Sunday, August 14th, 2022

‘For me, it’s about the mission’: why Cori Bush is just getting started in Congress | Cori Bush

If the American political status quo was working, Congresswoman Cori Bush might not have slept on the steps of the US Capitol to demand an extension of a coronavirus-era eviction moratorium. She might not have testified about her decision to have an abortion, consigning the details of her experience to the official congressional record. Perhaps she might not have run for Congress at all.

But as the St Louis congresswoman sees it, she was sent to Washington to disrupt a political order that had long ago stopped working for people like herself – a nurse, pastor and activist who has worked for minimum wage, once lived out of a car and raised two children as a single mother. And she says she is only just getting started.

“I ran and I lost and I ran and I lost. I kept running because there was a mission behind it,” Bush said in an interview. “It wasn’t about me wanting to be somebody in Congress – I know some people have those aspirations – but, for me, it was more about the mission. And I have not completed that mission yet.”

Halfway through an extraordinary first term, and gearing up for reelection, Bush is one of the most recognizable – and quotable – members of the House. Part of the progressive “Squad”, she believes deeply that her own personal hardships make her a better and more responsive representative. Her personal story is what connects her to her constituants and what sets her apart in Congress.

When her colleagues left Washington for their weeks-long summer recess without securing an extension of the federal eviction moratorium, Bush stayed behind. Having experienced the pain of poverty and eviction, she couldn’t fathom leaving hundreds of thousands of Americans vulnerable to homelessness as the coronavirus ravaged the US. In an instant, she decided to stage a sit-in on the steps of the US Capitol.

Her protest on the Capitol steps drew widespread national attention and effectively shamed party leaders into finding a solution where they had insisted there was none. Eventually, the White House extended the temporary ban on evictions.

Representative Cori Bush thanks the demonstrators who joined her protest against residential evictions on Capitol Hill on 3 August 2021.
Representative Cori Bush thanks demonstrators who joined her protest against residential evictions on Capitol Hill, on 3 August 2021. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

The hard-won victory was an important moment for Bush and her team. She said it proved to her constituents in St Louis that she would always put them first, even if it put her at odds with Democrats, party leadership, even the president of the United States.

“For us, winning that extension of the eviction moratorium was a huge part of the story of who we said that we would be in Congress, we said we would do the work, do the absolute most, and that was the absolute most we could do.”

Now, she continued, “the White House knows that about us, too.”

Bush describes herself a “politivist” – part politician, part activist. In her view, the roles are complementary, not oppositional.

“Oftentimes people expect you, because you hear it in your communities, that when you go to Congress, you’re going to change. That is the expectation,” she said. “I think that we’ve already been able to show that St Louis is first…. St Louis is the heart of every single thing that we do.”

Bush rose to prominence as a Black Lives Matter organizer in Ferguson, Missouri, where the movement was born after the 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr was shot and killed by a white police officer. The daughter of a local alderman, Bush said it wasn’t until the protests that she considered running for public office.

In 2020, Bush became the first Black woman to represent the state of Missouri when she was elected to Congress after two unsuccessful campaigns – first for Senate in 2016 and again in 2018 for Congress. To win, she unseated the Democratic incumbent, William Lacy Clay. Clay had held the seat for 20 years, having succeeded his father, William Clay Sr, a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, who was first elected in 1968.

She was sworn in three days before the Capitol was attacked by a pro-Trump mob.

“We were still moving into our office when the insurrection happened,” she said. “We didn’t have a panic button yet.”

“So that was our introduction to Congress,” she continued. “Since we started off in such an unexpected place, a horrible place, for us, it was just like, ‘OK, dig in.’”

While locked in their office, Bush and her staff drafted a resolution to “investigate and expel” any member of Congress who attempted to overturn the election results and “incited a white supremacist attack”.

The resolution reflected the increasing hostility between members of Congress. At times, Bush has said she feels targeted by her own colleagues.

Shortly after the attack, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, ordered the relocation of Bush’s office, after she asked to be moved away from congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene out of concern for her staff’s safety.

Cori Bush shares her own abortion story during a House committee hearing on reproductive rights on 30 September 2021.
Cori Bush shares her own abortion story during a House committee hearing on reproductive rights on 30 September 2021. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Earlier this month, Bush joined House progressives in pressuring the party’s leaders to strip congresswoman Lauren Boebert of her committee assignments over her Islamophobic comments targeting Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who is Muslim. At a press conference, she unloaded on Boebert, calling her a “lying, Islamophobic, race-baiting, violence-inciting, white supremacist sentiment-spreading, Christmas tree gun-toting elected official” who is a “danger” to her country and her colleagues.

Like her colleagues in the “squad”, Bush has been unafraid to challenge Democratic leaders, even the president.

“I am who I am,” she said. “I don’t take off my activist hat to be able to legislate in Congress. And so that has been the guiding force this entire time.”

During a tense standoff over Biden’s agenda earlier this year, Bush charged Democratic leaders with breaking their promise to progressives by decoupling two pieces of Biden’s agenda – a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a sweeping social policy package. In a word, she captured progressives’ sense of betrayal: “Bamboozled.” TV network chyrons snapped to reflect the comment and soon Bush was on TV arguing their case. House leaders delayed the vote.

A month later, Bush was one of just six House Democrats to vote against the infrastructure bill that Biden signed into law last month. Not because she opposed the legislation, which would spend billions upgrading Missouri’s bridges and highways, but because she feared that passing the bill without the larger social policy that was a priority for progressives would sap them of their leverage.

Bush now fears she was correct. After a months-long effort to appease conservative Democratic senators, Joe Manchin announced that he could not support the $2.2tn social safety net bill, dooming its chances in the evenly divided chamber.

Bush, who previously denounced Manchin’s opposition to the package as “anti-Black, anti-child, anti-woman, and anti-immigrant”, laid the blame squarely on party leadership.

“Honestly, I’m frustrated with every Democrat who agreed to tie the fate of our most vulnerable communities to the corporatist ego of one Senator. No one should have backed out of our initial strategy that would have kept Build Back Better alive,” she tweeted. Tagging the president, she said: “You need to fix this.

Still, the activist in Bush is not done fighting for the measure, which passed the House in November. “We cannot spend the next year saying, ‘the House did its part, and now it’s the Senate’s turn,’” she said recently. “We need the Senate to actually get this done.”

Bush is also working to elevate issues of racial justice that she said the party does not do enough to prioritize.

Efforts to pass police reform collapsed earlier this year, and voting rights legislation remains stalled in the Senate. The supreme court will soon decide the future of abortion access.

Bush said her Capitol protest was inspired by the moment, but she does not rule out future action.

“If I feel led to move in that way, based upon whatever is happening, it is never off the table for me,” she said.

Some lawmakers are critical of her legislative style. They call it divisive at worst and naive at best. The suggestion is that she will eventually have to learn to compromise and play by the rules.

But in light of Manchin’s opposition, Bush is even more certain of her approach.

“If that were the gold star, we would be a lot further in this country,” she said. “There’s more than one way to get things done.”

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