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Cori Bush and the Audacity of Tenacity 

Cori Bush took on the unbeatable U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay — and won.

THEO WELLING

Cori Bush took on the unbeatable U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay — and won.

On primary night two years ago, Cori Bush wiped away tears, climbed on the stage of a strip mall comedy club reserved for the evening and thanked everyone who had supported her campaign.

The watch party that began with the buzz of nervous optimism had shifted over a couple of hours to despair as vote totals pinged across phones and laptops, showing U.S. Representative Lacy Clay steamrolling toward his tenth term in Congress.

“The results came in, and it was like the air was taken away from us,” recalls Anthony Sanders, 53, who had been a Bush volunteer since her 2016 run for the U.S. Senate.

Few had expected much out of the Senate race. Bush was taking on Democratic golden boy Jason Kander, who at the time was the Missouri secretary of state and much discussed as a presidential contender in the future. So when she finished in distant second, less than four points ahead of Chief Wana Dubie, no one was too hurt. But in 2018, she had legit buzz. Less than two months earlier, a 28-year-old bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had shocked the world by knocking out a seemingly untouchable New York congressman. AOC had visited St. Louis after her victory and campaigned for Bush, and the supporters packed into the Laugh Lounge had hoped to witness a second strike of political lightning.

But Clay was even stronger than they imagined, winning by nearly twenty points.

“I think we were devastated,” Kristine Hendrix says. “I was devastated. I cried.”

Hendrix had met Bush as a fellow activist in Ferguson after eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was killed in 2014 by a white police officer. And the two were part of a wave of protesters to cross over as political candidates. Hendrix was the first to break through, winning a seat on University City’s school board in 2015 and again four months before Bush’s primary against Clay. She thought Bush had a real shot.

“I think I was kind of in a U City bubble,” Hendrix says now. “But I was also really hopeful.”

In retrospect, that loss to Clay in 2018 feels like just another plot point in a steady progression toward Bush’s headline-grabbing victory last week in the rematch against the congressman. But that night in 2018, when the Laugh Lounge turned suddenly somber and heartbroken supporters wept in their seats, there was no guarantee that the nurse-turned-candidate had any political future at all. She had thrown everything she had against Clay, and he walked away smiling.

“Usually when you run the second time, you do worse,” St. Louis University political science professor Kenneth Warren says.

But over the following months, Bush and her supporters looked at the 53,250 votes cast in her favor, the connections she’d made through the district, the national profile they’d built — and they began to envision a different ending to a potential rematch with Clay.

“You don’t beat a giant with one punch,” Hendrix says, “and that was definitely a giant.”

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay won ten consecutive terms in Congress. - OFFICIAL PORTRAIT
  • OFFICIAL PORTRAIT
  • U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay won ten consecutive terms in Congress.

It’s true that Lacy Clay is a giant of Missouri politics — ten straight terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, seventeen years in state legislature before that, chair of a subcommittee for the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services. It is also true that he stands on the shoulders of another giant, his father. When William “Bill” Clay decided after 32 years in Congress to step aside in 2000, residents of Missouri’s First Congressional District made the easy transition to voting for his son.

By then, the elder Clay had built an impressive political machine. His power was derived from his early roots in city politics and activism, cementing his bona fides as a fighter and civil rights leader during the Jefferson Bank protests of 1963 when he was arrested and jailed in the city Workhouse for more than 100 days. He was a St. Louis alderman at the time, and even after decamping to Washington, D.C., he kept a close watch on local politics all the way down to the committeeman level.

“He had a very well-oiled organization,” says Warren, who helped Bill Clay write one of his many books and got to know the family. “He knew everyone in his district.”

As a U.S. representative, he co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus, which became an established source of political muscle. And when upstart politicians such as Bush started to primary incumbent Democrats, including his caucus member son, Bill Clay wasn’t pleased. After the vote in 2018, he chided them in a newspaper interview for challenging sitting Democrats at a time when the party’s top enemies were Donald Trump and his enablers.

“They are attacking Democrats instead of going after the Republicans who sit there in the Congress and let this idiot in the White House do what he wants to do,” the elder Clay told St. Louis Post-Dispatch veteran political reporter Chuck Raasch less than a week after the 2018 primary.

When it came to his son’s victory over Bush, Bill Clay offered an assessment that seemed as much a warning to would-be challengers as it was political analysis.

