The candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the 7th Congressional seat
The candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the 7th Congressional seat clockwise from the left to right are: Nikhil Bhatia, Kina Collins, Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, Kouri Marshall and incumbent U.S. Rep. Danny Davis. Photos courtesy of the candidates / Photoillustration by Mendy Kong / WBEZ
The candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the 7th Congressional seat
The candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the 7th Congressional seat clockwise from the left to right are: Nikhil Bhatia, Kina Collins, Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, Kouri Marshall and incumbent U.S. Rep. Danny Davis. Photos courtesy of the candidates / Photoillustration by Mendy Kong / WBEZ

Walk into U.S. Rep. Danny Davis’s office in Chicago’s East Garfield Park, and you’ll find accolades hung wall to wall from his nearly three decades in the 7th District seat.

Desks piled with paperwork are symbolic of a lifetime career spent as a public servant. His plaques and honors represent some of the work Davis is most proud of in his district that provides perhaps the most vivid illustration of Chicago’s tale of two cities, spanning disinvested areas of Austin to thriving economic hubs like the West Loop, and the city’s central business district downtown.

With two serious challengers in the Democratic primary, and having narrowly eked out a win against one of them in the last election, Davis, 82, is facing one his toughest paths to reelection yet. And he faces questions about why he decided to run again instead of “passing the torch” as his opponents have called on him to do —, and which he initially contemplated. Davis has also served as a Chicago alderman and Cook County Commissioner.

“There’s still much work to be done,” Davis said in an interview with WBEZ.

The race takes place in a reliably blue district. But it marks “one of the most interesting congressional primaries to watch in Illinois,” according to one analyst, as four Democrats are trying to unseat Davis in the primary. His opponents include Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin and community organizer Kina Collins, who is running her third campaign for the seat. Kouri Marshall, a former deputy director for Gov. JB Pritzker, and Nikhil Bhatia, an educator and former principal, are also running in the Democratic primary.

Challengers zero in on Davis’s age

A ranking member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, the chief tax-writing committee, Davis argues his seniority in the House has been beneficial to his constituents.

“Seniority is very important in legislative bodies, period,” Davis said. “Whoever comes in first, they kind of get the first opportunity to speak — they’re No. 1. And in some groups, the rules are that whoever’s there first, kind of get first dibs at things.”

Danny Davis speaking into microphone
Rep. Danny Davis speaks to a crowd of neighbors, citizens and politicians at the opening of the newly branded Mercy Hospital, now called Isight Hospital and Medical Center, on June 4, 2021. The incumbent congressman is facing one his toughest paths to reelection yet. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

But while Davis promotes his seniority in Congress as an asset, his challengers are calling attention to his age. They point to a campaign slip in which a staffer admitted to using an AI-generated photo that made Davis look younger than he is. Staffer Tumia Romero told ABC-7 the photo wasn’t generated to make the congressman appear younger but because she had difficulty getting Davis camera ready.

Davis is one of 15 octogenarians in the House, and 11 of them are Democrats, according to Erin Covey, a U.S. House of Representatives analyst for the Cook Political Report. Several of them are running for reelection, including Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer.

But the primary comes at a time when age in politics is in the spotlight, and challengers are questioning Davis’s decision to run again.

“Why?” Conyears-Ervin pointedly said in response to a question about how she felt when she learned Davis would run again. “I’m a young lady that he has seen throughout the years work very hard for my community. He believes in me, he supported me when I ran for city treasurer. He has worked with me to help mentor me to get to a point like this. And so I did wonder, ‘Why?’ Why not help the next generation so that we can work to build up this community?”

Davis said he initially contemplated retirement this year. Before announcing his reelection, he said he had a conversation with Conyears-Ervin and her husband, Chicago Ald. Jason Ervin, in which the couple asked Davis what sort of leader he would like to replace him.

Davis told them he would let them know his decision but said he started to see a trickle of stories about Conyears-Ervin’s imminent election run.

