Reflections on Bobby Rush

Posted by Mitchell - July 2, 2023 (entry 751)

I recently watched the documentary film The Murder of Fred Hampton, which you can find on HBO Now HBO Go HBO Max Max. The film is a verite documentary of the life and work of Fred Hampton, chair of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and a devoted activist and revolutionary. Fred Hampton, deemed so successful an activist that he had to be "neutralized", was assassinated in his apartment in an overnight raid by the Chicago police and the FBI. But he wasn't the only Black Panther so targeted -- the film notes that another activist, who succeeded Hampton as chair, also had his residence raided by the police, and avoided assassination in a raid simply because he wasn't home that night. That activist was Bobby Rush.

Bobby Rush would leave the party chapter that he co-founded, go back to school, get degrees from Roosevelt University and from UIC, and run for electoral office. He lost his 1975 campaign to become alder of Chicago's second ward, but he eventually won the seat and served as alder for nine years. He then ran for Congress and won, becoming the representative of Illinois' First Congressional District, and held the seat for the next three decades. He would go on to victory in fifteen Congressional elections, all of them by decisive margins -- his worst showing was that for the 2000 Democratic Primary, where he won 61% of the vote against an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama and handing Barack Obama his only electoral loss.

I myself was an eight-year resident of Illinois' First District and also very active with Chicago Media Action, and so it was with great interest and delight that CMA was invited to participate in a District Wide Assembly in October 2005 for the First District organized by Representative Rush and his staff. We took part, and I felt that the event was great, and that we had a good ally in Congress who we could count on to fight for good policies.

Unfortunately, I was wrong. Bobby Rush wound up being the first Democrat to co-sponsor the COPE Act, a dismal bill that would have abolished net neutrality and would have undercut funding for public access television by implementing a single cable television franchise nationwide. With bipartisan support and a whole lot of industry cash, the COPE Act was approved out of committee and made its way to the House where it was approved and moved on to the Senate. (Curiously, Rahm Emanuel, who at the time served in Congress as the representative for Illinois' fifth district, voted against the COPE Act.)

I remember the conversation I had with Bobby Rush's staff liaison -- the same person who invited us to the District Wide Assembly -- trying to sell me on how the bill was good, and the horror I felt during our call. Grassroots pressure started to build on the issue, and we needed to respond, so we did. During a CMA meeting with just three attendees, we agreed that we would call for a public protest against the COPE Act and we agreed on a date -- May 24, 2006. The next day, I wrote an email to a coalition mailing list of media-and-democracy activists to announce our decision and encourage others to take part.

The result caught on like wildfire, and exceeded my expectations by a lot. It was formalized into a multi-city coordinated event termed "The National Day of Outrage", and ranks as perhaps the most successful initiative CMA started, especially given its rather meager beginnings.

Around this same time, news broke that Bobby Rush was tied to a $1 million donation from AT&T for a community nonprofit project in the first district that was inferred to be a quid pro quo. Bobby Rush went on Cliff Kelley's show on Chicago radio station WVON to smear the report -- the same show that I and others with Chicago Media Action also had as a forum to increase awareness of media issues.

But the momentum had clearly shifted to our side, and opened the door to victory, after a single blogger recorded post-hearing audio of the late Alaska senator Ted Stevens. Stevens famously decried the internet as a "series of tubes" and sounded so much like a damn fool idiot that that the COPE Act, despite passing out of Senate committee, never came up to a vote in the full Senate and ultimately died of inaction.

In 2008, Bobby Rush to his credit did raise a stink about Comcast's buyout of NBC Universal. He even convened a field hearing set in Chicago which CMA folks, myself included, attended. We were certainly active on that fight; I even wrote an analysis of the public comments at a forum on the merger. Unfortunately, the merger did get approved.

In 2015, the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a follow-up investigation regarding the million-dollar donation titled "Rush’s tech center dream dead; where did $1 million go?". The short answer is that the tech center closed down, its parent organization folded, and the money seemingly vanished. In a classic case of burying the lede, the last paragraph of that same Sun-Times article said: "From 2008 through 2011, AT&T spent $303,000 to host receptions in Rush’s honor, according to lobbyist disclosure reports that show the company paid for hotels, entertainment and other expenses for the gospel-themed galas."

In a phone call around 2018, I learned from Bobby Rush's office that he had a change of heart and supported a policy of net neutrality. (I guess the money well dried up.)

Bobby Rush stepped down from Congress in 2022, and briefly re-entered the public limelight in 2023 when he announced his support for Republican-in-sheep's-clothing Paul Vallas for Mayor of Chicago. Vallas lost to former schoolteacher Brandon Johnson in the mayoral runoff.

In reviewing this post and trying to write a suitable conclusion, it's complicated to say the least. Bobby Rush 1968 was as radical as they come. Bobby Rush 2005 was significantly muted but encouraging, followed by the completely dismal Bobby Rush 2006. Bobby Rush 2008 was again encouraging but disingenuous in light of what happened in 2006. Bobby Rush 2018 was better but again, once bitten twice shy. After all, it would have been great to avoid having to spend more than a year fighting my own representative on policy matters.

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