After nearly three decades in Congress, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Chicago, is leaving his seat on his own terms.
He announced Tuesday that he will not seek reelection, suggesting that he will endorse a replacement at a later date. In the meantime, Rush said he intends to stay active as an advocate once his term expires next year.
“I will remain in public life, in public service, fighting for equity and justice for and within my community,” Rush said at a news conference in his 1st Illinois Congressional District, on the South Side.
Over the years, he fended off challenges from several rivals — including from then-State Sen. Barack Obama, whom Rush easily defeated before Obama went on to become a U.S. senator and president.
“He did more than just defeat me. He spanked me,” Obama once said.
Rush, who is now 75, went on to serve another 11 terms in Congress.
Chicago Ald. Roderick Sawyer, who worked with Obama when he ran against Rush in that 2000 primary, had nothing but praise for the congressman Tuesday.
“This is the end of an era,” Sawyer told WBEZ. “Whether you are a supporter or not, Bobby Rush has been there and been a champion for our community for a long time.”
Another prominent South Side politician – former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun – said she has known Rush for 50 years and watched him make big transitions along the way.
“To people beyond Chicago, he would represent really a radical, an outsider coming inside — and that there’s an opportunity to do that in this system, in our system,” she said. “I mean, he was an absolute outsider – he was a Black Panther!”
Rush said in 1969 he was supposed to be with fellow activists Fred Hampton and Mark Clark when law enforcement agents raided the Black Panthers’ headquarters on the West Side of Chicago and killed them. In Congress, Rush has continued to press for the release of FBI documents regarding the raid.
Rush became a member of Chicago’s City Council when the city elected Harold Washington as the city’s first Black mayor in 1983. Years later, Rush lost a run for mayor against Richard Daley, though later Rush became a Daley ally.
Democratic consultant Delmarie Cobb worked on Rush’s first campaign for Congress nine years later.
“He was a rebel to his heart, from his days as a Black Panther all the way to today,” Cobb said. “As you get older, you get softer, of course. But if you remember just 10 years ago, when Trayvon Martin was killed, he appeared on the congressional floor, on the House floor in a hoodie.”
In the middle of a speech about the killing of the Black teenager from Florida, Rush whipped off his suit coat and put on a gray hoodie.
“Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make him a hoodlum,” Rush shouted, as his microphone was cut off and he was escorted from the floor of the House.
Rush’s once-strong voice is raspy now and barely audible due to cancer treatment on his vocal chords a few years ago.
“I’d rather have compromised vocal chords (than) suffer the alternative, if you know what I mean,” Rush said Tuesday.
But he grew animated during his news conference as he expressed his desire to work with young people who are getting in trouble, saying that he wants to tell them, “Don’t give up hope, that you can survive, that there is a life in front of you.”
Rush said he would now devote his attention fully to his family and to the church in the Englewood neighborhood where he is the longtime pastor. The Better Government Association reported in 2017 that the congregation ran into financial difficulties.
Although Rush said he hoped his choice would be supported as a “consensus candidate,” his retirement could entice many South Side politicians to try to move to Washington.
“The 1st Congressional District, for anyone who’s into electoral politics, is like the Holy Grail,” said Sawyer, who represents the 6th Ward in the Chicago City Council.
Like Obama, Ald. Howard Brookins, 21st, lost a primary challenge to Rush, in 2016. On Tuesday, Brookins said, “I think his career has been firmly cemented as a civil rights icon.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.