Cori Bush hits her stride by drawing on activist past

Cori Bush hits her stride by drawing on activist past
© Greg Nash

Rep. Cori Bush, the first-term Democrat from Missouri who has quickly become a progressive standout, describes her life as one of constant learning.

It’s an education that has taken the 45-year-old from the streets of Ferguson, Mo., to the steps of the Capitol, where she slept outside for days demanding that Congress pass legislation to extend an eviction moratorium.

One of her first educational courses was from her father, Errol Bush, who has served as both a local alderman and mayor.

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“I grew up in a home where my dad was always teaching us about civil rights,” Bush told The Hill in a pair of phone interviews. “He always helped me to see your skin color does not make you less than anyone ... you are a leader, he instilled that in me from as early as I can remember, but I didn't understand it yet. I didn't understand what he meant until I was out there on those streets.”

Those streets were in Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where Black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in August 2014.

Brown’s death sparked nationwide anger and was a flashpoint in the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement; Ferguson itself was dominated by unrest and protests, and its police department eventually was forced to enter a consent decree with the Justice Department.

For more than 400 days, Bush and other protesters marched and held demonstrations. On day one, Bush was a registered nurse, pastor and mother of two; by the end, she was a leader of the movement.

“I feel like I learned everything,” Bush continued. “What I didn't learn in school in a school book, I learned out there on those streets, because [they] helped me understand the experiences that I had walked through prior.

“I learned how to use my voice.”

Bush was persuaded to jump into Missouri’s Senate race in 2016, but she didn’t make it beyond the primary.

Two years later, the St. Louis native fell short again, this time in a House race, losing in the Democratic primary to then-Rep. Wm. Lacy ClayWilliam (Lacy) Lacy ClayThe FCC must act to promote minority-owned broadcasting Cori Bush hits her stride by drawing on activist past Lobbying world MORE.

But she never stopped organizing, and her tenacious, grassroots approach finally paid off last year, when she was propelled to an upset victory against Clay.

In November, she easily won the general election, becoming Missouri’s first Black congresswoman.

She credits lessons learned from trauma and hardships, both shared and unshared, as contributing factors to who she is today.

Bush is a survivor of sexual assault, a former low-wage worker and has been evicted multiple times. More recently, she was sidelined for the better part of two months last year with a bout of suspected COVID-19–induced pneumonia that landed her in the hospital twice.

“I always say that St. Louis built me ... because of all the hard knocks that I've gone through,” Bush said.

“So many of them happened on the street, or they happened because of what our communities look like. I've watched so many of my friends and neighbors go through so many of the same things that I did.”

Her lived experiences and deep roots in activism are far from commonplace in Congress, but those close to her say that’s where she draws her strength from.

“The special thing about Cori is her passion, passion for people and the genuineness that she has for people,” Ohun Ashe, a St. Louis organizer and activist who has worked with Bush, told The Hill.

“If you listen to Cori’s story, you know that she’s had some bad experiences with being a Black woman in America. And I think that that has given her a special light to seeing other people, and a special fight and passion not everyone has.”

Bush’s experience with evictions and homelessness served as the basis for her protest on the Capitol steps at the beginning of August. It also underscored some of the tensions between progressives and Democratic leaders who have not always been in lockstep on legislative priorities.

When it came to extending the eviction moratorium, Democrats didn’t have the votes to pass the legislation, but Bush’s demonstration on the Capitol steps garnered the media attention needed to pressure the White House. President BidenJoe BidenBiden: Democrats' spending plan is 'a bigger darn deal' than Obamacare Biden says he's open to altering, eliminating filibuster to advance voting rights Biden: Comment that DOJ should prosecute those who defy subpoenas 'not appropriate' MORE later extended the moratorium until Oct. 3.

Bush’s protest drew praise across the Democratic caucus.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDemocrats scramble to reach deal on taxes On The Money — Sussing out what Sinema wants Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Key CDC panel backs Moderna, J&J boosters MORE (D-Calif.) lauded her “powerful action to keep people in their homes.”

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Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalProposals to reform supports for parents face chopping block Democrats see light at end of tunnel on Biden agenda Democrats jostle over health care priorities for scaled-back package MORE (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, credited Bush’s “clear-eyed, committed activist mentality.”

“I think that it would not have been possible to get to this result without Rep. Bush's action,” Jayapal said at the time.

The Supreme Court, however, struck down the new moratorium, after saying two months earlier that only Congress could extend the temporary ban.

Bush told The Hill that her “heart broke” when she heard the news.

“Even though I'm not on the steps anymore, this isn't over for me and for my office and so many of my colleagues,” Bush said.

She said she’s working with Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersHouse Democrats scramble to save housing as Biden eyes cuts Toomey takes aim at Schumer's spending windfall for NYC public housing On The Money — Democrats eye tough choices as deadline looms MORE (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, to get legislation introduced that would improve disbursement of the $46 billion that Congress approved for emergency rental assistance, the majority of which has failed to reach struggling tenants and their landlords.

Bush also said her office is working on drafting legislation that would give the Department of Health and Human Services the authority to implement eviction moratoriums.

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But the national spotlight also brought with it criticism of other policies that Bush is a proponent of, namely “defunding the police” by redirecting money from police budgets to improve social services such as violence prevention.

In an interview with CBS on Aug. 6 — shortly after Biden announced the new eviction moratorium — Bush's expenditures on private security were juxtaposed with her support for defunding the police.

“You would rather me die? Is that what you want to see? You want to see me die? You know, because that could be the alternative,” she responded.

According to The Hill’s analysis of Federal Election Commission filings, Bush spent almost $70,000 on private security after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection — the most of any House lawmaker.

Bush told The Hill that death threats against her have been commonplace ever since her activism in Ferguson and that the events of Jan. 6 made the transition to Congress more challenging.

"I was told you're more safe here [at the Capitol] than you were before," Bush said. "But the insurrection, just a couple of days in, showed me that that was not the case. And so that was what was difficult."

Going forward, Bush and fellow Democrats are likely to start criticizing each other as new legislative challenges emerge.

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Democrats will soon face a true test of unity when they craft what could amount to a $3.5 trillion spending bill and vote on a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. Some progressives have threatened to oppose the infrastructure bill — which has already passed the Senate — if it’s voted on ahead of before the $3.5 trillion measure that’s packed with progressive policy proposals.

“I think that the possibilities are wide open right now. It seems like every day there's something different,” Bush said.

“I'm not going to back down from making sure that both the budget and the infrastructure plan, that they go together, they have to go together. ... I said that coming to Congress that I will do the absolute most for St. Louis and that is this, so I will not back down from this fight.”

Cristina Marcos contributed.