“People started telling me that they thought I had cut some kind of deal with the treasurer and her husband” to take his seat, he said. “And so I called her up and said, ‘Well, I said, I’d let you know what I’ve decided. And I’ve decided that I’m going to run for reelection.’ ”

Ethics questions on the campaign trail

Conyears-Ervin spent most of her career in the corporate sector before serving briefly as an Illinois state representative and then as city treasurer beginning in 2019. Married to a veteran Chicago City Council member, Conyears-Ervin ended the year as the top fundraiser in the race and argues her roots in the district — where she grew up — and experience governing will propel her to office.

“I am the candidate,” Conyears-Ervin said while dismissing the crowded primary. “This is a two-person race: myself and Danny Davis.”

But Conyears-Ervin’s campaign has been dogged by ethics questions after Chicago’s inspector general found she violated the city’s ethics ordinance after she fired two city employees when they complained she was using city resources for a prayer service. She faces a fine of up to $20,000 for each violation, which could be lobbed against her at the city’s next ethics board meeting about a week before the election.

In an interview with WBEZ, Conyears-Ervin repeatedly referred to a previous statement on the matter in which a spokesperson said “the allegations in question misrepresent” the work of her office.

For his part, Davis declined to speak about the allegations against Conyears-Ervin.

Melissa Conyears-Ervin
City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin speaks during a press conference where the nonprofit organization Elevate announced a collaboration with Wells Fargo to decarbonize homes on Oct. 6, 2022. Conyears-Ervin ended the year as the top fundraiser in the 2024 7th Congressional District race. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

“People can read the newspapers,” said Davis, who faces his own ethics inquiry. Davis is under fire for allegedly spending funds from his office to benefit his congressional campaign, according to a complaint filed with the House Ethics Committee.

Collins, who is mounting her third campaign for the congressional seat, has zeroed in on the Conyears-Ervin allegations.

“We’re going into 2024 taking on the GOP and calling out Donald Trump for election denying, fraudulent behavior, unethical behavior. And so it does the Democrats no service to elect someone who has the drip, drip drip of stories coming out of her office of misusing tax dollars and retaliating against whistleblowers,” Collins said.

A fractured primary and progressive politics

In 2020, Collins ran a long shot campaign against Davis, when “we didn’t know if we could crack 30% of the vote,” she said. And she, in fact, did not. That year, Collins secured just 14% of the vote in the primary, which included two other Democratic candidates.

But Collins surprised race-watchers in 2022 when she closed that gap drastically, receiving 46% of the vote. She is hoping the third time’s the charm as she mounts a grassroots campaign with roughly 1,000 “active volunteers” who have knocked on 30,000 doors and held 100 “house parties,” she said — a progressive campaign formula that led to Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s victory.

“I’m really proud of what we built. And I don’t think it was a fluke,” Collins said. “The only difference that I see in this race is that now our base knows that we can win.”

Kina Collins
This is Kina Collins’s third time running to represent the 7th Congressional District. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

Collins is positioning herself as the progressive candidate in the race, while Conyears-Ervin contends she will “appeal to all,” and Davis has an established reputation as a reliably liberal lawmaker.

“We know that a Democrat is going to win this district. It’s what Democrat? What type of Democrat is going to win this district?” Collins said.

But Covey said this primary race isn’t as straightforward as others throughout the country where progressive, grassroots organizers are challenging some of the country’s most moderate Democrats.

“Collins is certainly to the left of Davis, but he is not moderate in the way that some of these other incumbents are that have faced serious primary challenges,” Covey said.

The 7th District is politically and racially diverse, but progressive voters can make a big dent in candidates’ outcomes. In 2022, Collins performed best in younger, wealthier and college-educated pockets of the district, she said. But a successful candidate will have to appeal to larger swaths of voters, Covey said — a notion Conyears-Ervin is taking to heart.

“I think that I’m the only candidate that will be able to appeal to all — I’m progressive and I have a decade of business experience,” Conyears-Ervin said.

Conyears-Ervin may be helped by an endorsement from the progressive and influential Chicago Teachers Union, which said Conyears-Ervin will “prioritize our public schools, affordable housing, lowering costs for working families, and making the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes,” according to a statement from CTU President Stacy Davis Gates.

