For over 50 years, a member of the Clay family has held the seat for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, which encompasses the entire city of St. Louis. Last Tuesday’s Democratic primary marked the beginning of the end of that streak, when Cori Bush, the 44-year-old Black Lives Matter activist, defeated Rep. William Lacy Clay, Jr., who has occupied the seat for more than 20 years.
It also marked the latest successful primary challenge from the left against a prominent, senior House Democrat, and reinvigorated a wing of the party that was widely written off after former Vice President Joe Biden clinched the Democratic presidential nomination.
Bush was the first candidate to emerge from the organization Justice Democrats, which grew out of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) first presidential campaign, and first demonstrated its potential political power when now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) defeated Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) in the 2018 primary.
But before formally entering politics, Bush, who is a registered nurse, was known for the prominent role she played during the uprising in Ferguson that followed the police killing of Michael Brown.
She lost her first effort to challenge Clay by a wide margin in 2018, but a combination of increased notoriety, better fundraising, and the intersection of a public-health crisis and a national movement against police brutality led Bush to victory this time.
I spoke with her on Friday about her personal struggle with COVID-19, what working with a potential Biden administration could be like, what she wants in his VP pick, and the future of progressive primary challenges.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
GR: I want to begin by asking you about this remarkable span of years that you’ve had. In 2018, the primary didn’t go your way when you ran in that race. But when you look back on everything now, what do you think made the difference this time?
CB: This time we started out with a lot more name recognition. We also had the film that I’m in “Knock Down the House.” So people were able to see that. Some people that felt like “oh she’s this mean and terrible protester” they saw something different. They were able to see from this movie me, I guess I’ll say, humanized. And then we paid attention to the things that we didn’t do well enough last time. And I stayed in the community. I lost, took a few months off, but then I was right back in the community, right back organizing, doing the same work that I was doing before. And then I connected with Senator Bernie Sanders. I ended up as one of his national surrogates for his campaign in 2020. Then I was able to just meet a lot more people, was able to get the visibility and so that increased fundraising. Then on top of that, COVID-19 hit. So me being an essential worker, people were really turning their focus to nurses. And so people seeing the importance of the work that nurses do—that helped. Then I went through my own COVID-19 story for two months. And people knew about that. Then I went straight from dealing with my COVID-19 situation for two months, went straight into protesting and organizing for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. So people have seen that I’ve been fighting and people are saying: “Look, we need this type of leadership.”
GR: And I’m so glad that you recovered because that was a really terrifying moment. When you were experiencing that, did it again register with you how important it is to be active in the overlapping pandemics that are happening in our country?
CB: Yes. So in some ways I felt like finally people are starting to understand why so many of us have been saying Medicare for All for several years and why we’ve been pushing it. Why we’ve been saying job status can’t be connected to your health care. People saw it then. People saw why we were saying a $15 an hour federal minimum wage and why that was important. Because we had essential workers who were being paid $9 an hour losing their lives because they had to show up to work and they contracted COVID-19. Then fighting the other pandemic that was already part of Tuesday in America. The pandemic of black lives being taken at the hands of police disproportionately in this country. People saw that. And for me, it was finally like now people are listening or at least more people are open. A lot of people were home, they could really sit down and hear this message. But for a lot of that I was in the bed myself (laughs).
GR: To go back to the point of Sen. Sanders and Justice Democrats: You were the first recruit for them in 2017. It all happened so quickly but how far has this group come in that short span of time and what has it meant to the Democratic party overall?
CB: That has to be like lightning striking or a whirlwind. There are many organizations and groups who have been doing work for a long time who are waiting to be in the place where Justice Democrats are. I remember when we started out, I was the only candidate and we were going to do this and that. We all had these great ideas and these big dreams. As time went on, everybody wanted to do so much, but campaigns cost a lot of money. But they were able to maintain and of course AOC won and then they saw what they could have done differently, I saw personally what I could have done differently. And we put the both of those things together and let me tell you we are here!
GR: We often see and hear some House members specifically Democratic House members that end up dismissive of primary challengers. As recently as this past week, Congressman Steny Hoyer said “I don’t think there’s any big message.” What is your response to that kind of commentary?