“What it says is that an outsider like that can’t come into our district anymore and dictate what is going to be,” he told Raasch. “(Ocasio-Cortez) is the party of Bernie Sanders. She went across the country, he did too, and the results have shown they didn’t influence too many people.”

Cori Bush is joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the campaign trail in 2018. - JAIME LEES
  • JAIME LEES
  • Cori Bush is joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the campaign trail in 2018.

One of the problems with launching a rematch campaign is trying not only to rekindle the energy of supporters, but to increase it and draw in more. That’s tough to do after even a close race. After a blowout by nearly twenty points? Almost impossible.

Anthony Sanders, the longtime volunteer, says he signed on to help once again, but he was wary after the 2018 defeat.

“I went to [Bush] and I told her, ‘I’m going to put my heart into this, but after this, I’ll have to move on to something else, because I just don’t believe that the people of St. Louis are ready for change,’” he says.

But Bush got a huge boost in January 2019, five months after she’d lost to Clay, when the documentary Knock Down the House premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It was an instant success, winning the Festival Favorite Award. The film trails four underdog congressional candidates, including Ocasio-Cortez and Bush, through the 2018 primary. Weeks after the film’s debut, Deadline reported that Netflix had bought the rights for $10 million, believed to be a Sundance record at the time.

Much of the buzz centered on Ocasio-Cortez, the only one of the four featured candidates to win her race. But Bush and St. Louis were treated to serious screen time. When Netflix released the documentary to the streaming world that May, the effect was nearly instantaneous.

“I think the campaign started feeling different after Knock Down the House,” says Sanders, who had already noticed an influx of talented young staffers and volunteers. “Once that made it to Netflix, everything changed. I think it was a game changer.”

It wasn’t just name recognition — although campaign workers say it made a huge difference. It personalized Bush and gave her a forum to explain her reasons for running. She had always had a compelling backstory as a single mom who had lived out of her Ford Explorer for a time and worked low-wage jobs to support her kids, eventually earning a nursing degree. But many residents in the district — if they knew her — knew her for fiery speeches during protests. That changed when Knock Down the House started streaming.

“When I started knocking doors for this race, people were like, ‘Oh, I saw you in that movie,’” Bush told St. Louis On the Air host Sarah Fenske last week.

It was also a fundraising boon. Clay still took in more money — $740,500 to her $562,300 — but Bush raised more than four times the amount she did during the 2018 primary. And she was backed by the increasingly powerful liberal political action committee Justice Democrats, which had supported her and Ocasio-Cortez during the 2018 run. Add in new connections she made as a Bernie Sanders surrogate during his presidential campaign, and she had the kind of resources she could only dream about during the first tangle with Clay.

That meant mailers, billboards and even television ads. Pairing financial resources with Bush’s high-energy, hit-the-streets approach gave her a certain ubiquitousness that’s tough for a challenger to pull off.

“Cori was at your door,” says Sanders, the volunteer. “Cori was in your mailbox. Cori was on your phone.”

The coronavirus wreaked havoc on political campaigns. Big rallies were out. Even small gatherings were out. So was knocking on doors and making those face-to-face connections that drive many an underdog’s campaign.

Bush’s team still hit the streets, but they set up wellness checks for vulnerable people in the district and dropped fliers instead of trying to talk to people in person — a move designed to reinforce the idea that they still cared enough to come to voters but also respected their safety.

Bush became sick herself in late March. Diagnosed with pneumonia, she was admitted to the hospital twice with coronavirus-like symptoms. A test for the virus came back negative, The New York Times reported, but the illness knocked her off the campaign trail for weeks.

When she returned, she used her own experience to talk about key themes of her platform, including making sure that everyone has health insurance and that the poor and working class can earn a living wage so they can weather emergencies.

Clay had pushed many of the same platforms and could point to a long voting record of backing progressive causes.

“No one voted more liberally than Lacy Clay,” says Warren, the political science professor. “He had one of the highest liberal ratings in the almanac.”

He also had the experience and connections to party leadership that take time to build and can be crucial to passing legislation. During the campaign, he referenced his role in landing a massive new campus for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a $1.75 billion construction project billed as the largest federal investment in St. Louis history.

Cori Bush marches with the family of Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black man killed by a white St. Louis police officer. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Cori Bush marches with the family of Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black man killed by a white St. Louis police officer.

But Clay couldn’t relate in the same way as Bush to people in the district who are struggling with the financial fallout of the pandemic. He couldn’t speak to life as a single parent or being homeless. Highlighting the disconnect, fliers attacking Bush chastised her for being evicted three times. Her campaign fired back, painting the attack as particularly callous and tone-deaf when experts say the United States is facing an eviction crisis on a scale unseen in generations.