United Working Families, the progressive political powerhouse that helped elect Johnson and a slew of other representatives to local office, has not endorsed in the race. Davis Gates chairs UWF’s board. Collins does, however, have the endorsement of numerous UWF-elected progressive aldermen.

In touting her progressive credentials, Collins points to her work in gun violence prevention, having served as an executive director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. She also highlights what has become a wedge issue in the Democratic party: the ongoing war in Gaza. She criticized Davis for not forcefully pushing for a cease-fire, noting that he hasn’t signed on to a House resolution from Missouri Democratic U.S. Rep. Cori Bush.

“The point of sending our congresspeople to Congress is to get federal funding — and bring it back — and to legislate,” she said. “If he doesn’t agree with [the latest] resolution, he should write his own. And we have not seen him do that. And I think that’s a complete slap in the face to the Arab American community in our district.”

Davis said he supports a cease-fire and has signed onto previous resolutions. While Conyears-Ervin said she supports “peace in the Middle East,” she would not say during her interview with WBEZ whether she supports a cease-fire.

“I support ending of terrorism. I support Hamas not terrorizing again. And I support a two-state solution,” she said.

Candidates have spent much of their campaigns highlighting the need for more federal support, including stricter gun laws, in the fight against gun violence, which plagues predominantly Black areas of the district. Collins and Conyears-Ervin both contend the issue requires someone with more energy.

Danny Davis speaking to press conference attendees
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis speaks to attendees during a press conference in the East Garfield Park neighborhood on Nov. 2, 2022, two days after 14 people were shot in a drive-by shooting during a vigil and balloon release. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

Covey, with Cook Political Report, said while Davis is having to answer for his long tenure and age on the campaign trail, the number of challengers Davis faces in the primary could secure his path to victory.

“Because the primary field is so fractured, I think he is still favored to win reelection,” she said.

Chad Koppie of Gilberts is the sole Republican running for the seat.

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago politics for WBEZ.

The candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the 7th Congressional seat
The candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the 7th Congressional seat clockwise from the left to right are: Nikhil Bhatia, Kina Collins, Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, Kouri Marshall and incumbent U.S. Rep. Danny Davis. Photos courtesy of the candidates / Photoillustration by Mendy Kong / WBEZ
The candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the 7th Congressional seat
The candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the 7th Congressional seat clockwise from the left to right are: Nikhil Bhatia, Kina Collins, Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin, Kouri Marshall and incumbent U.S. Rep. Danny Davis. Photos courtesy of the candidates / Photoillustration by Mendy Kong / WBEZ

Walk into U.S. Rep. Danny Davis’s office in Chicago’s East Garfield Park, and you’ll find accolades hung wall to wall from his nearly three decades in the 7th District seat.

Desks piled with paperwork are symbolic of a lifetime career spent as a public servant. His plaques and honors represent some of the work Davis is most proud of in his district that provides perhaps the most vivid illustration of Chicago’s tale of two cities, spanning disinvested areas of Austin to thriving economic hubs like the West Loop, and the city’s central business district downtown.

With two serious challengers in the Democratic primary, and having narrowly eked out a win against one of them in the last election, Davis, 82, is facing one his toughest paths to reelection yet. And he faces questions about why he decided to run again instead of “passing the torch” as his opponents have called on him to do —, and which he initially contemplated. Davis has also served as a Chicago alderman and Cook County Commissioner.

“There’s still much work to be done,” Davis said in an interview with WBEZ.

The race takes place in a reliably blue district. But it marks “one of the most interesting congressional primaries to watch in Illinois,” according to one analyst, as four Democrats are trying to unseat Davis in the primary. His opponents include Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin and community organizer Kina Collins, who is running her third campaign for the seat. Kouri Marshall, a former deputy director for Gov. JB Pritzker, and Nikhil Bhatia, an educator and former principal, are also running in the Democratic primary.

Challengers zero in on Davis’s age

A ranking member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, the chief tax-writing committee, Davis argues his seniority in the House has been beneficial to his constituents.

