In Cori Bush's Rout of Steve Roberts, St. Louis Voters Said Yes to Activism

Incumbent congresswoman won 69 percent of the vote in Democratic primary

click to enlarge "I'm Ferguson frontline forever," Rep. Cori Bush says. - Monica Obradovic
Monica Obradovic
"I'm Ferguson frontline forever," Rep. Cori Bush says.

In the summer of 1963 a series of protests erupted against Jefferson Bank in St. Louis. Black activists and political leaders called for the bank and major companies in St. Louis to employ more people of color during a year of civil unrest in the U.S. Several protestors were arrested as demonstrations in front of the bank continued for over a month.

One of those arrested activists was William “Bill” Clay Sr., a St. Louis alderman at the time. Voters elected him to Congress five years later, but not until after he spent 105 days in jail for participating in the Jefferson Bank protests.

And so began a political dynasty. Together, Clay and his son, William Lacy Clay Jr., would represent Missouri’s First Congressional District for 50 years, until Cori Bush ended their reign and defeated the junior Clay in the 2020 democratic primary.

Like Clay Sr., Bush rose to prominence as an activist, but in her case on the frontlines of Ferguson. Bush — a single mother, pastor and former nurse — describes herself as “an activist in Congress.” Though activism was a big part of what catapulted her and her predecessor to federal office, Bush’s status as an activist was one of her chief opponent’s main attacks heading into yesterday’s primary.

It didn’t work. Final, unofficial results from the Missouri Secretary of State show that Bush gathered 69.4% of votes Tuesday, eclipsing state Senator Steve Roberts (D-St. Louis), who earned 26.6% of votes.

During his campaign, Roberts promised to work inside the nation’s capitol to improve the lives of 1st District residents, instead of working “outside on the steps protesting.” That sentiment is what attracted some supporters to Roberts.

State Senator Steven Roberts - File photo
File photo
State Senator Steven Roberts

“He is the sort of politician I want representing St. Louis, someone who doesn’t need to be on TV, but is delivering work,” says Terry Watkins, a 28-year-old campaign volunteer. Watkins says protesting for important issues is fine, but he doesn’t want to give tax dollars “to an activist.”

“I want someone who can do a little bit of that, but at the end of the day go behind closed doors and get business done,” Watkins adds.

When asked if he’d run again, Roberts told the RFT at his campaign watch party last night he plans to give his full attention to his time in Missouri’s Senate.

“There’s lots of legislation I can do at the state level, and that’ll be my focus,” Roberts says.

Bush arrived at House of Soul nightclub in downtown St. Louis Tuesday night to raucous praise. There, her supporters chanted “Go Cori!” and “We ready for y'all” to the tune of Archie Eversole’s “We Ready.”

Bush’s election watch party couldn’t have differed more from that of the Roberts campaign, where constituents gathered in an event room at the Drury Inn Hotel off Hampton and chatted at circle tables. At House of Soul, Bush supporters danced as an emcee rapped on stage; some smoked hookah, and cheered to a live performance from the Finesse dance group.

Bush addressed her critics when she spoke on stage.

“They don’t like the fact that my lineage is not that of some rich wealthy family,” Bush said. “They don’t like that we don’t accept any corporate money. They don’t like the fact that I speak the way I speak because I came from this community and I sound like my community.”

click to enlarge Cori Bush dances with constituents at House of Soul in downtown St. Louis. - Monica Obradovic
Monica Obradovic
Cori Bush dances with constituents at House of Soul in downtown St. Louis.

Bush’s opponent, Roberts, is a fourth-generation St. Louisan from a dynastic political family. His father, Steve Roberts Sr., once served as a St. Louis alderman and hemled a vast business empire with his brother. Roberts’ mother, Dr. Eva Frazer, is a prominent local physician who partnered with Saint Louis University to open a free medical clinic for north city residents.

Roberts says he aligns more with Joe Biden than Bernie Sanders and distances himself from some of Bush’s most progressive stances, such as defunding police. Addressing crime will remain one of his goals as senator, he says.

“I think me and Cori have different interpretations as far as the best way addressing crime should be done, but I think voters saw something in her and they want to give her another chance,” Roberts told the RFT after the election Tuesday night. “I’d be glad to work with her on that.”

Roberts in the past argued he would work collaboratively with legislators outside of his party, that he knows “the importance of building coalitions regardless of party” and “finding compromise where he can.”

Bush detractors point to her vote against a bipartisan infrastructure plan. At the time, Bush said the legislation did not support separate Build Back Better proposals to address childcare and climate change. She also opposed a bill in March that would ban oil imports from Russia — a rare Democratic stance during the height of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Bush supporters were OK with that. They say they’ve watched politicians toe party lines at the expense of their constituents in the past, and want no more of it.

click to enlarge Cori Bush's father, Errol Bush, celebrates his daughter's re-election. - Monica Obradovic
Monica Obradovic
Cori Bush's father, Errol Bush, celebrates his daughter's re-election.

“Cori values her constituents so much, she’s willing to vote against her own party to stand up for all of us,” says Marquis Govan, a Bush campaign volunteer.

The same thinking brought Bush to protest the end of the federal eviction moratorium last year by sleeping on the steps of the Capitol. The Biden administration swiftly acted to extend the moratorium after her action — only to see their extension struck by the courts.

Whether Bush’s protest actually achieved anything has been a point of contention. But Bush did what she and other legacy St. Louis activists have learned brings about change in times of turmoil. She protested.

“And so again, St. Louis and I rise,” Bush said after she clutched the Democratic nomination Tuesday night. “We rise once again to accept the Democratic nomination to continue our service to the United States.”