“It’s Time for Generational Change”: Why Progressive Challenger Kina Collins Is Taking on a 25-Year Incumbent
Collins is mounting a rematch for Congress against Rep. Danny K. Davis in the Chicago area—while confronting the Democratic Party establishment.
In the 2020 Democratic primary for Illinoi’s 7th congressional district, Kina Collins ran against longtime incumbent Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) and won just 13.8 percent of the vote to the 25-year congressman’s 61.4 percent. But while she lost handily two years ago, this time, she says, is different. After “the pandemic exposed a lot of urgent crises that require urgent leadership,” Collins says she decided it was time to “step up and tackle some of those problems” by running again. And she has gained the backing of a host of left electoral groups such as Justice Democrats, which has backed a number of successful progressive challengers in Democratic primaries, including Summer Lee’s victory in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district last month.
Collins, 31, has been a longtime advocate against gun violence in the area, and helped found the Chicago Neighborhood Alliance which works on community-specific issues including public safety. She has also worked as an organizer for single-payer healthcare with Physicians for a National Health program, and has long pushed for criminal justice reform.
Davis, meanwhile, has served as congressman for the district since Collins was five-years-old. While Davis touts himself as a progressive, Collins says the lack of change she’s seen in his quarter-century tenure around issues such as gun violence and universal healthcare is “incredibly frustrating.” And in Illinois’ 7th congressional district, which encompasses parts of the West and South Sides of Chicago and surrounding suburbs, there is no Republican challenger, meaning that the June 28 primary will essentially decide who the district sends to Congress next year.
Ahead of the primary, Collins spoke with In These Times about her second run for office, advocating for gun violence prevention and her vision of politics in her home district.
Why are you running for Congress?
I think that it’s time for generational change in the Illinois 7th [district]. This is a very young district in the Illinois delegation and the current congressman has been my congressman since I was 5 years old. For the last 25 years, I’ve watched my congressman take PAC money and miss over 1,000 votes. The pandemic exposed a lot of urgent crises that require urgent leadership and I’m willing to step up and tackle some of those problems.
You served on the Biden-Harris transition team task force on gun violence prevention. Is there anything you learned while serving on that task force that you will take to Congress?
My main focus and my goal and objective on the transition team was to amplify the voices of people of color, women, and young people who experience community violence or everyday gun violence in our neighborhoods, and to say that the solutions, for the last few decades, have been to over-militarize and over-police our communities, and that’s not working.
We need to strike at the root cause of this gun violence, which is poverty. And until we deal with the issue of poverty, we’re going to continue to see open air drug markets. We’re going to continue to see people not getting access to things like mental health specialists, and taking their lives by way of guns. We’re going to continue to see people thinking that guns are the solution to solving a lot of the problems that they have.
The Biden administration actually listened to a lot of the survivors. They allocated federal funding towards violence interruption and violence prevention programs, [but] not nearly enough. I think that we can go further. Violence and anti-violence work is a multi-billion-dollar problem. And I think what they don’t know on the federal level is how to tackle these problems. The pivot has always been towards policing. I think that running for this federal seat and representing the people in the Illinois 7th, as a survivor, as somebody who has witnessed this trauma up close and personal, I’ll be able to center the voices of victims and survivors.
Gun violence prevention is a part of Danny K. Davis’s platform as well. Where do you differentiate from him on that?
We need to look at the leadership, or the lack thereof, and I think that we’re going to lead on this issue very differently. I’ll give you an example. In the city of Chicago in the last decade, we’ve seen an uptick of social media being used as a forum of where a lot of beef get started and then it spills out into the streets. I think that just being competent in understanding and recognizing that technology is now playing a role, and how some of the street violence is occurring, is an example of how me and Congressman Davis would be very different on this issue.
I would also just say that it’s not enough to vote the right way. The young people in this district, primarily on the West Side and South Side of Chicago, that have experienced a lot of this gun violence, they don’t feel connected to the current politicians in the city of Chicago. As a matter of fact, when you speak to a lot of young people, they’ll tell you they don’t feel invested in either.
And we’ve seen this in the public school shutdowns that have happened in Chicago over the last decade. A 50 public school shut down, which was one of the largest in American history — that is violence on the community. And I think that our congressman did not kick and scream enough about that issue. Twenty nine of the schools out of the 50 that were shut down, were schools in the Illinois 7th. And they happen to be in some of the most impacted areas around gun violence. And so recognizing the pulse of what’s happening in the community, not just voting the right way but leading the right way and standing in the trenches, with the community groups on the ground doing anti-violence work, is going to be a big difference between me and Congressman Davis.
Danny K. Davis has been endorsed by major unions and federations like the AFL-CIO and SEIU. Is your campaign trying to win labor support, and what role do you see the labor movement playing in your vision of politics?