“Seniority is very important in legislative bodies, period,” Davis said. “Whoever comes in first, they kind of get the first opportunity to speak — they’re No. 1. And in some groups, the rules are that whoever’s there first, kind of get first dibs at things.”

Danny Davis speaking into microphone
Rep. Danny Davis speaks to a crowd of neighbors, citizens and politicians at the opening of the newly branded Mercy Hospital, now called Isight Hospital and Medical Center, on June 4, 2021. The incumbent congressman is facing one his toughest paths to reelection yet. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

But while Davis promotes his seniority in Congress as an asset, his challengers are calling attention to his age. They point to a campaign slip in which a staffer admitted to using an AI-generated photo that made Davis look younger than he is. Staffer Tumia Romero told ABC-7 the photo wasn’t generated to make the congressman appear younger but because she had difficulty getting Davis camera ready.

Davis is one of 15 octogenarians in the House, and 11 of them are Democrats, according to Erin Covey, a U.S. House of Representatives analyst for the Cook Political Report. Several of them are running for reelection, including Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer.

But the primary comes at a time when age in politics is in the spotlight, and challengers are questioning Davis’s decision to run again.

“Why?” Conyears-Ervin pointedly said in response to a question about how she felt when she learned Davis would run again. “I’m a young lady that he has seen throughout the years work very hard for my community. He believes in me, he supported me when I ran for city treasurer. He has worked with me to help mentor me to get to a point like this. And so I did wonder, ‘Why?’ Why not help the next generation so that we can work to build up this community?”

Davis said he initially contemplated retirement this year. Before announcing his reelection, he said he had a conversation with Conyears-Ervin and her husband, Chicago Ald. Jason Ervin, in which the couple asked Davis what sort of leader he would like to replace him.

Davis told them he would let them know his decision but said he started to see a trickle of stories about Conyears-Ervin’s imminent election run.

“People started telling me that they thought I had cut some kind of deal with the treasurer and her husband” to take his seat, he said. “And so I called her up and said, ‘Well, I said, I’d let you know what I’ve decided. And I’ve decided that I’m going to run for reelection.’ ”

Ethics questions on the campaign trail

Conyears-Ervin spent most of her career in the corporate sector before serving briefly as an Illinois state representative and then as city treasurer beginning in 2019. Married to a veteran Chicago City Council member, Conyears-Ervin ended the year as the top fundraiser in the race and argues her roots in the district — where she grew up — and experience governing will propel her to office.

“I am the candidate,” Conyears-Ervin said while dismissing the crowded primary. “This is a two-person race: myself and Danny Davis.”

But Conyears-Ervin’s campaign has been dogged by ethics questions after Chicago’s inspector general found she violated the city’s ethics ordinance after she fired two city employees when they complained she was using city resources for a prayer service. She faces a fine of up to $20,000 for each violation, which could be lobbed against her at the city’s next ethics board meeting about a week before the election.

In an interview with WBEZ, Conyears-Ervin repeatedly referred to a previous statement on the matter in which a spokesperson said “the allegations in question misrepresent” the work of her office.

For his part, Davis declined to speak about the allegations against Conyears-Ervin.

Melissa Conyears-Ervin
City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin speaks during a press conference where the nonprofit organization Elevate announced a collaboration with Wells Fargo to decarbonize homes on Oct. 6, 2022. Conyears-Ervin ended the year as the top fundraiser in the 2024 7th Congressional District race. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

“People can read the newspapers,” said Davis, who faces his own ethics inquiry. Davis is under fire for allegedly spending funds from his office to benefit his congressional campaign, according to a complaint filed with the House Ethics Committee.

Collins, who is mounting her third campaign for the congressional seat, has zeroed in on the Conyears-Ervin allegations.

“We’re going into 2024 taking on the GOP and calling out Donald Trump for election denying, fraudulent behavior, unethical behavior. And so it does the Democrats no service to elect someone who has the drip, drip drip of stories coming out of her office of misusing tax dollars and retaliating against whistleblowers,” Collins said.

