A River Forest resident and former Oak Park police officer is leaping into the March Democratic 7th congressional district primary, hoping to unseat longtime Congressman Danny Davis, whose district has long included North Riverside west of First Avenue.

In the newly redrawn 7th District, whoever wins election in the March 20, 2012 primary will represent North Riverside west of 13th Avenue and exactly one block of northern Brookfield, bounded by 26th Street on the north, 26th Place on the south, Maple Avenue on the west and Park Avenue on the east. No Republican filed to compete in the 7th District race.

Jacques Conway, 49, has previous political experience on the local level, having served on the Oak Park and River Forest High School board. He resigned after six years on the board in May 2011.

His background also includes a 22-year stint as an Oak Park police officer, a banker with Park National Bank and his current role as pastor of Neighborhood United Methodist Church in Maywood.

Conway said he’s always had an itch to pursue politics at a higher level. He thought the time was right, with his temporary job as executive director of Teamwork Englewood – a South Side nonprofit that he helped found in 2003 – coming to an end next summer.

“I want to see, can an ordinary person get to Washington? That’s the big test,” Conway said. “No money, no political backing, just grassroots, middle class people from Englewood, to the Gold Coast, to downtown, to the western suburbs. These people who feel they currently don’t have a voice for what’s ailing them in this society. I’m hoping to be that voice, if the public sees fit to elect me.”

The relative political unknown faces a tall test in the 7th Congressional District, which goes from Lake Michigan as far west as Hillside. Conway will take on the 70-year-old Davis, an incumbent who’s held the post since 1997. Davis’ campaign committee has already raised almost $90,000 in this election cycle, according to online campaign cash tracker the Center for Responsive Politics, which lists no fundraising total for Conway as of Dec. 30.

There was speculation that Davis might not seek re-election, after he recently flirted with running for Cook County Board president and mayor of Chicago. But in a phone interview on Dec. 30, Davis called that speculation mistaken.

“I’d have to find a reason not to run, and I certainly haven’t found any,” he said, later adding, “I think people make serious mistakes when they speculate.”

Davis, who lives in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, said he’s proud of his service thus far in Congress, including sponsoring a bill to help ex-convicts get a second chance in life, and his successfully pushing for government-funded home visitations for “at-risk” families, as part of recent health care reform. That program awarded some $124 million in grants in 2011, for families to receive home visits from nurses and social workers, hoping to improve everything from health to school readiness, according to Davis’ website.

The congressman said his work feels unfinished, including his efforts to pass an anti-bullying bill that he sponsored, requiring states to track data on the prevalence of bullying and harassment at schools.

Congress has been hammered in recent public polls, including an all-time low approval rating of 9 percent, in survey conducted by the New York Times and CBS in October. But the Democrat isn’t worried that the public’s disdain of Congress will affect his re-election bid, arguing that Republicans have earned much of that distrust.

“People certainly have a level of cynicism relative to the functioning of their national government,” he said. “Although I must tell you, I think much of that cynicism can be leveled more in one direction than in the other direction. I am very proud of the positions and stances I have taken.”

Conway resigned from his post on the high school board in May, just two years into his second term. At the time, he said he wanted to focus on his position at Teamwork Englewood, and to a still-ongoing legal battle against U.S. Bank. The institution laid him off in 2010 after it took over Oak Park-based Park National Bank, and then started trying to take away several properties that he and his wife owned, including his home in River Forest. Months later, Conway said, he’s still trying to resolve the real estate dispute.

Since leaving U.S. Bank, he’s been working on a temporary basis as head of Teamwork Englewood until the organization can hire a new executive director later this year. Conway is the lone challenger facing Davis in the March 20 Democratic primary, and no Republicans have filed to vie for the congressional seat.

Conway – a River Forest resident since 2006, who was also a resource officer, substitute teacher and coach at the high school – said education reform will be one of the main issues in his campaign. He’s seen both sides of the spectrum, from River Forest kids learning off iPads to the children in Englewood who “don’t have a chance.”

“We have to even the playing field,” he said. “I think it’s unconstitutional for your quality of education to be based on one’s ZIP code. Kids should have the same opportunities, not based on property taxes, but on the fact that all kids deserve the same quality of education.”