News

A Black Lives Matter Leader Just Toppled a Congressional Dynasty

“It is historic that this year, of all years, we’re sending a Black, working-class single mother who has been fighting for Black lives from Ferguson all the way to the halls of Congress,” Cori Bush said in her victory speech.
August 5, 2020, 5:54pm
Cori Bush, a nurse/pastor, and one of the unofficial leaders of the so-called Frontline protest movement along with state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., poses for a photo in St. Louis on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. (AP Photo by Jim Salter)

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The Clay family has represented St. Louis in Congress for a half-century. But the scion of a famous civil rights activist was just upset by a next-generation organizer.

Black Lives Matter leader Cori Bush capitalized on several years of community organizing to pull off a narrow 49%-46% victory over Rep. Lacy Clay on Tuesday night.

Her win means one of Black Lives Matter’s most visible leaders is heading to Congress and is the latest progressive primary victory that’s creating a generational and ideological sea change in the House Democratic Caucus. Bush, a registered nurse, first rose to prominence during 2014’s protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

“We’ve been called radicals, terrorists. We’ve been dismissed as an impossible fringe movement. That’s what they called us,” she said during her victory speech. “It is historic that this year, of all years, we’re sending a Black, working-class single mother who has been fighting for Black lives from Ferguson all the way to the halls of Congress.”

Clay beat Bush by 20 points when she challenged him in 2018. But Bush had a much better campaign this time around: After raising just $100,000 in her 2018 bid, she brought in almost $800,000 in this race.

She gained some national fame from her 2018 run in “Knock Down the House,” a Netflix documentary about four working-class female candidates who challenged longtime incumbents. Of the four, only New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was successful in her first run.

Bush also had vocal support from the left-wing Justice Democrats and endorsements from a number of prominent progressives including Sen. Bernie Sanders, though Ocasio-Cortez stayed neutral in this year’s primary after backing Bush in 2018. (She may have stayed neutral because Clay endorsed two of her biggest policy goals, the Green New Deal and Medicare for All).

Clay has deep family ties to the civil rights movement. His father, Lacy Clay Sr., spent more than 100 days in jail for his roles in 1960s civil rights protests before winning the St. Louis-based seat in 1968 and founding the Congressional Black Caucus. The younger Clay took over his seat in 2000 and had a consistently, if not stridently, progressive record in Congress.

But Clay’s more low-key style contrasted with Bush’s new-school activism in the race — and Bush in many ways was more a candidate of the times. Besides her close ties to the movement of the moment, she also survived a bout with coronavirus during the campaign, giving her a personal argument for why Medicare for All is necessary to help protect vulnerable people.

Clay is the onlyCongressional Black Caucus Member to suffer a loss this election cycle. Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, another second-generation congressman, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of New York — both of whom are white — also lost to more progressive candidates.

Cover: Cori Bush, a nurse/pastor, and one of the unofficial leaders of the so-called Frontline protest movement along with state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., poses for a photo in St. Louis on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. (AP Photo by Jim Salter)