A fractured primary and progressive politics

In 2020, Collins ran a long shot campaign against Davis, when “we didn’t know if we could crack 30% of the vote,” she said. And she, in fact, did not. That year, Collins secured just 14% of the vote in the primary, which included two other Democratic candidates.

But Collins surprised race-watchers in 2022 when she closed that gap drastically, receiving 46% of the vote. She is hoping the third time’s the charm as she mounts a grassroots campaign with roughly 1,000 “active volunteers” who have knocked on 30,000 doors and held 100 “house parties,” she said — a progressive campaign formula that led to Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s victory.

“I’m really proud of what we built. And I don’t think it was a fluke,” Collins said. “The only difference that I see in this race is that now our base knows that we can win.”

Kina Collins
This is Kina Collins’s third time running to represent the 7th Congressional District. Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere / Chicago Sun-Times

Collins is positioning herself as the progressive candidate in the race, while Conyears-Ervin contends she will “appeal to all,” and Davis has an established reputation as a reliably liberal lawmaker.

“We know that a Democrat is going to win this district. It’s what Democrat? What type of Democrat is going to win this district?” Collins said.

But Covey said this primary race isn’t as straightforward as others throughout the country where progressive, grassroots organizers are challenging some of the country’s most moderate Democrats.

“Collins is certainly to the left of Davis, but he is not moderate in the way that some of these other incumbents are that have faced serious primary challenges,” Covey said.

The 7th District is politically and racially diverse, but progressive voters can make a big dent in candidates’ outcomes. In 2022, Collins performed best in younger, wealthier and college-educated pockets of the district, she said. But a successful candidate will have to appeal to larger swaths of voters, Covey said — a notion Conyears-Ervin is taking to heart.

“I think that I’m the only candidate that will be able to appeal to all — I’m progressive and I have a decade of business experience,” Conyears-Ervin said.

Conyears-Ervin may be helped by an endorsement from the progressive and influential Chicago Teachers Union, which said Conyears-Ervin will “prioritize our public schools, affordable housing, lowering costs for working families, and making the wealthy pay their fair share in taxes,” according to a statement from CTU President Stacy Davis Gates.

United Working Families, the progressive political powerhouse that helped elect Johnson and a slew of other representatives to local office, has not endorsed in the race. Davis Gates chairs UWF’s board. Collins does, however, have the endorsement of numerous UWF-elected progressive aldermen.

In touting her progressive credentials, Collins points to her work in gun violence prevention, having served as an executive director for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. She also highlights what has become a wedge issue in the Democratic party: the ongoing war in Gaza. She criticized Davis for not forcefully pushing for a cease-fire, noting that he hasn’t signed on to a House resolution from Missouri Democratic U.S. Rep. Cori Bush.

“The point of sending our congresspeople to Congress is to get federal funding — and bring it back — and to legislate,” she said. “If he doesn’t agree with [the latest] resolution, he should write his own. And we have not seen him do that. And I think that’s a complete slap in the face to the Arab American community in our district.”

Davis said he supports a cease-fire and has signed onto previous resolutions. While Conyears-Ervin said she supports “peace in the Middle East,” she would not say during her interview with WBEZ whether she supports a cease-fire.

“I support ending of terrorism. I support Hamas not terrorizing again. And I support a two-state solution,” she said.

Candidates have spent much of their campaigns highlighting the need for more federal support, including stricter gun laws, in the fight against gun violence, which plagues predominantly Black areas of the district. Collins and Conyears-Ervin both contend the issue requires someone with more energy.

Danny Davis speaking to press conference attendees
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis speaks to attendees during a press conference in the East Garfield Park neighborhood on Nov. 2, 2022, two days after 14 people were shot in a drive-by shooting during a vigil and balloon release. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

Covey, with Cook Political Report, said while Davis is having to answer for his long tenure and age on the campaign trail, the number of challengers Davis faces in the primary could secure his path to victory.

“Because the primary field is so fractured, I think he is still favored to win reelection,” she said.

Chad Koppie of Gilberts is the sole Republican running for the seat.

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago politics for WBEZ.