My earliest moments of being politicized were literally watching both my parents, who are union members, talk about collective bargaining and fight for workers rights in their workplace. My mom is SEIU. My dad is a Teamster. One of the very first walk outs that ever happened with Amazon workers was in Cicero, Illinois, and I was right there with them at five in the morning to support them and stand shoulder to shoulder with them when those workers walked out on their shift.
When SEIU Local 73 was in the longest strike in their local’s history here in Cook County fighting for fair contracts for Cook County workers, we showed up to the picket line. Congressman Davis did not. I understand that there’s an allegiance to incumbents, but I think in this movement work, we have to be strategic about who’s really showing up and who’s really going to be in those fights with the members of these unions.
My commitment is 100 percent to the labor movement here in the United States. Last summer, I actually joined the action with One Fair Wage and was arrested with three city council members because we were fighting for tipped workers who worked at Gibsons Steakhouse so that they could get hazard pay and pandemic pay and just make sure that we recognize them as human and that all work should be properly compensated. I’m willing to put my body on the line for the workers in this movement and across the country. And I think that speaks more than even getting an endorsement. We’re showing up for workers all across this country to say that they deserve a livable wage.
Davis also supports progressive bills like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal. How does your approach differ from his, and how do you plan to fight for those measures specifically?
When we look around our district, you could say you support Medicare for All, but when Illinois 7th has the largest life expectancy gap in the nation — between downtown Chicago and West Englewood, a 30 year life [expectancy] gap based off of a 30-minute car ride — that speaks to how there is a lack of investment in equitable healthcare along race and class lines in the Illinois 7th.
The biggest difference in our voting record is going to be that I actually show up to vote. Congressman Davis, in the last session, missed more votes than almost any other Democrat in the delegation. And I’m going to work in a co-governance model with the people in the Illinois 7th, and I’m going to do that as an anti-corporate elected official. The way that we speak about these issues, the way that we organize around these issues, and the way that we lead around these issues will be vastly different.
If elected, what do you hope to accomplish in your first 100 days in Congress? What should voters judge you on?
In my first 100 days in office, I want to put together a healthcare and life expectancy task force of experts across the district. That includes physicians, parents, activists, environmentalists, and people who can help us come up with the recommendations that we need to fight for on the federal level in order to aggressively chip away at that 30 year life [expectancy] gap. As a representative, I shouldn’t be coming up with these decisions by myself. There are a lot of smart people across our district who can help me come up with these solutions, and I look forward to working with them.
I think the second way that we could really be held accountable by the community is how well we’re connected with the community groups on the ground that are already doing this amazing work. We want to make sure we’re hosting town halls, that we are constantly in contact and that we keep an open door policy for the folks in the district.
One other thing would be laying out how federally we can bring back dollars to our district. Currently, Illinois is considered a donor state. What that means is we pay more in federal taxes than we actually get back in resources. I want to change that, and I want to make sure that those federal dollars are equitably being distributed, especially for the most impacted communities.
The Democratic Party establishment has rallied around incumbents, to protect them from progressive challengers. What do you make of the current fight within the Democratic Party, and how do you see your role as a candidate backed by the left electoral infrastructure?
Our district is so Democratic that we don’t even have a Republican challenger in the general. June 28 is the election for Illinois 7th. And yet, Speaker Pelosi has stumped for Congressman Davis in our district. The Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries has come and stumped for Congressman Davis, on top of him getting a ton of money from party leadership who built a PAC specifically to stop our primary challenge. I don’t think that the Democratic leadership has a vision for what direction we’re going in. Whenever you’re putting resources into a deep dark blue primary, like ours, when there are swing districts all across the country and right here in the state of Illinois who haven’t gotten as much attention from the Democratic leadership as we’ve gotten, something is fundamentally wrong.
I’m disappointed, especially considering that I’m a young Black woman and we know that Black women in the Democratic Party are the backbone of the Democratic Party. The messaging that has been sent to me and my campaign and my supporters is that not only am I not welcome into the party, but that Democratic leadership will pony up resources to try to stop me from getting into the party. I’ve been completely disappointed, but not shocked, at the lack of awareness of what it could mean for somebody like me to represent the Illinois 7th in Congress.
You’ve said that the 7th district deserves “a representative who shows up and fights for us every day. A representative who gets things done.” What would it look like for changes to be made in the 7th district?
That we close the 30 year life [expectancy] gap. That we fight for a future free of gun violence. That Black and brown folks and working-class families across the Illinois 7th, their children have the same education of kids who grew up in the Gold Coast. That we invest in treatment and not in trauma. That we actually invest in the community. And that we have a representative who believes in that co-governance model and will be held accountable by the community.
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Skyler Aikerson is a freelance reporter based in Chicago and a former In These Times intern.