As U.S. Rep. Danny Davis seeks 15th term, opponents argue it’s time to move on

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City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin stood with U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries two years ago when the high-ranking New York Democrat came to Chicago to throw his political weight behind Danny Davis, the West Side congressman who was working to fend off the most serious primary challenge of his decadeslong career in Washington.

Following stops with Davis at churches in Illinois’ 7th Congressional District, the influential House Democratic Caucus chairman stood inside a hotel in the Douglas neighborhood and declared, “I’m going to go back to Washington and tell the world I’m a Danny Davis Democrat!”

Davis still has the backing of Jeffries, now the House minority leader, along with other top Democrats in Washington and Illinois, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.

Conyears-Ervin, however, is no longer behind Davis.

Emboldened by Davis’ close call in 2022, when he beat progressive activist Kina Collins by just 6 points, the second-term treasurer is mounting a challenge built on the argument that the South and West side neighborhoods comprising the core of the district have little to show for Davis’ nearly half-century in public office — with more than half of that time in Congress — that began when he was elected the 29th Ward alderman in 1979.

Conyears-Ervin says one reason she’s no longer supporting Davis is because he told her he wouldn’t seek a 15th term. He disputes saying that. It’s one disagreement among many between onetime allies now engaged in a heated battle in which each has questioned the other’s record of accomplishment and ethics.

At the same time, Collins is back for a third shot at unseating Davis after more than tripling her share of the vote between her first and second campaigns. This time, however, she lacks the financial backing of the left-wing political action committee whose support helped bring her within striking distance in 2022.

Also in the crowded field are Nikhil Bhatia, who teaches math at a charter middle school on the South Side, and Kouri Marshall, who previously worked in Pritzker’s office.

While all five candidates talk about issues such as affordable housing, gun violence and the need for greater investment on the South and West sides, the race has come down to a referendum on Davis.

In an election year when the age of the two parties’ presumptive presidential nominees is top of mind for many voters, the central question in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for the 7th District is whether the 82-year-old Davis’ long tenure on Capitol Hill is a boon for constituents or an indication it’s time for new representation.

First elected to Congress in 1996, when delegates danced the Macarena at Chicago’s last Democratic National Convention, Davis is now No. 24 on the seniority list in the U.S. House and has a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

The cornerstone of his pitch to voters is that his seniority and the relationships he’s forged on both sides of the aisle pay dividends for residents across the district, which stretches from the lakefront through western suburbs to just past the Tri-State Tollway, and from Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood on the North Side to West Englewood on the South Side.

Those connections aren’t something a new member of congress could replicate overnight, Davis argues.

“Even if one of the candidates was going to end up being a good representative, I mean, a super good (representative), it still would take them 20 years to be able to do what I can do,” Davis said in a interview earlier this month at Manny’s Cafeteria & Delicatessen, the well-worn stop on the Near West Side for the city’s political class.

But the veteran lawmaker also raised doubts about his opponents’ ability to do the job.

“All of the things that my opponents talk about they would do, they have not been doing them. They didn’t have to wait till they got elected to Congress,” Davis said. “They’ve never done anything that would cause one to want to vote for them.”

In particular, Davis questioned Conyears-Ervin’s accomplishments in her short Springfield tenure and Collins’ track record as an activist, especially in the health care arena, where Davis worked before being elected to Congress.

Davis spoke following a news conference where the Democratic establishment — including Pritzker, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, former Gov. Pat Quinn and former Secretary of State Jesse White, along with local leaders from the district — turned out to support his reelection.

Official after official touted Davis’ experience and his history of delivering federal funds for needs within his district.

“Congressman Davis walks the corridor of power with that stick and with his vision,” said freshman U.S. Rep. Jonathan Jackson of the neighboring 1st Congressional District, referencing his colleague’s signature walking stick. “This man has seniority. He has sensibility; he has integrity; he can work across the aisle. He will bring and he has constantly delivered goods back to Chicago.”

Jackson, the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson and brother of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., cited the quick release of federal disaster relief funds last summer after flooding in Cook County as one example.

Assessing the support he received that day, Davis said, “If those individuals are willing to stand and say that you are doing and have done a good job, it matters not what anybody else says, it matters not what anybody else believes.”

But Davis’ opponents say what matters is what residents in the district believe, and they argue that voters are prepared to send someone new to Washington.

