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Rep. Bobby Rush joins Democrats choosing not to run again this year

24 House Democrats are retiring or running for other offices so far

Chairman Bobby Rush, D-Ill., prepares for a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy hearing in 2020.
Chairman Bobby Rush, D-Ill., prepares for a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy hearing in 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Illinois Democrat Bobby L. Rush, who was born in the rural South and became a political institution over his decadeslong career, announced Tuesday that he would not seek reelection to his Chicago-area district, making him the 24th House Democrat to announce plans to retire or seek another office in 2022. 

“You can own public service but you can never own public office,” Rush said at a news conference at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ, the Chicago church where the 1955 funeral of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till took place. “For me, I have a higher calling, and I am answering that higher calling to continue my mission in life.” 

He added that he would continue to “fight injustice” using the wisdom that he has accumulated over a long career of public service he traced to his time as a Boy Scout but that also included a stint as a leader of the Illinois Black Panther movement and, famously, his 2000 primary thumping of a then-unknown Barack Obama in the 1st District. 

Rush’s announcement comes after a string of retirements from high-profile House Democrats as the party battles historical trends and President Joe Biden’s sliding popularity to hold on to its chamber majority in 2022. Since the House left the Capitol for its holiday recess on Dec. 15, that list has grown to include Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, who was the first Mexican American congresswoman; Vietnam-born Stephanie Murphy of Florida, who was on the short list to be Biden’s running mate in 2020; and Cuban refugee Albio Sires of New Jersey, who will be leaving after 16 years in the House. 

Rush brings the total number of House members not seeking reelection to 35, including 11 Republicans. That is just about average for House cycles going back to 1946, according to the Brookings Institution’s Vital Statistics on Congress. But that average in years after census-driven redistricting grows to 42, and the departures could still continue as more states finish finalizing their new maps.

Republicans greeted Rush’s decision as further proof of Democrats’ pessimism about their chances as the party grapples with the continuing fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the traditional headwinds facing the party in control of the White House during a midterm election. 

“House Democrats are retiring in droves because they know they’re going to lose in 2022,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair said in a statement that mirrored those issued after other recent retirement announcements. 

Democrats counter that they’re running on an agenda that’s “wildly popular” in battleground districts.

“While voters watch House Republicans prolong this pandemic and vote to block critical relief for families and workers, Democrats remain focused on delivering for families,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Chris Taylor said.

CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales said there are many reasons members might decide to leave Congress.

“But if Capitol Hill was a great place to work and Democrats believed they were going to have the opportunity to stay in the majority and pass key pieces of legislation, more of them would be sticking around,” he said.

Some departures will only lead to competitive primaries while doing little to change party control, Gonzales noted.

“It’s the members leaving behind competitive seats that cause the most headaches,” he said.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Rush after his inauguration in 2009. Some nine years earlier, Rush had convincingly beaten Obama in a Democratic primary for Illinois’ 1st District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rush’s 30-point victory over Obama in 2000 — the narrowest margin of any electoral challenge since Rush was first elected in 1992 — sealed his reputation as almost unbeatable, due in large part to his skill as a classic Chicago Democrat who combined liberal politics with dogged constituent advocacy. 

But he has attracted a steady stream of ambitious Democratic challengers in recent years — including a crowded field this year, with the boundaries of the district shifting while remaining safe Democratic terrain. 

He also speaks in a halting, whispery voice after his vocal chords were damaged after he underwent cancer treatment. His health and questions about his rent-free use of a city office space have stoked speculation about his future plans. He was also among several House members to have contracted COVID-19 in recent weeks. 

Rush’s case was asymptomatic, according to his office, and he waited until he had finished a quarantine period and received a negative test to make his retirement announcement. Attendees were required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination. 

The choice of venue was a reminder of Rush’s work for civil rights and racial justice that reached to his co-founding of the Illinois Black Panther Party in the late 1960s. 

Rush acknowledged the attendees who played a role in preserving Till’s legacy, including Till’s cousin Wheeler Parker Jr., the last surviving witness of Till’s murder. Rush said he hoped one of his final acts in Congress would be the passage of his bill, named in Till’s honor, to make lynching a federal crime. That bill passed the House in 2020 but the Senate took up another version of the measure identical to Rush’s bill, but without Till’s name in the title. 

The ceremony also paid homage to Rush’s other achievements in the House, including his position as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy. Rush cited the symbolic power of presenting a Black face on the dais when the mostly white executives appear before the panel during hearings that often touch on racial justice issues.

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