Kina Collins, a gun violence prevention activist and newly declared Democratic candidate for Congress, sat in the backyard of a craftsman house in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park last September and lamented the state of the Democratic party. Young people died constantly of gun violence in her neighborhood, she explained. “We have to console the parents when their sons get scraped off the ground from being shot,” she said. “We have to deal with the abandoned buildings and vacant lots in our neighborhoods.”
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), the incumbent in Illinois’ 7th congressional district, had been in office for almost 25 years. From Collins’ vantage point, he hadn’t done enough to deal with those problems. But she had special ire for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the fourth-ranking House Democrat who had recently founded a new PAC to defeat primary challengers like her. ”We don’t see the federal resources when a hundred people get shot in a weekend,” Collins said. “But the one time that you want to spotlight the west side of Chicago is to silence me. I’m enraged by that.”
That was that. Collins had called out Jeffries by name. For the better part of the next year, Jeffries and his House leadership colleagues did not forget it.
Collins’ challenge to Davis has flown under-the-radar compared to similar Democratic primaries, which have attracted both national attention and the sort of spending often reserved for tight general election contests. But a powerful coterie of Democrats have quietly watched this race with rapt attention: Black House lawmakers eager to bury their party’s left flank, whom they have long accused of unfairly singling out Black incumbents in their pursuit of building progressive power. And the left, for its part, is eager to oust an incumbent it views as too cozy with corporations and the Democratic establishment.
“Where was the Congressional Black Caucus when Laquan McDonald tape came out?” Collins said that day. “We were getting beat by CPD and none of them called for Rahm Emanuel to step down.”
The discord at play is part of a larger conflict that has pitted a new type of progressive Democrat against an older generation that still holds the party’s top positions. “We were progressive before progressive was a term,” says a Democratic source close to the incumbent. “Just because CBC members aren’t painting themselves with that brush doesn’t mean they aren’t standing up for those values.” Collins’ allies insist they aren’t targeting Black members, but simply giving voters in the Chicago-base district a choice. “For many voters, especially in deep blue areas, primaries are the only elections where people have a voice to hold their representatives accountable.” says Waleed Shahid, the communications director for the Justice Democrats. The left-wing organization backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) 2018 surprise victory and is backing Collins in this race, which is expected to be close.
The feud began in the aftermath of the 2018 election, when Jeffries defeated Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) in House leadership elections, viewed by the left as payback for Ocasio-Cortez’s upset over Joe Crowley that summer. Politico later reported that Ocasio-Cortez had told confidantes Jeffries was the “highest priority” for future primary challenges. The threat never materialized — Ocasio-Cortez denied it and the reporting was never confirmed — but it sealed the bad blood between the factions.
That divide deepened the following year when Justice Democrats endorsed candidates against two Congressional Black Caucus incumbents in 2020. “Let me make the message strong and clear: When you attack a hard-working member of the Congressional Black Caucus, we fight back,” warned Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), one of the challenged incumbents, in 2019. Beatty quashed her challenger. But the other left-wing insurgent, activist Cori Bush, channeled nationwide outrage over George Floyd’s murder into defeating a 20-year Black incumbent in a St. Louis-based district that includes Ferguson, when Bush had led protests in the aftermath of a 2014 police killing of an unarmed Black teenager.
Progressive allies liken Bush’s course to Congress to Collins’ prospects. The 31-year-old grew up in a neighborhood on Chicago’s west side plagued by violence. After witnessing a murder in her neighborhood as a child, Collins went on to lead a gun safety non-profit. Her expertise earned her a spot in President Joe Biden’s transition task force for gun policy. Collins supports the usual buffet of left-wing planks, such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
Justice Democrats endorsed Collins early in the race and have helped her build a field. Communications, and — most significantly — fundraising strategy. Collins has outraised Davis every quarter of the primary. “They’re quite literally understanding the assignment about what it takes to win these races — the messaging and understanding the pulse of the district,” Collins said in an interview last week.
The 80-year-old Davis brings his own progressive bona fides, including one-time ties to Democratic Socialists of America. He, too, is no stranger to gun violence: He lost his 15-year-old grandson in a 2016 shooting, and his commitment to fighting the issue earned him an endorsement from an arm of the nonprofit at which Collins once worked.
Davis has been bolstered by Team Blue PAC, a new political outfit led by Jeffries and two House colleagues to do for incumbents what Justice Democrats does for its insurgent candidates: Help them put up a fight. “There are forces of antagonism that will deliberately and intentionally target them solely based on their role as traditional ‘get-stuff-done’ Democrats who don’t live on Twitter,” Jeffries says. “People are far better prepared to more effectively communicate their vision, message and accomplishments to the people they have privileged to represent.”
The ideological similarities have kept some big spenders at a distance. AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel, two pro-Israel PACS that have dumped millions into defeating progressive challengers this cycle, have stayed out of the race given that Davis has taken tough stances against Israel during his quarter century in the House. The faceoff between two Black candidates has kept some of Collins’ would-be endorsers at bay, not eager for the optics of crossing the Congressional Black Caucus and its powerful leaders. (Bush, for her part, has refused to weigh in on the race, offering only that “primary challengers aren’t horrible people” when asked about it.)
The distinction Collins attempts to draw is a generational one, which she describes as a need for a “fresh perspective” for the district, naming the lack of movement on climate legislation, police reform, and canceling student debt as evidence of Davis’ lack of vigor. “Just any blue will not do,” she says. (The Chicago Tribune agreed, presenting Collins with a rare non-incumbent endorsement earlier this month as the paper called for “new blood.”) Collins rejects punditry that suggests the George Floyd “moment” is over, given the backlash against police reform efforts and the progressive prosecutors who aided them. “People haven’t been saying ‘defund the police’ in our district, but they have been saying ‘fund the community,’” she says.
There have been recent examples of older CBC members offering limp responses to the GOP’s culture wars. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House’s third-ranking Democrat, ignited outrage among devastated Democrats when he described the overturn of Roe as “a little anticlimactic.” Davis dabbled in the trans rights discourse at a recent forum hosted by a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: “I don’t think that women should be trying to play football with the Bears,” he said. The assertion clashes with certain factions of the Democratic party, but may not seem so tone deaf to Davis’ contemporaries: Older Black voters, a particularly moderate strain within the party — and the demographic on whom Tuesday’s results are expected to rely.
There is a time for generational progress, CBC allies say, pointing to recent Black primary victors like Summer Lee in Pennsylvania and Jasmine Crockett, both of whom vyed for open seats. That progress, they maintain, should not come at the expense of Black incumbents. Party leaders have signaled they agree: Both Jeffries and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stumped for Davis, and President Joe Biden offered a rare primary endorsement of him over the weekend. Opportunities for All, a new super PAC, has dumped more than $440,000 into the race’s final days to boost Davis. (Justice Democrats have spent $422,000 on Collins’ behalf.)
“Democratic leadership and Democrats in general should be very careful of being dismissive of young, working class Black women like myself,” Collins says in response to the blitz. “The message that’s being sent to my campaign and the people who are helping me in this campaign says I am not welcome in the party.”
If Collins wins, of course, she’ll be welcomed with open arms by not only the party but also the Congressional Black Caucus. Will that end the feud between the party’s wings? “If the online shadowboxers looking for the next congressman they believe is not sufficiently progressive to target, look no further than the 8th congressional district,” Jeffries says. “Come on in, the water is warm. They have an open invitation to primary me.”
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