“I can understand that people tend to go with what they’re familiar with,” Conyears-Ervin said of Davis’ big-name political backers. “But the truth is, that’s not where the voters are. And the voters believe that it’s time for someone new. The voters are ready for change. And they believe that change cannot wait.”

Conyears-Ervin, 48, was elected city treasurer in 2019, months after winning a second full term representing a West Side district in the Illinois House. She is half of a political power couple with husband Jason. The 28th Ward alderman since 2011, Jason Ervin is also chairman of the City Council’s Budget Committee and former chairman of the Black Caucus.

After running unopposed last year for a second term as treasurer, Conyears-Ervin said in a recent interview at her River North campaign office that she has set her sights on Washington because she’s “developed an understanding as to what we should be receiving as far as service from our congressperson.”

She’s running on her record in the treasurer’s office, where she’s focused on financial empowerment for city residents, and in Springfield, where she successfully sponsored a measure protecting access to state child care assistance for more low-income families.

Davis, whom she backed for another term just two years ago, hasn’t been delivering, she said.

It’s not the congressman’s age that’s the issue, said Conyears-Ervin, a lifelong resident of the district, but rather “it’s the energy; it’s the vision; it’s the relevance.”

“Many of us have seen this over time,” she said. “I think that we have tried to be patient with the incumbent. But as a mother of a 7-year-old daughter, raising her on the West Side of Chicago, our patience has run out.”

Conyears-Ervin also has made balancing motherhood with her duties as an elected official central to her pitch, referring to herself repeatedly as “the only working mother in this race.”

But her role as a mother also factors into allegations of ethical misconduct at City Hall that have cast a shadow over her candidacy.

About a month before Conyears-Ervin made her congressional bid official, the Tribune reported two former employees had accused the treasurer in a December 2020 letter of using government workers to plan her daughter’s birthday party and pressuring employees to hold events benefiting political allies, among other allegations.

The letter also accused the treasurer of attempting to force BMO Harris, a bank holding city deposits her office oversees, to issue a mortgage tied to the building that houses her husband’s aldermanic office.

In September, the city inspector general’s office seized computers from Conyears-Ervin’s office, and in November, the Board of Ethics found probable cause that she had violated the city ethics code by firing the two employees. The city earlier had paid $100,000 to settle the complaints.

Conyears-Ervin has acknowledged asking BMO Harris about issuing a loan to the owner of the building that houses her husband’s ward office, but has denied that any workers in her office performed personal tasks on city time.

In a recent interview, she declined to answer questions related to the allegations. “I’ve answered those questions,” she said.

Conyears-Ervin questioned the Davis campaign’s use of an image of the congressman on his website that was generated by artificial intelligence, and his congressional office’s use of taxpayer-funded mailers, billboards and TV ads in the months leading up to the primary.

“Why now?” Conyears-Ervin said. “We didn’t see commercials outside of the election.”

Davis’ office has said all congressional rules regarding the line between official and political work were followed.

As Conyears-Ervin battles ethics allegations, her allies have been waging an aggressive fight using an old-school political tactic: challenging opponents’ nominating petitions.

Since the November filing deadline, allies of Conyears-Ervin, including her husband, have tried to get every other candidate kicked off the ballot by challenging their paperwork in complaints filed with elections officials. One complaint alleged that Davis’ campaign had faked his signature on the forms.

The complaints forced one opponent, Rhonda Sherrod, off the ballot after it was determined she had turned in petitions that were 12 voter signatures short of the 821 required by law. The other four candidates spent weeks, sometimes months, fighting the challenges to stay on the ballot.

Davis, for one, had to show up at a hearing to testify that the signature on the form was, in fact, his.

“It seems like their strategy is just to try to tie up as much resources and time and legal fees (as possible), and I don’t think that that’s a campaign befitting this district,” said Bhatia, the middle school math teacher also running for seat. “It doesn’t represent the spirit of democracy.”

Bhatia said he’s running to give voters an alternative to “two machine politicians and a socialist” referring to Davis and Conyears-Ervin on one side and Collins on the other.

While much of the Democratic establishment is behind Davis, Conyears-Ervin also has influential backers in the race.

Last month, a group of more than two dozen politically active Black church leaders came together at a Washington Park church to back her candidacy.

The Rev. Ira Acree, pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in the Austin neighborhood, said at the February event that he was able to look past the allegations against Conyears-Ervin.