CB: Well they can say it’s just one race but let me say: “I’m going back for more.” I’m going to be like Harriet Tubman—she got her freedom, then she went back for more. This can’t just be about me, my mission is bigger so she went back. And she brought more. I’m doing the same thing. So they may feel that it was just lightning striking. Or they may feel like it was a one-off. But that’s not my mission. I’m going for more. Because I know what my struggles have been. I know what we’ve faced in this community and in this district for so long. I don’t want anybody else to have to go through that. So if I can put up blockades all around to stop us from going through that, by helping to put great people in these positions, not just Congress, but in other positions from the municipal level on up. If I can do that, that’s what I’m doing. We have to make sure our people’s needs are met. And this is how.
GR: So constant organizing. And some of the coverage of these primaries have been boiled down to something simplistic like “Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez beat an older white guy in her district” or “Jamaal Bowman beat an older white guy in his district,” and that gets contrasted with your race against Congressman Clay. What do you make of that comparison?
CB: I need them to have bigger vision. I need them to get out of the box. Look, people are living in conditions that they don’t have to live in. And so while we’re worried about what somebody looks like, their pedigree, how many degrees they have, what their title is, people are dying in my community. We fought for this seat. We worked our butts off for this seat. And we didn’t target anybody because they’re a CBC (Congressional Black Caucus) member or because of the way they look. None of that. The community asked Cori Bush to run. Several community members, several of the congressman’s constituents said we want you to run for this seat because of what we’ve already seen you do in the community for free. And so that’s what I did. I think we’re in this box—we gotta break out.
GR: Do you think that in the future there is going to be less resistance among other members of congress to supporting primary challengers?
CB: I think we’ll get there. I think that especially when other Congress members really start to hear the message. Like now, even with conversations I’ve had with Congress members that have already reached out to me. The fact that they’ve researched my story. Some of them are calling me like “wow your story is really amazing.” So where they might have thought “we don’t want her because she’s a this or a that and she was supported by this person and that group.” Once they heard my story it’s like wait a minute, this person really has something to say. This person is of substance, this person is not a “prop” as I’ve been called. So I think that when that starts to happen, they see that ok maybe we need to broaden what we’re thinking a little more. I think that that will be the change. And I think that will also cause some of our Congress members to look at what they’re doing in their communities because some have been there so long. To say well you know what let me do a self-check. And I can course correct. Because we’re not saying just throw everybody out—at least I’m not personally. I’m just saying, let’s just take care of our district. So if you need to course correct; none of us are infallible. So let’s just fix it and do better.
GR: And now that you are likely going to Congress, what are some of the things you want to do on day one?
CB: Definitely COVID-19 relief. A $2000 a month universal basic income that would be retroactive and that would also last one full year. To help get us through this part of the pandemic, get us through the flu season. And then making sure there is a real moratorium on evictions. Canceling utility shutoffs; that these things stay in place. That’s part of it. The other part is reinvesting in our public education. Because we saw that when COVID-19 hit, so many school districts did not have the resources needed to make sure that the students even had Chromebooks. To make sure that they had access to wifi. That’s on us. And then, a lot of students had difficulty with online learning. Students who may have been doing really well in school, online learning didn’t work for them. It’s a lot of stress on parents so making sure money is really there for tutors. And then just restructuring what online learning is and what is hybrid? Just figuring that whole thing out. Our schools were so underfunded before COVID-19. So we have such a long way to go so that’s just another area that I would really be working towards. And then of course, Medicare for All. Medicare for All would have helped us out so much. We wouldn’t have had as many deaths as we’ve had. In my local area, in this district, black women—the black community was hit the hardest by COVID-19 but black women carried the most cases. That would not have been the case had we had Medicare for All, I believe.
GR: To that point, there is this growing group of leftist Democrats, Democrats who support those values, that are coming into this next Congress. What do you see the role of that group being under a possible Biden administration who is less on board with some of your specific politics?
