Political newcomer Cori Bush’s underdog run against entrenched incumbent Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Missouri) hasn’t gotten a lot of mainstream attention, but in terms of which faction will win the ongoing civil war within the Democratic Party, it’s likely the most important in the country.
Before running for Congress, Cori Bush was a Ferguson activist who took to the streets in the wake of Officer Darren Wilson’s killing of 18-year-old unarmed teen Michael Brown, and again after a grand jury refused to indict Wilson. Bush, now an ordained pastor and registered nurse, is also a former member of the homeless community. The Associated Press reported she once lived out of a Ford Explorer for several months after she, her former husband, and her two children were evicted from a rental home.
Rep. Clay, on the other hand, is a longtime incumbent who inherited the seat representing Missouri’s 1st Congressional District from his father, Bill Clay, who was elected to the seat nearly 50 years ago. Since his swearing-in in January of 2001, the younger Clay has easily defeated all primary challengers in past re-election campaigns, and won every general election every two years with at least 70 percent of the vote. Federal Election Commission records show Clay has raised more than four times as much money as Bush.
In addition to being endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the 28-year-old rising political superstar who won her own primary election against a well-funded incumbent in line for the Speakership — Bush was just recently endorsed by former Ohio state senator and Our Revolution president Nina Turner at a rally last weekend in St. Louis. The rally was held at the same courthouse where the infamous Dred Scott decision that upheld chattel slavery was heard.
“It’s really good to have a sister who is steeped in vision, whose life story is the personification of what it means to struggle, but also what it means to overcome,” Turner said at the rally. “Cori Bush’s campaign and the history of St. Louis, Missouri, is a story and a history about people who dare to be free.”
Turner also seemed to take jabs at Rep. Clay, though she didn’t mention him by name.
“We want to be free from politicians who whisper sweet nothings in our ear when it is time to run, but their policies don’t reflect a dedication to the people. We want to be free from the status quo,” Turner said.
Democratic incumbents facing challenges from the left is a sore spot for many centrists in the party who say such primary challenges, particularly in purple states like Missouri, is divisive — a word some Democratic Party leaders used to describe Turner in a 2017 Politico article. However, in a phone interview, Cori Bush called it “gross” when centrists call progressive challengers “divisive.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being challenged. This is a democracy,” Bush told Grit Post. “If you are doing such a great job, then you actually have nothing to worry about.”
“Challenge helps to drive voter turnout. We have other people on the ballot, we have other issues, we have propositions and ballot initiatives on the ballot that people need to vote for. So the more people we can drive to the polls, the better. So I don’t see it as splitting the party. I think that the party has to have more of an eye on who’s actually a part of them,” Bush continued. “We’re supposed to be about inclusion and diversity and making the playing field more level… To me, fighting for healthcare for all, fighting for criminal justice reform and quality education for all, cradle to career, fighting for a livable wage, I don’t see how being really vocal about that should be hurting the party. I think that should just be who we are.”
As a working-class mother in St. Louis, Bush is campaigning on a platform of economic justice for working-class Americans. One particular issue she aims to tackle if elected to Congress is the gender pay gap — particularly the gender pay gap between black women and other workers. Bush told Grit Post she makes roughly $24,000/year less than her white counterparts.
“I do the exact same work, I have to work the exact same hours,” Bush said. “I make about 68 cents on the dollar [compared to white co-workers], but I can’t come to work and work 68 percent of the shift and expect to get paid… I cant even give that effort. I have to come in 100 percent and work 100 percent of my eight to 12-hour shift. And because of that, we deserve our pay. We deserve the full pay, regardless of ethnic background.”
As the New York Times recently reported, Cori Bush upsetting Rep. Clay in Tuesday’s primary would mark a significant victory for the leftist insurgency within the Democratic Party, proving that the Ocasio-Cortez brand of progressive politics has appeal even in the American heartland. Because the seat is a Democratic stronghold, a Bush primary victory would also mark the first time in the district’s 170-plus-year history that a woman has held the seat and the first time Missouri has ever sent a black woman to Congress, assuming she defeats the Republican challenger in November.
Voters head to the polls tomorrow.
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.