressure from the inside not to allow an issue that most voters don’t prioritize (abortion isn’t a top issue for the majority of voters) to complicate budget negotiations ; especially not by repealing a rule that most Americans support (even the Washington Post gave Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) “Two Pinocchios” for her claim that most Americans oppose Hyde).
Again, a gentleman or gentlewoman from IL-1 would have been a great spokesperson since the repeal of Hyde would not extend abortion access into states and localities that already don’t use state funds to supoprt abortion since Medicaid is matching program. The repeal would rather proliferate the practice even further in places like this District which is already saturated. The argument is simple: regardless of where you fall on the pro-life/pro-abortion continuum, our District needs federal help expanding access to housing, wages, family-centered work policy, and childcare, not expanding access to abortion.
#3: January 6th (And Responding To January 6th)
The attack on the Capitol Building on January 6th was a horrible event in American history. It is disingenuous to try to downplay the impact of the visual of people violently storming the seat of America’s first branch of government. As I’ve reflected on that terrible day many times throughout the year, I’ve often wondered what impact a member of Congress from my Congressional District could have had on real-time events leading up to, during and after the siege if said Member had meaningful relationships with people across the District. More than a third of voters in the District are Republicans; many of them are White and Evangelical; some of them may have been at that fateful rally. Perhaps, the relationship with a Democrat back home could have weighed on someone’s conscience in a moment when their own leader was failing and misleading them.
And in the aftermath of that day, I’ve often thought how it may have helped the nation to heal if someone in a position of leadership would have pushed for a more thoughtful analysis of that horrific national experience. What if a Member who represents urban, Democratic strongholds and suburban and rural communities alike would have asked the question, “How did we get here?” and brought some attention to suffering in those communities that are so often overlooked at the higher echelons of political power? Maybe we could have had a better conversation.
#4: Silence on Childcare Provisions In Build Back Better
During the negotiations on the Build Back Better agenda (negotiations which I think were botched in a number of ways…but we’ll get to that), provisions were put in place that would have badly disadvantaged home-based and faith-based childcare providers' ability to access federal funding while simultaneously driving up their cost of operating. These two types of childcare providers have been the backbone of the childcare system in Illinois’ 1st District as in many places around the country. Home-based and faith-based childcare providers have been in the trenches supporting low and middle income families long before the President introduced a Build Back Better agenda. To cut them off at the knees now that the federal government had finally taken notice of their clients was a morally bankrupt decision.
Luckily advocates like the Center for Public Justice and others sprang into action on these provisions and they were changed before the bill passed the House. But, the complete silence from the sitting member on this potential threat speaks volumes.
#5: Failure on Work Reform
If the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed anything, it is that work in America isn’t working. Wages have been stagnant for a long time. In many places, an honest day’s work does not guarantee the ability to build a family and the kind of life most of us want. Even for those who are able to find gainful employment, work often impedes rather than supports the cultivation of meaningful family and community relationships since it is customary these days for work to consume all of our time and the working class is not even released for important life experiences like welcoming a new child or caring for a declining elder.
Paid family leave is another provision that ended up on the cutting room floor during BBB negotiations. It should have been a priority.
The House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organize or “PRO” Act, that’s what good partisans do. But, the bill languished in the Senate. A leader from a working-class District like IL-1 would have continually taken to platforms to push for its passage in the Senate and prioritization by the White House. If you don’t think a single member (even a junior member) can have an impact, just ask Rep. Cori Bush who protested the end of the eviction moratorium by camping out on the steps of the Capitol (Btw, it didn’t make the list, but it was disappointing that the Congressperson from IL-1 wasn’t a part of that protest action).
#6: Illinois’ Repeal of Parental Notification
One Friday afternoon in December, the governor of the State of Illinois signed a bill that repealed a requirement in the state that a parent be notified when a minor was to undergo an abortion procedure. Now, this one is not an issue that a Congressman from IL-1 would have been able to vote on since it is a state provision. But, the vote was close and it is something that a fierce advocate for families could have weighed in on and had impact.
This is not an abortion issue. Minors are already free, in our state, to get an abortion without thier parents permission. Minors in crisis situations of abuse already had access to a waiver process that was approved 95% of the time. This repeal did more to undermine the rights of loving, concerned parents to support their children in times of crisis than it ever will to protect abused youth. A public statement from a sitting Congressperson would have almost certainly changed the dynamics around this vote. Silence was a failure of leadership.
#7: Lack of Police Reform in Congress
At the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021, there was incredible energy around the need for police reforms all across the country. The 1st District of Illinois contains the majority of Chicago’s Southside and a number of other municipalities grappling with difficult relationships between police forces and communities in a time when public safety is a top concern for many residents. The District is also home to many law enforcement officers and their families and their friends. Healing the relationship between communities and the police that serve them should be a top priority for Congress (especially the representative from this District) and common sense police reforms are an important part of that healing process.
