On Sunday, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Andrea Zopp is expected add another name to her list of endorsements: Congressman Danny Davis, 74, who will gather with members of what he calls “The Coalition” at MacArthur’s Restaurant on West Madison in Austin to add his support to her campaign.
Zopp, making her first run for office, still faces a steep climb up what Davis calls “the rough side of the mountain” in her campaign against popular war hero Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth. The winner in the March primary will almost certainly take on incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk, routinely named the most vulnerable Republican senator up for reelection in 2016.
I called Davis to ask him why he would endorse Zopp instead of his fellow congressman. I also asked him whether he’s going to retire (he’s in his ninth term serving the Seventh District) and whether he’ll make another stab at running for mayor (he has twice tried and failed).
Did you know Andrea Zopp before she decided to run for U.S. Senate?
I can’t suggest we’re running buddies or that we’ve been having dinner every week, but I’ve know her well enough to know she is well-educated and well-trained. She is pedigreed in terms of preparation, and she can handle herself in a body like the Senate. I know that she would be a good and articulate debater; that nobody could pull wool over her eyes; that she has an intuitive ability to gather information, dissect it, understand it, and then do the [necessary] advocacy stuff.
In the course of writing about this race, I’ve heard from people who suggest this seat, once held by Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama, should remain in African American hands. Do you think it should, informally, be a designated African American seat?
I don’t think you decree political positions. Obviously we were delighted when Carol was elected. I and people who worked with me worked our feet and hands to the bone to help her get elected. Same thing with Barack.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Tammy Duckworth without even bothering to talk to Andrea Zopp. Prominent people in the African American community, including Jesse Jackson, were troubled by this sign of “disrespect.” What do you think?
I thought that was unfortunate. I certainly was not contacted in terms of who I thought a good candidate might be for the Democrats to run. The DSCC can do what they want, but they’ve got to talk around to different entities. I would have felt much better had I been contacted in any shape, form, or fashion.
Will that snub prove to be a blessing in disguise by mobilizing African Americans to vote for Zopp in the primary?
I don’t think so. We’ve reached the point where these elections go beyond race and ethnicity. Certainly race and ethnicity play a role and will continue to play a role as long as America is America, but when I look at candidates, I look for who do I think best understands the issues as I do. Who will think more like me.
That said, the normal process is that those sorts of committees don’t get involved in primary elections. They wait until the local folks have made their determinations of who the primary winners will be. Then they get engaged in defeating the Republican opposition.
Zopp served on the CPS board and voted yes to closing 50 schools and to approving the $20.5 million no-bid contract that cost CPS CEO Barbara Byrd Bennett her job. How much will those votes hurt Zopp?
I think life is the sum total of your experiences. I’m not a one-issue person. The pastor of my church used to say, “We have all fallen short; there are no perfect people.” I certainly have not agreed with every vote that Andrea may have taken in her public life. I don’t agree with everything that Barack Obama does and every position he takes. I certainly did not agree with what happened with the schools. She was following the leadership of [Rahm Emanuel]. People voted to put him back in office. I don’t think one issue makes a candidate, but that has been a problem and probably will continue to be problem for Andrea’s candidacy. But she can weather that. And, in spite of certain disagreements, I can think of more things that I disagree with Mark Kirk about.
What does your support for Zopp entail? Will you be hitting the trail with her?
Some candidates are looking for money. I don’t have money. I will go to events at churches, go to different places throughout the state. I’m proactive. I don’t just give lip service.
Your former chief of staff, current Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, was flirting with joining the primary race for the Senate but withdrew. Speculation had it that Senator Dick Durbin was behind Boykin’s candidacy in an effort to split the African American vote. Or that Boykin was your designated successor and that, after raising his name recognition in the Senate race, he’d pivot to run for your congressional seat.
That’s so farfetched. The idea that anybody would think that Senator Durbin would have any thought like that or that Richard Boykin would be part of any game or scheme. Richard got out of the race because, as he talked to people, I think he felt he would be helping to create a crowded field.
First-term state senator Napoleon Harris is also running. Did you ever consider endorsing him?
The Coalition voted not to interview anyone else [after Zopp]. By the time [Harris] said, “I’m available,” we weren’t interviewing anyone else. Only Andrea. We invited Tammy Duckworth to talk to us. She didn’t choose to be interviewed. [A poll conducted for Harris last month by south suburban pollster Mike McKeon showed Duckworth with 25 percent, Harris with 13, and Zopp with 5, with 56 percent undecided.]
Is it awkward for you to go with Zopp given that you and Duckworth are colleagues in the Illinois delegation?
I have a great deal of respect and affinity for Tammy Duckworth; she’s a seatmate of mine. She’s got heart, soul; she’s a war hero. But of the two of them, which one do I think will think more like me on many of the issues they’ll confront? I would think Andrea Zopp. Their experiences have been different; the environment in which they live has been different. All those things are what determines who people are, what they think, how they act and behave. I share concerns with Andrea of criminal justice, jobs, education, guns on streets.
Did Duckworth ask you for an endorsement?
Yes, she said, “Can I count on you for an endorsement?” We’d had that conversation. She came out to our Back to School Picnic and Parade. She rode her [wheelchair] the whole parade—a long parade and it was hot.
Should Duckworth win the primary, will you support her?
With every ounce of strength and energy.
Are you still supporting Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown’s in the wake of the Cook County Democrats withdrawing their endorsement?
I am supporting Dorothy Brown. I think a person is innocent until proven guilty. I think Dorothy Brown has done an outstanding job as clerk; the best that the court has ever had. I’m appreciative of the creative way in which she has used her office to help deal with issues of mass incarceration.
Who are you supporting for president in 2016?
Hillary [Clinton]. This country has never had a female president. About time for that. Besides that, she is the most experienced candidate in the race, including Bernie [Sanders], who’s my dear friend. I agree with many of his positions.
In 2008, you supported Obama despite the fact that you and Bill Clinton share Arkansas roots and a long friendship. Is that all forgiven now?
Yes. We are still friends. A few years ago, I went somewhere in Arkansas where he was speaking. He picked me out in the crowd: “There’s my friend Danny Davis from Chicago. He’s really from Arkansas, just pretends to be from Chicago.”
Do you think Bill will make a good First Gentleman?
I think he will be fun. Here’s a guy coming from one of the smallest states, one with only four congressional seats. He had no wealth in his background, no family pedigree, no big names, yet he becomes president of the United States of America, using his intellect, his charismatic personality, and his intuitive strength. Give the guy credit.
What about another run for mayor? You put your foot in that race in 1991 and again in 2011.
No, I’m not running for mayor, but I think there are indeed a number of people who should take a crack. I think had Karen Lewis been able to run it would have been a very different campaign. I won’t say she would have won; it’s difficult to speculate. We would have had teachers in from all over country to support her. Chuy [Garcia] did what he could do. Karen would have been a different candidate.
What’s your relationship like with Rahm?
The mayor is the mayor. I don’t always agree with him, but I support some of initiatives. I have worked closely with the mayor on reentry issues. I appreciate the positions he has taken on mass incarceration. I don’t have any axes to grind. I respect the mayor for always having the best interests of city of Chicago.
At least two aldermen, Walter Burnett and Brendan Reilly, have publicly expressed interest in your congressional seat, but do you stick to your statement that you’re not retiring?
I am more engaged than 98 percent of all elected officials in Illinois.
No. I’ve had a shot at offices. It’s as I tell kids and as my mother used to tell me: If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a scrub in the valley, but be the best little scrub you can be.