Like Conyears-Ervin, Acree previously supported Davis. However, “I have to ask myself, ‘Am I better off now than I was when he started?’” Acree said. “If we were better off, I would say yes. Since I’m saying no, I think it’s time to give someone else a chance.”

Another potent force in Conyears-Ervin’s corner is the Chicago Teachers Union, which cited her role as a working mother in its endorsement last month.

“For too long now, Washington has failed to prioritize working families and our communities,” CTU President Stacy Davis Gates said in a statement. “If we are going to have equitable and sustainable investment in the neighborhoods that need it most, then we need leadership we can trust.”

The decision by the politically powerful union, which was instrumental in Johnson’s election last year, to back Conyears-Ervin dealt perhaps the largest blow to Collins, whose progressive views on many issues, such as calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, align with those of CTU.

Collins, 33, shrugged off the union’s decision, arguing that regardless of the endorsement, many progressive voices in the district and across the city, including many CTU allies, remain in her camp after she gave Davis a wake-up call in 2022.

“I’m going to be honest, we thought that the city treasurer would be a much more formidable opponent,” Collins said in a telephone interview last month.

Collins said she sees Conyears-Ervin as most likely to appeal to moderates and older Black voters who would otherwise favor Davis.

While positioning herself to the left of the rest of the field, Collins, whose activism was forged in protests over the police killing of Laquan McDonald a decade ago, agrees with the other candidates that Davis is past his prime — a view that’s been at the heart of all three of her campaigns.

“People are tired of hearing that same old story that just because you’ve sat in the seat or you served for 40 years that you have the best ideas about what needs to happen in the district,” she said.

Despite her strong performance last time out, Collins may face a steeper climb this time around because she lacks the financial backing of Justice Democrats, the left-wing PAC that helped sweep New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into office in 2018.

The group reported $390,000 in independent expenditures on ads backing Collins in the closing weeks of the 2022 campaign, federal campaign finance records show.

Justice Democrats didn’t respond to requests for comment on why it hasn’t put money behind Collins this year, though the candidate says she and the group remain part of the same “political family.”

The lack of outside backing, however, comes as she also trails in the money race, falling even behind first-time candidates Bhatia and Marshall.

From the start of the current election cycle through Feb. 28, Collins has reported raising more than $72,000 and spending more than $48,000, leaving her with nearly $24,000 on hand for the closing three weeks of the campaign, federal campaign finance records show.

She held a fundraising concert with indie rock giants The Strokes on March 8 at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which she said grossed about $600,000 from ticket sales before covering expenses. The receipts have yet to be reported to the Federal Election Commission.

While Collins tries to catch up with fundraising, she’s also facing challenges from outside the district. A pro-Israel PAC, United Democracy Project, has launched a late blitz and reported spending nearly $482,000 against Collins’ candidacy since March 5, federal campaign records show.

Bhatia and Marshall each have reported raising more than $120,000 and spending more than $110,000 during the same period.

While he doesn’t have the name recognition of Davis, Conyears-Ervin or Collins, Marshall, 41, former deputy personnel director in Pritzker’s office, said he thinks he has the resources and experience to be competitive.

“The only person we don’t have the same on par financial resources with is a member of Congress who’s been serving over 27 years and a city treasurer,” Marshall said.

Conyears-Ervin had nearly $87,000 on hand as of Feb. 28 after raising more than $619,000 and spending more than $532,000, federal records show.

She outraised Davis, who brought in nearly $458,000 and spent more than $416,000 during the same period, but the incumbent was sitting on a cash pile of more than $262,000, much of it left over from the previous campaign, records show.

Veteran political strategist Delmarie Cobb said one of the only ways to defeat an incumbent like Davis is by airing TV ads, which none of the candidates has done to date.

“If, in fact, his opponents were to get on the air, he certainly would have the money to get on the air as well because not only does he have the support locally, he has the support of his colleagues in Congress,” Cobb said.

Those eager to be Davis’ successor “may have to wait till Danny actually says, ‘OK, this is my last run,’ ” Cobb said.

That’s just what Davis had to do decades ago after failed attempts to unseat his predecessor, Rep. Cardiss Collins, in back-to-back elections in the mid-1980s.

The winner of Tuesday’s race in the heavily Democratic district will face the lone name on the Republican primary ballot, perennial candidate Chad Koppie, who resides outside the district in far northwest suburban Gilberts, in November.

Chicago Tribune’s Joe Mahr contributed.