CHICAGO—Nas’ voice led me to Anthony Clark’s June campaign launch party in suburban Forest Park, Ill. I had misplaced the exact address and wandered until steered by distant hip-hop rhythms — I had heard that Clark was a hip-hop aficionado and followed the hint. The activist educator is making a second try to oust Rep. Danny K. Davis from Illinois’ 7th Congressional District, drawing a youngish crowd full of political enthusiasm.
Clark won 26 percent of the primary vote in 2018 — or, as his supporters say, “almost 30 percent” — to Davis’ 74 percent. The results indicate some discontent with the iconic incumbent, who had never before dipped below 80 percent.
Clark ran in 2018 with the endorsement of three progressive organizations: Brand New Congress, Justice Democrats and the Chicago Democratic Socialists of America (CDSA). Brand New Congress has already announced its 2020 endorsement.
Clark proudly describes himself as a democratic socialist and stresses his political kinship to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and others who challenged establishment Democrats in 2018. Clark’s candidacy is taking shape just as Chicago is experiencing an unprecedented surge of socialism, perhaps an indication of elections to come.
As the Chicago Sun-Times put it following the city’s April elections: “Chicago had experienced the biggest electoral victory for socialists in modern American history. Members of the [CDSA] now control one-tenth of the City Council’s 50 seats.” Chicago also elected its first black lesbian mayor, who was widely regarded as anti-establishment. This new electoral spaciousness has opened the way for a fuller critique of the political status quo.
Davis is perhaps as progressive as any member of Congress and has been endorsed by CDSA in the past. He is a storied Chicago character, revered as part of a long-serving trio of black reps from the city. Although he has long voiced progressive ideas, his constituents increasingly say his congressional output does little in terms of policy.
“Danny Davis has been ineffective for some time now,” says Paul Sakol, a long-time Chicagoan and one of the oldest CDSA members at the event. “Oh, sure, he occasionally says the right things, but where is his active voice in the struggle? He seems tired… I’ve been an admirer of Anthony even before he got into politics, so I see him as a natural to succeed Danny.”
Clark also criticizes Davis for “siding with Republicans” to support a May 2018 rollback of Dodd-Frank regulations for smaller banks, and for taking corporate donations.
Davis faces another challenger, Kina Collins, a gun-control advocate and an organizer with Physicians for a National Health Program, which advocates single-payer healthcare.
Clark, who was once in a hip-hop group himself, The Sons of Sin, had his own DJ team presiding as diverse young people continued crowding into the trendy night spot, including Clark’s former students from Oak Park and River Forest High School. Clark initially gained notice as a teacher with a strong penchant for student advocacy, and his energetic corps of supporters personally praises his influence. But Clark started off the evening crediting his own father, Ronald Clark Sr., who spoke about the importance of paternal duty, especially as it regards black Americans, on the eve of Father’s Day.
Dima Ali, an immigrant from Iraq, says Clark invited her to speak about Trump’s Muslim ban at a community forum in April 2017. “I have no family here, but Anthony is my brother,” she says.
It was Clark’s vibrant activism that initially made him attractive to groups like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, who want to inject a renewed spirit into the party.
“I’ll be honest with you: In 2018, I was nominated,” Clark told the crowd. “I didn’t wake up and say, ‘I want to become a politician.’ I never had those dreams and I still don’t consider myself a politician.
“When the Brand New Congress people approached me, I was hesitant at first, but after I thought about it, I realized, that with all of my work as a teacher and even with my non-profit work, I’m only treating symptoms and I’m still part of the problem.”
Clark says a congressional seat would afford him the ability “to address root causes, policy and legislation to help redress the damage done by a capitalist society based on white supremacy.”
Clark’s policy prescriptions are progressive: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, abolish ICE, legalize cannabis with racial justice provisions (Illinois will do so in 2020), housing as a human right, a federal jobs guarantee. Then again, so are Davis’.
But Clark faults Davis for failing to “lead and fight” on these issues and others, especially the jobs guarantee, “considering the 7th’s unemployment rate is 2.5 times the national average.”
In response, Ira Cohen, Davis’ communications director, says, “I believe it is fair to say that Rep. Davis is a strong and outspoken leader on these issues in the fullest sense of the word. He works closely with unions, activist groups, state and local progressive legislators, and grassroots organizations on legislative agendas in these areas. Rep. Davis preaches mass struggle and solidarity because he understands, in the end, that is the only path to a truly just society.”
Clark is forcing the question: Have Davis’ prescriptions become more stentorian than effective?