Cori Bush's Campaign Against Lacy Clay Bolstered by Ocasio-Cortez Upset

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Cori Bush on the protest lines last year. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Cori Bush on the protest lines last year.
Last night, as election returns from New York City's outer boroughs suggested that a community organizer might topple a sitting Congressman, few people were more excited than Cori Bush, the activist and organizer who hopes to have the same impact on Congressman William Lacy Clay Jr. (D-St. Louis).

It wasn't just that Bush saw the echoes of her own campaign — although that was certainly part of it. It's also that she and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had become friends as they mounted their quixotic challenges.



They'd spoken that very afternoon, and Bush says Ocasio-Cortez was philosophical: "We did the best we could do" — the sort of things people say when they're staying hopeful, but assume they'll lose. And who wouldn't make that assumption? Ocasio-Cortez wasn't just taking on a high-ranking member of Democratic leadership in his own backyard; she'd been outspent 18 to 1.

Yet the returns didn't lie. "I kept refreshing my screen," Bush recalls. "When the AP called it, I was so overjoyed I couldn't stop crying."



It wasn't just Bush thinking of Ocasio-Cortez. In her moment of victory, Ocasio-Cortez was also thinking of Bush. In one of her first tweets after being declared the winner, the 28-year-old tweeted, "There are more of us, too: @CoriBush, @Chardo2018, @AyannaPressley & more. We need to elect a corporate PAC-free caucus if we're going to get things done." The tweet drew more than 11,000 likes.


The combination of the high-profile tweet and the clear similarities between the races were enough to put Bush on the best kind of blast this morning. "Oh my goodness, my phone, my Facebook, my Twitter, my Instagram — it's all blowing up," she says. "I can't keep up!"

When Bush first met Ocasio-Cortez more than a year ago, Bush already had one campaign under her belt, a long-shot run in hopes of taking down Senator Roy Blunt (R-Missouri). Jason Kander beat her in the primary, but the race put Bush on the radar of various national groups. Last year, Brand New Congress, which had been founded by former Bernie Sanders' staffers, reached out and ultimately made Bush its first 2018 endorsement.

And so when the group was looking at other races, and Ocasio-Cortez was on the fence, its staffers connected her with Bush. The two women clicked.

The two shared a commitment to progressive values — and, like Sanders, to saying no to donations from corporate PACs. "That's something that's very important to me," Bush says. "I've been offered plenty, but I've turned them down."

The reason, she says, is simple. "When corporations are your main donors and have been for many years, you have a particular loyalty because of that. You may not even realize that's what's happened. But you lose the voices of the people who are actually voting you in." Of Clay, she says, "That's what I'm hearing and seeing in the first district."

Cori Bush, shown at a 2016 candidate forum, is seeing new interest in her 2018 race. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Cori Bush, shown at a 2016 candidate forum, is seeing new interest in her 2018 race.

But while Ocasio-Cortez was running against a white male, a symbol of entrenched party power, Bush has a more complicated fight. Congressman Clay isn't just black — he's the son of a civil rights icon.

Bush doesn't shy from addressing that. "At first, I would hear that: 'We are loyal to Lacy Clay's father,'" she says. "Well, if you're loyal to his father, then you'd think the legacy of that would be to vote for someone like him, someone from another generation following in the same footsteps. That, to me, is the legacy."

A prominent face during the protests that broke out after Jason Stockey's acquittal last fall, Bush is also an ordained minister and a gifted public speaker. At 41, she's a bit older than the 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez, but still very much an outsider, and a member of a different generation than the one in power (and in bed with big donors).

She notes that Missouri has never elected a black congresswoman, but thanks to the shot in the arm from her colleague's upset in New York, she's convinced this will be the year.

"What people just witnessed in New York, that's doable here if we do it together," she says. "It's time to stop looking at it like it can't happen."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred inaccurately to the party affiliation of Senator Roy Blunt. He is, of course, a Republican. We regret our very bizarre mental lapse.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com

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