If any community in America lives the real complexity of this issue on a daily basis, it is the Southside of Chicago. Elderly homeowners want to be able to call the police and have their partnership in the endeavor to rid their neighborhoods of unchecked violence while Black youth sincerely desire to walk the streets where they live without the fear of being harassed, abused, or even killed by police.
If any member of Congress could have given voice to the need to reform policing without demonizing police, it is the representative from IL-1. If any leader could have voiced the need to support qualified immunity, but oppose “unqualified” immunity; create safe ways for members of the public and the police force to report abuses of power, invest in training and mental health supports for cops as well as investing in community and faith-based prevention strategies. If any Member could have reached across the aisle and worked with an African American Senator from South Carolina to pass a meaningful piece of legislation into law, it is the representative from IL-1.
Perhaps no image is more permanently burned into my memory as a symbol of virtue-signaling without action than that of congressional leaders kneeling in the Capitol rotunda draped in Kente Cloth. This was a missed opportunity for leadership.
#8: Silence on the K-12 Education Crisis
One of the key drivers of generational wealth gaps, income inequality, and general life despair is the profoundly inequitable access to high-quality, K-12 education in the United States. One Harvard researcher calls the education gap, “The Root of Inequality”. These realities existed before the Covid pandemic.
In 2020 and 2021, children from low-income and working class families were disproportionately impacted by school closures, lack of access to broadband technology and technological devices than were their more well-off counterparts. This disparate impact of shutdowns stands to compound educational inequities, creating an even wider gap; one that will be impossible to close for generations. Families in Illinois’ 1st Congressional District simply cannot afford to endure two to three years of obsessions with whether or not schools should be open or classes being taught virtually. Someone needs to step forward (and soon) with the vision to call for an all out effort to innovate in education and create pathways to close this rapidly widening chasm. We should hold hearings, commission research and planning groups, tap the entrepreneurial spirit among our existing classroom teachers and parents and hold back nothing from our children.
This is a generational crisis. Silence from our Representative is unconscionable.
#9: Failure On College Debt Reform
Passing legislation through Congress takes partnership, coalition building, strategy, and a fair bit of good fortune. But, holding your own party’s President accountable to keep promises he made on the campaign trail…all that takes is a little bit of courage. That’s why the failure of the current administration to deal with college debt reduction and reform is number two on my list. I think that it would have an impact if a handful of members stepped forward to say clearly and without compromise that it is unacceptable to break a direct promise: especially a promise that we made to America’s youth. 2020 college graduates have the lowest job placement rates and the highest student loan debt since we’ve tracked either metric. And the outlook only gets worse from here.
Now, this is not about ignoring Americans who do not attend college (the vast majority of us do not). Consumer debt overall is too heavy a burden on our families and something has to be done about that as well. I also know that we can’t just simply cancel past debt without meaningfully reforming the higher education system such that we do not continue to push America’s youth slavishly into a system that is becoming more expensive and simultaneously less beneficial. But actually cancelling $10,000 of student loan debt is something that was promised and it is something that must be delivered. I think it could be if the Member from this District were willing to demand it.
#10: Failure On The Child Tax Credit Extension
As 2021 comes to an end, so does the expanded Child Tax Credit; probably the brightest accomplishment of the Biden presidency thus far. This policy has, for six months, lifted 3 million children out of poverty. While that is reason enough to fight like crazy to continue this policy, it also has had positive impacts for middle-income and working class families like creating access to academic enrichment, improving childcare, and encouraging study and entrepreneurship. This policy was a huge win for families.
That’s why I think this should have been the “sleep on the Capitol steps” moment for IL-1. Too many of the families and communities in this District have too much at stake. Again, this is something that the House did pass as a part of the Build Back Better proposal. But, that is not nearly enough. Everything must be done to maintain this policy.
I ranked this moment number one because it is probably the one with the most impact on the greatest number of families in the District. The Congressional office could be running the numbers on exactly how many families will be plunged back into poverty in this District and organizing those families, and capturing their stories in written and video form and sharing those stories with the media. We could and should be fighting for this with every tool available to us.
I ranked this moment number one because it is emblematic of the kinds of issues that have bi-partisan grassroots support that could be rallied by a leader who was willing to go into every community in this diverse district to build a movement. It isn’t just the CTC, but the expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing, and vision for our seniors; expanding access to high-quality education options, and other policy proposals fall into this category and represent real opportunities to lead in fresh and interesting ways.
I ranked this moment number one because the moment is not over. Congress is going back in January of 2022 and there is still an opportunity to use the power vested in the Congressperson from the First District of Illinois to change the narrative, fight hard, and make a difference for families and communities across the District and across the country. We’ll have to wait and see how it goes.
As I look back on 2021, I am reminded of why I’m running for Congress; the people of Illinois' 1st District deserve a representative who will fight for our families everyday. That requires energy and focus, moral clarity and moral imagination, a little faith and a ton of courage. Maybe if these were in greater supply, we could have had a different 2021. But while we can’t change the past, we can choose a different future.
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