CB: We keep working. We keep organizing. We just stay diligent because in 2016 when I first started talking about Medicare for All, it was like “oh that’s a unicorn” and “oh, she’s a quack, separating job status from health care, it doesn’t make sense.” But now people understand it. It was mainstreamed; it was all over presidential debate stages, that was the talk. And that’s because we stayed diligent, because we kept educating, because we didn’t let that thing die. So making sure that the correct information is getting into our districts to push on other Congress members to want to grab a hold of these policies. I think that is the way. It may not happen overnight, but we’ll stay diligent. I’m so used to organizing and pushing things that people don’t want to hear. People didn’t want to say Black Lives Matter back in 2014 when we were getting our butts kicked but I tell you what, people are saying it all over the place now. Now if you don’t say it, it looks like something is wrong with you and you might be a racist or something. So when you stay diligent, things happen.
GR: How do you see this interaction with other members of Congress?
CB: I’m just going to be me. I’m coming in as a politivist (a politician and activist). I’m going to be the same Cori that I was before I walked in the door. But I will learn a lot more. I’ll know a lot more. I’ll be able to dig in deeper. I’m not trying to go to Congress so I can divide people in groups. I’m trying to bring home wins for St Louis, a community that is always number one, number two for homicides, and high up on the list for crime. We have high poverty and over-incarceration and undereducation. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to take us from starvation wages to a better quality of life. So I don’t have time to go in and even think on that. I’m just going in to bring home deliverables. If it ruffles people’s feathers, you know what: Let me tell you what it’s like to be hungry. Let me tell you what those ruffled feathers feel like. That’s how I’m going to approach this.
GR: I saw you recently tweeted about Congresswoman Barbara Lee as a potential great VP choice for Biden. Do you think that the conversation about the selection of a woman vice president is a little too reductive? And do you think there’s a possibility of a wrong choice being made there?
CB: I think there’s a possibility of a wrong choice being made just simply because who’s in who’s ear and what is the goal. So I think there’s definitely a possibility that that will happen. But it is GROSS some of the ways that the women that are being considered and who people think are being considered, how they’ve been treated, what has been said about them, and how they’re being pit each one against the other. I just think that it’s absolutely—it’s terrible. And these are some women who have created a great name for themselves doing great work. To reduce them to being women that are fighting one another and trying to shine and all of that. It really burns me up. And the reason why we tweeted that is because I would love to see a progressive woman in the seat. I feel like that’s where we are right now. And I won’t back down off of that. And even if we take titles away, look at some of the things that she’s been pushing, what she’s been standing for. That’s what I’ve been standing for. And look since they won’t talk about Senator Nina Turner, since they don’t want to talk about my sister, my friend, who is amazing, I’m saying “let’s look at Barbara Lee.”
GR: And so for you, it’s not as simple as “I’m just going to select a woman and close the book on it.”
CB: Right, no it’s not. And we’re talking about a woman vice president—a lot of weight will be on this person’s shoulders because when you think about it, whoever that person is, and whatever they do when they take this seat, it will affect the first woman president. It will affect how long it will take us to get to that place. So selecting the right person is—we gotta check the climate: where is our country right now and what are the needs of our country? And if we are feeling like maybe we are missing some things with the person that could be the president, then you fill those gaps by the vice president because everybody should feel represented in some way. In some way. Now with our administration, with Donald Trump, I don’t know….who is really feeling represented except for a small group of people. That is not representative of this country. So we have to come in and smack all of that away and just completely start over. You throw the cards in the air and build something all over again. So that’s what has to happen with that VP pick. We have to be careful so people won’t then decide “oh you know what, maybe we’re not ready for a woman president.”
GR: To wrap up, this isn’t a particularly hopeful moment for many Americans, but what are you most hopeful about for the weeks and months to come?
CB: Seeing people feeling like change is really happening. When people hear my story and they’re hearing that I was a low wage worker, I’ve been unhoused, survivor of sexual assault and all those things and they’re like: “You are going to Congress?!?” You’re a nurse. When people hear that, it’s so inspiring. I have little girls, and little boys too, little girls that come up to me and they’re so invested, I’m like you’re six (years old). But they are so invested to tears, these kids. That’s what I’m most hopeful about is just being able, taking these next few months to be able to reach out and just be a part of the community and help people to see: “I’m with you, I am you and I want to do this work for you and change our district.”
GR: Anything final to add?
CB: One other thing. So the work that I do: I’m about justice for all. I’m a lover of humanity, that’s the core of everything that I do. So when people try to put it out and say that I’m anti-this, I dislike that, if you’re a person, I’m in love with you. Point blank. And I’m going to work to help fix your needs as best I can period.