St. Louis Democrat Cori Bush pulled off one of the greatest upsets in congressional history this month when she ousted two-decade incumbent Rep. William Lacy Clay, whose family has occupied the seat since 1969.
With her primary victory in the 1st Congressional District, Bush, 44, has already dramatically reshaped Missouri’s delegation in the U.S. House.
Running in the state’s most Democratic-leaning district, she is poised to be the first Black woman to represent Missouri at the federal level. Once a homeless single mother, the nurse and Black Lives Matter activist promises to bring a unique perspective and fiercely progressive agenda to Congress, The Kansas City Star reports.
“It’s just very new because a Clay has been in the seat for 52 years, and now to have someone who is not a Clay, who is not anointed by a Clay to take the seat, and someone who is of the progressive movement, who is an activist, who doesn’t have generational wealth - just a regular nurse from St. Louis,” Bush said.
“People have to get used to that. It’s a big change.”
One person who will have to get used to the change is Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, 75, who will be the only other Democrat from Missouri serving alongside Bush if none of the other districts change parties this fall.
Cleaver, an incumbent in his eighth term, said he hasn’t talked to Bush since her win.
He said he looked forward to working with her, but he also acknowledged the sensitivity of the situation because of his long-standing friendships with Lacy Clay, 64, and his father, former Rep. Bill Clay, 89.
“It’s awkward. Lacy Clay’s daddy was one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus and the model we use was developed by him,” said Cleaver, who has represented Missouri’s 5th Congressional District since 2005.
Cleaver called Lacy Clay the night of his primary defeat and described him as “my friend for life.”
It’s unclear how closely Cleaver and Bush will collaborate in Washington, where he has been a mentor to Kansas Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids, a moderate freshman Democrat he affectionately refers to as his younger sister.
“I look forward to working with her,” Cleaver said of Bush. “She’s going to come in and need somebody who she can ask a question and if I become that person, I’ll certainly try to provide her with as much wisdom and counsel as I’ve accumulated.”
Though she hasn’t yet communicated with Cleaver, Bush said she’s ready to work with her fellow Missouri Democrat.
“We are both from the same state, so we will work together. We’re both Democrats, so I will work with him the same as I plan to work with everyone else. I don’t seeing that being an issue,” Bush said.
Bush is practically certain to win the general election in the strongly Democratic 1st District against Republican Anthony Rogers, a comedian who had raised $0 for his campaign as of July.
TWO DISTINCT TYPES OF DEMOCRATS
Cleaver and Bush both come from activist backgrounds. Cleaver founded the Kansas City chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, while Bush has led protests for police accountability.
But they represent distinct wings of the Democratic Party which have clashed in recent years along generational and ideological lines.
Cleaver, the first African American mayor of Kansas City, is a stalwart of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), a nearly half-century-old coalition whose members were key to former Vice President Joe Biden’s success in the presidential primaries.
The CBC has bristled at challenges to long-time incumbents, such as Lacy Clay, from candidates backed by Justice Democrats, a group which represents the party’s progressive vanguard. It supported Bush in both of her runs and helped power New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into office in 2018.
Bush, who was endorsed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in both of her campaigns, served as a Sanders delegate to this year’s Democratic National Convention and voted against the party’s national platform because it lacks his signature Medicare for All proposal.
“When we know that 60,000 people could die a year not having health care, that’s important. It’s important to me. How do we build equity, how do we build racial equity without addressing it?” she said in an interview with the progressive TV program “Democracy Now!” regarding her vote.
“Let’s us get into this seat and we’re going to start doing some things differently.”
Cleaver, an early Biden endorser, said the selection of California Sen. Kamala Harris as Biden’s running mate has created a perfect ticket. He predicted that Black enthusiasm for Harris could even surpass the 2008 support for Barack Obama because of her status as a graduate of Howard University, a historically Black college.
“You’re going to have an avalanche of people, new people, voting for Kamala Harris,” Cleaver said.
Bush told The New York Times she was torn about Harris’ selection because of her record on criminal justice issues as California attorney general.
“When I said that I’m torn, you know, it’s a great thing that so many women and young girls are able to look to this moment, our elders, mothers, and grandmothers, are able to look to this moment and say that they were able to have this opportunity to see this in their lifetimes, to be able to vote for her in their lifetime. That’s a wonderful thing,” Bush elaborated to The Star.
She said Harris supported policies in the past that have hurt the communities she’s looking to champion as a member of Congress.
“I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I stand with these communities and it is a priority for me to ensure that their voices are heard in this election. We cannot continue to count on people’s votes while at the same time ignoring the policies that they - that we - so desperately need,” she said. “I’m looking forward to building a relationship with our nation’s future leaders and helping to lead the fight for progressive policies should I get to Congress come November.”
