It was around 9:30 PM on a Tuesday night in June when, from her bed in St. Louis, Missouri, Cori Bush checked her phone. She refreshed her feeds and flipped television channels compulsively, desperate to find out the results of a congressional race happening nearly 1,000 miles away. Finally, the news came: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old first-time candidate, had unseated a 10-term incumbent in New York by a double-digit percentage.
Bush immediately burst into tears, crying so much that she didn’t hear Ocasio-Cortez, in her victory speech, call out the progressive candidates she believed could deal the next blow to the Democratic establishment. One of those names was hers: Ocasio-Cortez told her supporters to back Cori Bush, the Black woman running in Missouri’s first congressional district.
Bush is campaigning on similar platforms to Ocasio-Cortez, vowing to fight for Medicare for All, criminal justice reform, and a higher minimum wage if she defeats Representative Lacy Clay, the incumbent who’s held the seat for nearly two decades. If elected, Bush would be the first Black woman Missouri has ever sent to Congress.
After Ocasio-Cortez called her name, Bush began to feel it was possible.
“I was feeling the pressure on Alexandria’s primary day as if it were my own race,” Bush tells Broadly. “Her winning changed everything."
Bush says Ocasio-Cortez gave her campaign—which she launched in January 2017— the boost it needed for the final sprint across the finish line. "After Alexandria's victory speech the donations hit harder, and it just gave us a jolt," Bush continues. "It definitely changed our race."
Ocasio-Cortez’s support for Bush didn’t stop at a simple shoutout. Two weeks ahead of Bush’s primary election on August 7, Ocasio-Cortez stopped in St. Louis to stump for Bush, telling the crowd that what she’d accomplished wasn’t specific to New York’s 14th congressional district—Bush, her “sister,” had a real shot at winning.
“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,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We’re not just going to take that where it’s safe.”
Bush has been fighting her fight in Missouri for a while. The 41-year-old nurse and pastor first ran for office in 2016, vying for a seat in the Senate (“I went all the way up,” she laughed, surprised now by her own brazenness). She lost, but Bush said she learned how to connect with voters and find a message that resonated with them.
No experience, though, has taught Bush more about her capacity to lead a movement than pushing police lines at the 2014 Ferguson protests as a community organizer.
“Ferguson was just regular people who made change that affected the entire world,” Bush says. “If I won this seat, I would be a regular person representing regular people in Congress.”
To Bush, being "regular" means having firsthand knowledge of many of the issues she'll tackle if elected. Bush endured a period of homelessness in her early 20s after she and her husband couldn’t make their rent; the couple slept in their car with their two small children for four months. She’s also a survivor of domestic abuse and multiple incidents of sexual assault, the most recent of which she says occurred in September 2016, just after she lost her Senate primary. As she tells Broadly, she went to the hospital right after it happened, filed a police report and went to court—and her perpetrator still walks free.
“Ferguson was just regular people who made change that affected the entire world. If I won this seat, I would be a regular person representing regular people in Congress.”
These periods in her life were certainly trying, Bush says—so who better to represent the constituents in her district, many of whom know what it’s like to fall behind on bills, sleep in their cars, and navigate a criminal justice system unfriendly to victims than someone who’s lived through these experiences herself?
As an incumbent, Bush’s primary opponent, Clay, banks more heavily on his on-paper credentials as a member of Congress to drive voters to the polls.
“I campaign vigorously, and I bring my list of accomplishments, achievements, my level of service to this community,” Clay told St. Louis Public Radio last month. “[I] share that with the voters going into an election. And then, they make the call.”
Like Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive 2018 challengers, Bush has done her best to draw a clear distinction between herself and Clay on issues that have rapidly emerged as litmus tests for leftists running this cycle. Bush has called to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (“Gotta go!” she wrote in a June tweet); Clay has not. Bush rejects corporate donations, while Clay’s campaign committee has accepted just over $26,000 from commercial banks in the last year, according to campaign finance tracker Open Secrets. What’s more, Clay is part of a political legacy, having succeeded his father, William "Bill" Clay, who held the same congressional seat from 1969 to 2001.
Bush’s supporters say the district is overdue for change.
“This district has been driven by a political family passing the torch, which has been standard,” Ciera Simril, a member of Mobilize Missouri, the St. Louis branch of the Bernie Sanders-inspired political action committee Our Revolution, which has endorsed Bush, tells Broadly. “I truly believe that the Cori has much more to offer the district, and her grassroots connections is what is needed [in] Washington.”
Clay’s campaign did not return Broadly’s requests for comment.
Bush has found that even those who are hungry for fresh faces in the Democratic Party can get stuck in old ways of thinking. Earlier this month, Bush tweeted out four photos of her in outfits she’s worn to campaign—one of her in a dress, another in patterned trousers, one in jeans, and, finally one of her wearing a skirt—writing that she's been told instead to “wear dark pants” to appear slimmer or more "professional," comments she termed "body shaming." During her first run for office, Bush later told Broadly, someone even suggested she change her hair, which she wore in braids at the time.
“The comments came not from trolls, but from people who thought they were helping,” she says. “They were thinking: Cori needs to fit into this box of what a politician looks like.”
Ideas about how a politician should look or dress are going to have to change, Bush says, especially during a year with a record number of women running for office, many of them Black women who, like herself, will make history if they win.
As far as Bush is concerned, she already looks like a woman who’s going to Congress.
“I want to represent everyone,” she says. “I should be able to be who I am, even with my tattoos and everything. You’re going to get all of this when I go to Capitol Hill. I’m not ashamed of that.”