Cori Bush has been here before. As a repeat challenger to Congressman William Lacy Clay, the determined activist hoping to pull out a win in today’s Missouri primary knows she’s in for a fight. But what makes the battle worth it, the hours fought, fruitful, and the return, whether win or lose, valuable, is that standing up for people and doing what’s right is what Bush says she always aims to do.
“I fight for [progressive] values just because it’s right,” Bush tells ESSENCE days before Tuesday’s election. “I always think that ‘I am the people I serve.’ I did not coin the phrase, but I always say that because I have lived low-wage. I’ve been unhoused, living out of a car with two children. I have lived uninsured… I’m a victim of violent crime. I’m a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence. So I’ve been through so many things that have happened here in this community that haven’t really been addressed by our congressperson even though he’s been in that seat for 20 years.”
Bush is running to unseat the current representative for Missouri’s 1st congressional district because she says Clay is only “progressive when he’s pushed.” The incumbent’s record reflects that of a left of center liberal, who supports progressive causes like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, but despite his voting report, Bush is not confident in his abilities to fight for the people of her St. Louis community. “He’ll sign on to something after he’s pressured or he’ll sign on to something that sounds progressive if he has a primary challenger that’s progressive,” Bush asserts. “But if he just has to do it on his own, he won’t.”
As a pastor, Bush has always been community-minded. But the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson propelled her to think politically. The mother of two was on the frontlines at those marches, speaking to residents and fighting for justice. Bush explains that being out there gave her an opportunity to see what was happening in her own community. It also showed her who was not there for the cause, doing the groundwork of “regular folk.”
“Thinking about my son who was 14 at the time, and my daughter who was 13, if I didn’t stand up, could one of them be the next hashtag?” Bush wondered. “And I thought about our congressperson… He was out there, I remember, one time for a photo op when we protested more than 400 days.”
Bush insists she’s ready to fill in the gap created by Clay’s absenteeism. The registered nurse wants to push for Medicare for all, even more vehemently amid COVID-19, and drastically reduce the uninsured rate in her district. Formerly homeless, Bush also plans to fight for $15 an hour federal minimum wage, because too many people, she shares, are living in poverty within her community. Free public college and trade school is another top priority for Bush who sees it as another way to help move the community out of poverty. A Green New Deal, fighting for wage equality, reinvesting in public education, canceling all student debt and canceling medical debt are more items on Bush’s congressional agenda.
Though Bush has had these aims before, this time she admits it feels different. Her chants of “Black Lives Matter” have reached ears that were resistant to the calls before. Now even Congress has gotten on board with legislation intended to fight for justice in policing on a federal level. “With Ferguson, it was really the start of saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ and getting people to understand what that’s like,” Bush rehashes. But this time, she says more people truly get why we’re fighting. The long-time activist hopes that the understanding is held by the constituents she’s eager to represent, giving her a much-needed boost against an opponent whose family has held the seat for decades.
After two months in bed fighting off COVID-19, and another two months fighting in the streets for Black Lives Matter, Cori Bush wants the people of Ferguson, St. Louis, and all communities in the 1st Congressional District to know she’ll go even harder to represent them. “I’ve been fighting for so many issues just because it’s right. Leaders lead from the front,” Bush reiterates. “I just want to change the way that we’re living. I’m tired of everybody surviving St. Louis. It’s time for St. Louis to thrive.”