Bush’s willingness to speak out about her frustrations with the platform and nominees demonstrates that she won’t back away from conflict with party leaders in Washington.
It also underscores the likelihood that if Biden wins the presidency, he will have to contend with a vocal bloc in Congress that will continue to push for more expansive health care legislation.
Bush built credibility with grassroots activists in the St. Louis area after helping lead protests for increased police accountability and transparency following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
She supports defunding police departments to redirect money to social and mental health services. She also calls for increased implicit bias training for officers and an emphasis on community policing.
Former Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat who represented the state for two terms, said Bush’s message resonates at a time when voters are looking for answers on racial justice and police reform.
“Cori is a charismatic leader who has risen from a role of activism for equality and justice. She worked very hard. She was present in the district and a constant voice in the community. Lacy was often in Washington and unlike his father his election to Congress did not come from a role of activism on the streets,” McCaskill said.
“And being a long term incumbent is no longer the advantage it once was. People are looking for change and that is a tougher case for incumbents to make.”
Bush said she placed a greater focus on raising money during this run compared to her 2018 campaign. She collected $568,253 compared to $138,850 two years ago, according to Federal Election Commission data.
“Even though we want the big money out of politics, we aren’t quite there yet,” Bush said, “and so I just made sure that the team worked really hard together to raise money differently than we did before, making sure that we made it a real priority. Before, I was kind of like, ‘Hey, donate $3 if you can,’ and this time I was like, ’OK, thank you. I really need your $3 and for those that can give 20, give 20.”
The money enabled her to hire more staff and advertise on billboards, radio stations, television and online. Her name recognition got a boost after the 2019 Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House,” which chronicled her and Ocasio-Cortez’ 2018 campaigns.
All of these factors helped Bush earn an 86% increase in voters from predominantly Black wards in St. Louis city and a 34% improvement in majority white wards from 2018 to 2020.
But it wasn’t just money and name recognition that won Bush the primary. Her messaging spoke to voters, said Justin Idleberg, a Black voter engagement activist in St. Louis.
“In our region as a whole, it’s a lot of non-Black people that are helping the region talk more about racial equity,” Idleberg said. “Cori Bush talked about racial equity, and that’s what a lot of people wanted to hear. That’s why she won white and Black votes.”
She also turned out voters from predominantly Black wards who either skipped the 2018 primary or went for a third party candidate, according to a Kansas City Star analysis of election data.
Roughly 5,400 more voters from majority Black communities cast ballots for Bush in 2020, votes that weren’t there for Lacy Clay in 2018, whose voter base remained largely the same. Turnout increased by 22% from 2018 to 2020 for the 1st Congressional District in the city, and virtually all of the new votes went to Bush.
“People are familiar with him,” Idleberg said. “But Cori Bush is the exception. I don’t ever remember anyone seriously challenging (Lacy Clay). We finally got the opportunity we’ve been screaming for since 2016 when Mike Brown passed away. We want change, and now.”
Missouri Republicans have worked aggressively to define Bush as a radical since her nomination and are anxious to link her to Democrat Nicole Galloway in the race for governor as incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Parson seeks to make law enforcement a key issue.
Michael Berg, the spokesman for Uniting Missouri, a pro-Parson PAC, contended in an email that by supporting Bush for Congress Galloway “is backing the most extreme anti-law enforcement agenda in Missouri history.”
Bush shrugs off the GOP attacks.
“The core of the work that I do is to save actual bodies from dying, whether it be in my nursing career, my activism, whether it’s Black lives or any other type of human rights issues. For them to attack that so they can get ‘likes’?” Bush said. “I just wish they would do better.”
The Missouri Democratic Party, meanwhile, has been close to silent on Bush’s nomination in contrast to its regular promotion of state Sen. Jill Schupp, who is running in the adjacent 2nd Congressional District against incumbent Republican Rep. Ann Wagner.
The party offered a congratulatory tweet to Bush on election night - as it did for every other primary winner - but declined to provide an additional comment on her victory over Lacy Clay.
Roy Temple, a former state party chair, interpreted the party’s restrained approach as respect for the outgoing lawmaker and his supporters rather than a slight against the nominee.
“There’s no doubt that her victory is a historic one,” Temple said. “Part of the job of the state party is to heal the wounds that exist after primaries. … So I assume that any reticence is not meant as any disrespect of Cori Bush.”
Bush isn’t bothered by the lack of public praise from party leaders. She said acting party chairman Clem Smith reached out after her win - as have Galloway and Schupp.
While she ran on an unabashedly progressive platform, Bush said she’s confident that she also has the support of establishment Democrats in the state.
“It wasn’t just Bernie Sanders’ supporters who helped me to win the seat,” she said.
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