Cori Bush on How She Took on the Political Establishment and Won
Cori Bush, the Ferguson activist and nurse running for Congress in St Louis, caused a political earthquake this week, unseating a powerful centrist incumbent. Yesterday, she sat down with Jacobin to talk about how she took on the political establishment's big money and won.
- Interview by
- Meagan Day
This Tuesday, Cori Bush unseated St Louis congressional incumbent Lacy Clay, who has represented the district for two decades and whose father Bill Clay represented it for three decades before him. Bush is a nurse who was a dedicated activist during the Ferguson uprising in 2014. She’s also an outspoken progressive whose campaign was endorsed by Bernie Sanders. In a nod to both those political lineages, she declared victory by sharing a photograph of herself with her fist raised captioned, “Not me, us.”
Cori Bush’s first campaign against Clay was featured in the documentary film Knock Down The House, alongside three other 2018 progressive congressional insurgencies including that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She lost, but didn’t call it quits. Her second campaign against Clay was more robust than the first, and backed by organizations like the Sunrise Movement, Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of which Bush is a member. Jacobin’s Meagan Day caught up with Bush briefly in the wake of her victory.
How would you characterize the status quo politics of the Clays, and what have they meant for the people of your district?
For so long, I have felt so underrepresented or just not represented at all. The status quo was a politics that said that if you are somebody, if you are connected, if you are a big donor, if you’re a big corporation, then you have a seat, and everyone else is not as important. If you ask people in the community about Congressman Clay, the first thing many of them are going to say is that he’s absent. He was absent when St Louis was going through high crime, high homicides, high poverty, the Ferguson uprising, and everything since. We needed a leader.
Who endorsed your opponent, and who endorsed you?
Very early, our local Sunrise Movement chapter in St Louis got behind me, as did our own St Louis DSA. And then there was Brand New Congress, Justice Democrats, the national organizations of Sunrise and DSA, Matriarch, Our Revolution. We had a few progressive PACs that ended up pushing us, especially closer to the end, like Our Everyday, Future Generations, 350 Action, National Women’s Political Caucus.
Congressman Clay was endorsed by the editorial boards of our local papers, the St Louis Post-Dispatch and the St Louis American. He was endorsed by many of the ward organizations, some of which even said, “Well, you just don’t go against the Clays. Even though we may like you, you just don’t go against them publicly.”
You were also endorsed by Bernie Sanders. And when you won, you posted a photo of yourself with your fist raised in the air captioned, “Not me, us.” Do you view your campaign’s victory as a step forward for the broader Bernie movement, or whatever comes next in the wake of his presidential campaigns?
To me this goes back to the Ferguson uprising. St Louis has always been such a divided, segregated city, and during Ferguson we saw people from all walks of life come together to fight for black lives, something I had never seen before. Since then, the silos have been broken down, and we’ve been able to continue to build since then with so many groups working together. We’re uniting for justice for all, and that’s what the broader Bernie movement means. Sometimes people want to pigeonhole the Bernie movement into not including people of color or the black community. But I’m standing there with my fist up saying that this movement means justice for everyone.
What was the money like in your race?
Our last campaign, we closed out just under $180,000. This campaign, I believe we’re over $800,000, and it’s still mostly small-dollar donations from regular people. Congressman Clay, last I saw, was at about 74 percent of his donations from corporate PACs and lobbyists. For us, it was small-dollar donations and some dollars from like Our Revolution and Sunrise, and that was basically it. There was no dark money coming in.
Can you talk a little bit about the development of your political consciousness, and how Black Lives Matter and the Ferguson uprising in 2014 fit into that?
I grew up in a household where my father always taught us about black history. I couldn’t have pictures of Strawberry Shortcake or Cabbage Patch Kids or Barbie going up on my wall, instead it was the great kings and queens of Africa. When the Ferguson movement happened, I was already working with our unhoused population, I was already working against human trafficking, and I was already a nurse and a pastor.
So when I hit the ground during the uprising, it was just an extension of that work. But this time it was directly about saving black lives from excessive force and police murder. I fought that fight for over four hundred days. In the first three months, I may have missed two days out of the first ninety days. I was incredibly dedicated to that movement, and still am.
You mentioned earlier that Bernie Sanders’s economic equality framing is sometimes portrayed as excluding people of color. Your campaign pushed against that false separation. In your view, what are the overlaps between a politics of racial justice and a politics of economic justice?
A few years ago, if someone was just talking to me about big corporations and climate change and all of that, I would not have paid attention, because at that point I was just trying to keep my son alive. So now when I go to talk to people in the community about those things, I make those connections directly. I make sure people know that the reason why our community has a high incidence of childhood asthma is because of the pollution in our air from from these big coal companies. I need them to understand that what big corporations are doing is directly and disproportionately affecting our black community here.
So the separation is false, but it’s all in how we deliver it. Like take, for example, Medicare for All. I don’t just come straight out the gate saying Medicare for All is what you need. I go into our community and say, “You should not have your health care tied to your job status.” Or, “You deserve to have a dentist.” And then I let them know that’s that’s what Medicare for All will do for you. If I start with Medicare for All, you’re shutting me out. So I’m gonna speak to your needs directly first, and then help you to see how the policy connects to it.
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Bernie Sanders for president last year, she said that one of the reasons why she decided to do it is that spending a year in Congress having her arm twisted gave her a newfound respect for Bernie’s ability to withstand that pressure for so many decades. Do you have any strategies for resisting the kind of pressures that are going to come to bear on you in Congress?
People tried to twist our arm during Ferguson. People tried to buy us, and there were times when we didn’t understand that that’s what people were doing. People would offer to give a million dollars if you will go do this and that, and we didn’t understand it at first, but we learned. Throughout all of that, I stood by my morals and my values, and kept my focus on the changes I needed to see in my community.
What’s going to fuel me is not wanting to see anyone else go through what I went through. I still remember what my face felt like when it hit the ground when I was being assaulted by the police in Ferguson. I still remember what it was like sleeping in that car with my two children when it was cold outside. I remember these things. And so they can’t buy me. They can’t pressure me into doing something that won’t benefit my community, because I still feel the pain.