Can a Black Lives Matter organizer running for Congress on the $15 minimum wage, Medicare For All, and tuition-free college, win in Missouri? Cori Bush respects your need to ask the question, but nonetheless, she shuts it down — swiftly.
"A strong progressive can win in the Midwest," she tells Refinery29 during a phone interview Monday. "I just don’t believe that just because we’re in the Midwest we can’t stand tall and vote in progressives."
"Also," she continues, "the idea that my platform is too bold — or 'radical leftist' is what I’ve heard — the fact that people are trying to say that is a little unnerving because we’re supposed to be Democrats. I thought that’s what we do: We push for diversity and inclusion. And we fight for those who have felt voiceless. So to say that my views are radical or so far to the left, just because I’m saying there should be equity in our land, I think we should be ashamed of that."
Today, Bush faces off against three other Democrats in the primary election for Missouri's 1st Congressional District. Bush, who is an ordained pastor, registered nurse and mother of two teenagers, first rose to prominence as an activist and organizer following the police shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014. In 2016, she ran for U.S. Senate, but lost during the primary, though she still terms that run a “success,” in it’s own way. Now, she's hoping to unseat the respected and powerful nine-term incumbent William Lacy Clay, Jr., in the same way progressive firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did in New York earlier this summer.
The race is yet another that highlights the struggle within the Democratic Party between the establishment and an insurgent left wing that was energized by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Bush is also another Year Of The Woman hopeful: If she wins, she will be the first woman, and the first Black woman, to represent Missouri's 1st district, which covers western parts of St. Louis, including Ferguson and Florissant.
Bush is Rep. Clay’s biggest threat in years. Clay took office in 2001, and has since beat two primary challengers handily. As the son of Bill Clay, who made history when he helped form the Congressional Black Caucus, and who represented the district for 32 years before retiring, he is Clay Jr. is part of a political dynasty that has been in charge of the district for more than 50 years.
The 1st district, which is 50% Black, is a Democratic stronghold. So like Ocasio-Cortez, if Bush wins tonight the chances of her going to Congress are almost certain. This is yet another reason she cites as bolstering her confidence that yes, a bold progressive like her is exactly what voters in this district want: “Here’s the other thing: We may be talking about the Midwest, but we’re also talking about St. Louis, where those same people stood strong and were able to affect the entire world, change the entire conversation, because they stood out bold and different from what other people thought they should do,” she says. “We’re talking about Ferguson. It can happen here.”
Her opponent, as well as much of the political establishment in her home state, disagrees: “St. Louis is not the Bronx,” Rep. Clay told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Trends get to the heartland late, and I think this is a trend that’s going to go over us,” Jay Nixon, the former Missouri governor and a Democrat, told the New York Times.
Bush remains unphased, citing the “electric” energy on the ground in her favor. The decision to run for Congress wasn't a difficult one, Bush says. "When I was running the first time around, I was going all over the state and learning all about the needs of the people all over the state. But what I realized was my own district had needs," she says. "So for me, just seeing that the help that people had been seeking for a long time hadn’t come, I realized that was the road for me."
Since making that decision in 2017, she's built a strong campaign — all without corporate campaign donations. ("And that is on purpose. It’s not like the money was not offered," she says. "It was not accepted.") She's picked up endorsements from Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, the same two progressive organizations backing Ocasio-Cortez, as well as a handful of local Democratic clubs.
Bush grew up in St. Louis. She raised two children on her own — her daughter is now 17 and her son is 18 — while putting herself through nursing school. She survived domestic and sexual violence, and at one point lived out of her car. Now 42, and working as a nursing supervisor for a community-based mental health organization, she believes she’s more than ready for Congress. “I bring to the table the lived experience of someone who has lived through many of the things people in this district have lived through and are living though that I feel aren’t being properly addressed,” she says. “I’ve worked for minimum wage while trying to raise two children. I’ve lived uninsured for quite a while. So I think having that experience [I] can better speak to the issues and help to build the right bills to actually touch people.”
With her platform, she’s casting a wide net, everything from supporting our veterans to police reform. Although she has been grouped in with the rising left-wing Democratic Socialists of America due to her support of policies like Medicare for All, she is not a DSA member and doesn’t like the label. Instead, she’s trying to position herself as the kind of politician that’s focused squarely on ideas and results. “I show up if [the DSA] asks me to speak, and we believe in a lot of same things. But one thing that I won’t do is allow people to put labels on me to where now the conversation is shut down,” she says. “I’m going to do the work, and I’m going to make sure I do it with integrity. For me, it’s about policy.”
Her policy proposals are focused on three main areas: the economy, healthcare, and education. She supports increasing the minimum wage to $15, and increasing education funding so that schools are supported in every zip code and education and job training is accessible. "Focusing on education plus economic opportunities will help reduce crime," she says. As her political career started on the streets of Ferguson, she also supports police reform, as well as other criminal justice reforms, such as ending subsidies to private prisons and ending the cash bail system.
Bush says her background as an activist will help her fight for these things in Congress. "An activist has that love of community and that ability to fight even when folks are fighting you back," she says. "I think in the same way, that is what our Congressperson should do. That title is 'Representative' — and [what that means is] you have to be an advocate. I bring that to the table, that is my training as a nurse, and as an activist, is to be an advocate."