And then there were the protests. Clay had been criticized for a lack of presence in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown, and when demonstrations spread across the nation in May after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, it was Bush, not Clay, who led activists in the streets. It wasn’t just longtime protesters seeing her. The killing of Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Louisville drew diverse crowds, people who’d never been to a protest in their lives. For a candidate who was a protester before she was a politician, it was a big moment.

“She was being herself,” says Kristine Hendrix, now the school board president in University City and co-chair of Bush’s campaign. “What better way to introduce an activist?”

Cori Bush speaks to supporters after getting the good news last week. - THEO WELLING
  • THEO WELLING
  • Cori Bush speaks to supporters after getting the good news last week.
On Aug. 4, Bush’s supporters prepared for another primary night watch party. There would be no blowout at a comedy club this time. (For one thing, the Laugh Lounge shut down in Florissant.) Instead, a small number of campaign workers and journalists gathered, mostly outside at her campaign headquarters in Northwoods while volunteers logged on to a Zoom videoconference to watch together remotely — another concession to the ongoing pandemic.

Again, they were hopeful, but the surprise and heartache of 2018 still loomed in the back of their minds. If they were nervous about a repeat of two years ago, it turned to full-blown fright when absentee ballots came back showing Clay with a wide lead. Sanders has been around politics long enough to know what that means in a typical election.

“Those absentee ballots really scared me,” he says.

But 2020 has been anything but a typical year, and as the tally of in-person votes began to pour in from precincts through the district, they soon had reason to cheer. The more votes came in, the better the news. Clay managed to hold an edge in the county, but the city — where Bill Clay assembled the first blocks of his dynasty — went for Bush.

Chants of “You about to lose yo’ job, Lacy Clay,” began to cut through the Northwoods headquarters. And then it was over. Two years after getting pummeled by nearly twenty points, Bush had won.

“She won! She won!” Hendrix, recounting the scene, says they yelled. “We were, like, screaming, falling on the floor.”

click to enlarge Bush after news conference in front of the Arch. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Bush after news conference in front of the Arch.
Two days after the primary, Cori Bush joined St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner and city Treasurer Tishaura Jones in front of the Gateway Arch to celebrate what Jones called a dose of “Black girl magic” at the polls.

All three faced serious challenges in rematch races — and were largely underestimated. Jones dropped her frequent critic Jeffrey Boyd, alderman for the 22nd Ward, in the latest round of a feud that extends back through a mayoral election in 2017 and a treasurer’s race before that. Gardner, who was attacked by a phalanx of big-name Republicans (and no-name acolytes who sent anonymous death threats), starting with Trump, dominated her race with 60 percent of the vote. And then there was Bush.

“I think many of you,” she began, “it didn’t cross your mind that I would actually win ... but guess what? St. Louis spoke.”

Warren, the SLU political science professor, says he certainly didn’t think she would win. In decades of watching the Clays control the district, he has seen challengers come and go. Incumbents are inherently tough to beat if they win their sophomore campaigns and stay free of major scandal. Add in a family dynasty and a solidly Democratic district, and Warren didn’t expect much from the latest hype over a Clay challenger.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that story for decades,’” he says. “I’ve heard that question from reporters, ‘Is this candidate going to beat Clay?’ And it’s a big yawn.”

He hasn’t done a full postmortem on the race yet, but when he goes into the district to talk to people about what happened, he expects he’ll hear that Clay took voters for granted. Gone are the days of Bill Clay or his trusted office manager scrutinizing the inner workings of the machine, keeping committeemen in line. The Clays, for all intents and purposes, are better rooted in the D.C. suburbs of Maryland these days. Warren thinks Lacy Clay simply became too comfortable.

“I would say the Clay machine has died,” he says.

Bush is the one who finished it off. She still faces plenty of doubts about whether she can transition from powerhouse campaigner and activist to effective legislator. She has momentum and is already being described as the newest member of “The Squad” — the bloc of young, progressive, female congresswomen of color that includes Ocasio-Cortez. But Bush will still be in a new world and on the outside of the established party. She’s still a long shot to accomplish all the promises she’s made, but she says she is ready.

“Just because it has not been done,” Bush said that afternoon in front of the Arch, “does not mean it shouldn’t be done.”

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at doyle.murphy@riverfronttimes.com or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.

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