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Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat, is retiring after 30 years in the U.S. House

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The only person to ever beat Barack Obama at the ballot box is leaving the political stage. Democrat Bobby Rush announced today he will not run for reelection in his Chicago congressional district. Rush rose to prominence as a Black Panther Party leader during the civil rights movement and will retire after 30 years in the U.S. House. Dan Mihalopoulos, of member station WBEZ in Chicago, reports.

DAN MIHALOPOULOS, BYLINE: For generations, Chicago's South Side has been one of the country's most important launching pads for Black politicians; that includes the only Black president. But before Barack Obama made it to the White House, he lost badly running as a primary challenger against Bobby Rush in 2000. In an interview with WBEZ after leaving the White House, Obama chuckled at the memory of a lesson learned from his political elder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: He did more than just defeat me. He spanked me.

MIHALOPOULOS: Rush went on to serve another 11 terms in Congress. But Bobby Rush is 75 and says he will not run for reelection this year and instead continue his lifelong activism as the longtime pastor of a church on Chicago's South Side.

Chicago Alderman Rod Sawyer worked with Obama when he ran against Rush in that 2000 primary. Today, he had nothing but praise for the congressman.

RODERICK SAWYER: You know, this is the end of an era. I'm going down there to see the history of it all. You know, whether you are a supporter or not, Bobby Rush has been there and been a champion for our community for a long time.

MIHALOPOULOS: Another prominent Southside politician, former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, said she's known Rush for 50 years and watched him make big transitions along the way.

CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: To people beyond Chicago, he would represent really a radical - an outsider coming inside and that there's opportunity to do that in this system, in our system. I mean, he was an absolute outsider. He was a Black Panther.

MIHALOPOULOS: Bobby Rush says in 1969, he was supposed to be with fellow activists Fred Hampton and Mark Clark when law enforcement agents raided the Black Panther's headquarters on the West Side of Chicago and killed them. In Congress, Rush has continued to press for the release of FBI documents regarding the raid.

Rush became a member of Chicago's City Council when the city elected Mayor Harold Washington in 1983. Democratic consultant Delmarie Cobb worked on Rush's first campaign for Congress nine years later.

DELMARIE COBB: I mean, he was a rebel to his heart, from his days as a Black Panther all the way to today. I mean, as you get older, you get softer of course, but if you remember just 10 years ago, when Trayvon Martin was killed, he appeared on the congressional floor, on the House floor, in a hoodie.

MIHALOPOULOS: In the middle of a speech about the killing of the Black teenager from Florida, Rush whipped off his suit coat and put on a gray hoodie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOBBY RUSH: Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.

MIHALOPOULOS: That symbolic action got Rush's microphone cut off, and he was escorted from the floor of the House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSH: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The member will (unintelligible).

RUSH: These words...

MIHALOPOULOS: Bobby Rush's once-strong voice is raspy now and barely audible due to cancer treatment on his vocal cords a few years ago. He says he'll soon endorse a possible successor for his congressional seat.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Mihalopoulos in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "AUGUST 10") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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