Insurgent Candidate Cori Bush Wants to End the Dynastic Rule of a Missouri Congressional District

Missouri's 1st Congressional District has been represented by a member of the Clay family for a half-century. Cori Bush is trying to change that.

FILE - In this Sept. 17, 2017 file photo, Cori Bush speaks on a bullhorn to protesters outside the St. Louis Police Department headquarters in St. Louis. Few members of Congress are more entrenched than William Lacy Clay of St. Louis, but Bush, a once-homeless woman spurred to activism in Ferguson believes she could be the next Democrat to pull off a big primary upset. Bush watched in June as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political establishment by beating 10-term Rep. Joseph Crowley in the New York Democratic primary. Bush is optimistic heading into Missouri's Aug. 7 primary. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson File)
In this Sept. 17, 2017 file photo, Cori Bush speaks on a bullhorn to protesters outside the St. Louis Police Department headquarters in St. Louis. Photo: Jeff Roberson/AP

Cori Bush, a community activist who took to the streets after Michael Brown was killed by the police, is aiming to replicate an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-style upset over nine-term incumbent William Lacy Clay in the St. Louis-based district on Tuesday. Missouri’s 1st Congressional District has been represented by either Clay or his father for a half-century.

Now, Bush is offering an alternative to the dynastic politics that have carried on in the district and campaigning on a progressive platform, including a $15 minimum wage, free college tuition, and “Medicare for All.”

Bush, who is also an ordained pastor, single mom, and nurse, emerged as a community leader in the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of Brown, leading some of the protests. After the shooting, she ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2016 — but still managed to win more than 42,000 votes in the primary, despite spending little money. She points to her own experiences, including a period of homelessness during which she lived out of her car, as a reason she would be representative of the struggling district.

Clay is backed by the black Democratic establishment in the St. Louis area, and his political machine stretches back a generation, to when his father served the district. Bill Clay, who helped establish the Congressional Black Caucus during his tenure, served for 32 years before retiring. But Bush said that despite the incumbent’s influence, she has not received much pushback from the establishment. She has been asked on the campaign trail, though, why she was running against another black candidate. “To me, it wasn’t about a color, it had nothing to do with the color, it had everything to do with the issues,” she said.

Bush would also send shudders through an already-spooked Democratic caucus if she is able to win or come close to Clay. Incumbents like New York Rep. Joe Crowley and Clay — who are well-liked at home but maintain close ties to their city’s elite, as well as major corporate interests — have long thought their seats to be safe. Crowley’s loss to Ocasio-Cortez opened a lot of eyes in Congress, eyes that turned back home to wonder if the same grassroots frustrations and aspirations could lead to their own demise as well. Many CBC members have served comfortably for decades, in districts where a culture of respect for seniority and its benefits has kept ambitious politicians from challenging aging representatives. Those advantages can be difficult to overcome. Rep. Danny Davis of Chicago recently beat his insurgent challenger by nearly 50 points.

Bush was the first 2018 candidate to be endorsed by Brand New Congress, the organization that first reached out and asked Ocasio-Cortez to run for office and works closely with Justice Democrats. The New York candidate traveled to St. Louis last month to campaign with Bush. Some Democrats have downplayed or outright dismissed the trends behind Ocasio-Cortez’s upset over 10-term incumbent Crowley, attributing the victory to demographic factors alone.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the day after Crowley’s defeat, shrugged off a question about the ascendance of democratic socialism in the Democratic Party. “It’s ascendent in that district perhaps,” she said at the time. “But I don’t accept any characterization of our party presented by the Republicans. So let me reject that right now. Our party is a big tent, our districts are very different, one from the other.”

Bush said that a bold progressive platform can also win in Missouri, based on what she’s been seeing on the ground since 2016. “People were on fire to be able to support Senator Sanders when he was running,” she said. The Vermont senator’s presidential bid caused people to become more vocal and involved in politics, “and we see that continue to grow even though it may not be connected to Senator Sanders.”

She said she wouldn’t characterize the shift to grassroots organizing as one that is happening in the Democratic Party, but as “an awakening” in Americans overall. “I don’t think it was just lightning striking in that moment, like I heard some people say, I think this is a movement and I think it’s only going to grow,” Bush said. “From 2018 to 2020, I think this is going to continue to push forward because people are beginning to see now that this can happen.”

But Bush, who would be the first black woman to represent Missouri in Congress if elected, faces daunting hurdles. The political newcomer is challenging an incumbent who not only has name recognition that stretches back a generation, but has a clear fundraising advantage. In the reporting period between July 1 to July 18, Clay’s campaign spent $106,000, compared to Bush’s $22,000, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

“If you can’t outraise, you out-organize,” Bush said. “Even just looking at Alexandria’s race, she was outspent, what, 10 to 1? And she still won her race. … It shows people that it can happen. Not only that, but the money that has been coming to our campaign has been from regular, everyday people, giving us $3, giving us $1.25 a month, so those are the people that are going to show up for votes.”

Nearly 87 percent of Clay’s contributions are from PACs and less than 1 percent are from small-dollar donors, according to OpenSecrets. Both Clay and Bush support policies like raising the minimum wage and “Medicare for All,” but the defining quality of this year’s roster of insurgent left candidates is the rejection of corporate cash. Bush has sworn off PAC money, making the case that unlike Clay, she is not beholden to corporate interests.

Small-dollar donations show that “people really care about their candidate,” adding, “when you look at where their money has come from on the other side, most of that money has come from corporations — that’s not who’s gonna vote, it’s people on the ground that vote.” According to Bush, her campaign’s average contribution is around $23.

Bush has also been backed by Democracy for America, Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, and Rep. Ro Khanna, vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Democracy for America Chair Jim Dean said in a statement announcing the endorsement that Bush “is an organizer at heart who understands struggle, triumph, and the work we need to do together to fundamentally change a broken political system that empowers the wealthy and perpetuates an unjust justice system.”

This race is “absolutely winnable,” Bush said. “At first I heard quite a bit of ‘Well, you know, it’s going to be an uphill battle, you can do it, it’s just going to be uphill because you’re running against the machine’ — now I’m hearing, ‘Oh, you got this.’”

Top photo: In this Sept. 17, 2017 file photo, Cori Bush speaks on a bullhorn to protesters outside the St. Louis Police Department headquarters in St. Louis.

Join The Conversation