The Clay family has represented Missouri’s 1st Congressional District for nearly five decades. But on August 7, progressive underdog Cori Bush may bring that dynasty to an end.
Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Missouri) assumed office in January of 2001, after his father, Rep. William Lacy Clay Sr., announced his retirement from Congress — conveniently enough, in May of 1999, after the candidate filing deadline, ensuring his son would inherit the seat he had held since 1969. Since then, Clay has easily won every re-election battle with at least 70 percent of the vote, in addition to easily defeating all primary challengers by wide margins.
However, Missouri’s August 7 primary will represent the first time that Rep. Clay has been challenged from the left by someone with backing from a nationally known candidate who unseated an established, well-heeled incumbent in her own backyard. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s landslide victory over Joe Crowley on June 26 stunned political insiders who assumed that Crowley — who had represented New York’s 14th Congressional District for nearly 20 years — would easily dispatch a 28-year-old political newcomer.
Last weekend, Ocasio-Cortez threw her weight behind Cori Bush’s candidacy at a rally in downtown St. Louis.
“It is so important, you know, what we did, we just came off of this win in New York, but people were trying to say, ‘it’s just one place,’ ” Ocasio-Cortez said on Saturday. “But we know that the movement for working people, the movement for economic, social and racial justice knows no zip code… and we’re going to take that fight everywhere, we’re not just going to take that where it’s safe.”
Bush welcomed the endorsement from the progressive movement’s new star, although they’ve known each other for more than a year. The two first met at a summit on Kentucky in April of 2017. Bush said that from the moment Ocasio-Cortez opened her mouth to speak, she knew she was “fierce.”
“When she won, I cried like a baby. I was like wow, this can happen,” Bush said. “Her win immediately fueled this campaign.”
Before she was an insurgent Democrat running against an entrenched incumbent, Bush was a community activist who was on the ground throughout the Ferguson protests. Rep. Clay was never at the protests, and Bush realized that for communities like hers to be listened to in Washington, people from those communities need to run for office themselves.
“I didn’t see [Clay] out on the ground with us. He didn’t take the beatings and the tear gas and the bullets and all that with us. I don’t know where he was,” Bush told Grit Post in a phone interview. “I have to say, it hurt to know that this person, or these people, represent you, and they’re not out there with you. That was hurtful, and that woke me up.”
Given her occupation as a community healthcare provider, as well as a former member of the homeless community (Bush prefers the term “unhoused”) Cori Bush is perhaps the best situated to truly understand and articulate what the 1st Congressional District’s constituents need. Her platform, like Ocasio-Cortez’s, is centered around economic justice issues like affordable housing and healthcare as a human right.
“If you breathe, you should have healthcare,” Bush told Grit Post. “Missouri did not expand Medicaid. So what we’re seeing right now is a lot of people not receiving services, especially preventative services. I’m totally in favor of Medicare for All… We can do better.”
Even though critics of universal healthcare typically counter with the argument that there’s no money for such a large social infrastructure program, Bush flatly rejects that argument on its face.
“Space Force is going to be expensive. And the detention centers that just popped up near the borders. All of these foster care facilities that are taking children in who have been separated from their parents, billions are being spent right now,” Bush said. “That money can be spent right in our own community. That’s healthcare, that’s education, that’s living wage.”
Bush certainly has her work cut out for her. In addition to recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident she survived in April — leaving her unable to campaign door-to-door for more than two months — the 41-year-old progressive challenger is being outspent by Lacy Clay by a nearly 4-1 ratio, according to Federal Election Commission records. However, Bush is undeterred, saying Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Joe Crowley’s political money machine is proof that she has a real chance of winning.
“People powered campaigns can win. you may not be able to outspend, but you can out-organize,” Bush said. “This team has been fighting, on fire, for months.”
If she wins the August 7 primary, Cori Bush would be the first woman to represent Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, and the first black woman Missouri has ever sent to Washington. In addition to running against Lacy Clay, Bush will also have to prevail against three other primary challengers: Demarco Davidson, Joshua Shipp, and Susan Bolhafner.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.
Jules Blair is a freelance photographer and journalist, as well as a community activist and licensed physical therapist in St. Louis, Missouri. You can contact her at echo_artemis at yahoo dot com.