Q&A with Cori Bush, Missouri’s first black Congresswoman

‘This is our moment to finally start living,’ Bush says

In this screen grab, Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush participates in Supercharge: Women All In, a virtual day of action hosted by Supermajority, on September 26. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images for Supermajority)

Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush has told the same story ever since her first campaign in 2016.

At one point in her life, she was a working nurse and single mother living out of her car with her children — never imagining she’d ever find herself in that situation. 

“I was that person running for my life across a parking lot, running from an abuser,” Bush said in her acceptance speech on Nov. 3. “I remember hearing bullets whiz past my head. And at that moment, I wondered, ‘How do I make it out of this life?’’

She’s also been uninsured and locked into the perpetual debt cycle of payday lending. 

“I’m still that person,” Bush said. “I’m proud to stand before you today, knowing it was this person, with these experiences, that moved the voters of St. Louis to do something historic. St. Louis, my home, we have been surviving and grinding, just scraping by and now this is our moment to finally start living.”

Bush’s election to represent Missouri’s 1st Congressional District makes her the state’s first Black Congresswoman. She was also the only person elected this year to either Congress or a statewide office in Missouri who wasn’t an incumbent.

And while her win was celebrated throughout the country by progressive voters, she has been vilified at home by Republicans and kept at a distance by some Democrats.

Bush is a Ferguson frontline activist, and she supports the renewed demands for police reform and accountability echoed nationwide this year. 

The calls to “defund the police” that arose this summer reflect the same calls for action made in the Ferguson Commission’s report in 2015, said Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, a Democrat who represents St. Louis city and who served on the commission. 

“How do we reimagine public safety — that’s the same as saying ‘defund the police,’” said Aldridge, who is also a Ferguson activist. “In the past 10 years, crime has been up when we had plenty of police and being tough on crime hasn’t gotten us anywhere.”

Gov. Mike Parson won re-election with a tough-on-crime platform, and along with the Missouri Republican Party, saw Bush’s statements to defund the police, military and Pentagon as the perfect ammunition against his rival, Democrat Nicole Galloway.

“My opponent endorses people who want to defund the military,” Governor-elect Mike Parson said at a Columbia campaign stop. “If you run with that crowd, you are that crowd. That is just the way this world works.”

The Independent recently spoke with Bush about these statements, the criticism she’s faced and her new role as a leader in Missouri’s Democratic Party. 

The Independent: You are now one the state’s top Democrats. What will your role as a party leader look like?

Bush: First, it’ll be a continuation of who I have been — the pastor, the nurse, the activist, the single mother. First and foremost, it’s always been my job to show up. And that is what people know about me. So as Congresswoman of Missouri’s 1st District, I will do the same. I will show up. I will be the active leader, that present leader as much as I can, trying to work between here and D.C. Being in this position, it’s such an honor. And it’s a great responsibility. It’s a lot of accountability. And so that’s the kind of leader I want to be — the one that is responsible and accountable. Like I’ve been saying, this thing is about love and humanity. And in order to do that, I will have to stand on my principles. 

The Independent: Were you surprised by Missouri’s election results on Tuesday?

Bush: Oh, yeah. I mean, we went into this all knowing that it would be tough. Ever since 2016,  (we’ve) been asking: how did we end up with a 2016 election night where we lost all of those seats? We didn’t figure that out. The base that showed up in 2016 showed up again this time, and so we just have to do the work to be able to chip away at that base. 

As Democrats, we have a lot of ground to make up in many parts of our state. And the thing about it is, Republicans, they have shown themselves. They will hold back nothing to try to keep that power. And they will go low. It’s evident in the bigoted attacks, the dog whistles, the dishonesty that you saw come out of their campaign, even the Missouri GOP. But the Democrats weren’t playing the same game.

The Independent: Then, how can Democrats prevent another Trump in four years from taking away any kind of gains Democrats made in this presidential election?

Bush: We can’t play the middle of the road because they aren’t. They’re making a very clear stance. They’re drawing a very clear line in the sand about what they believe, and that no matter what happens, they are going to stay as a group and stand together. And so, I think as Democrats, we need to do the same thing. 

People can look at me and say, ‘Oh, well she has these strong stances. And she’s not willing to compromise.’ Well, the thing is, that resonated with people in this district because 245,000 of them voted for me to move on to Congress. And I think it’s because people were tired of trying to figure out where people stand. People are tired of that. People are looking for that champion. And even though Donald Trump was not the best champion, even though he’s not the one that people should have looked to and followed, he was very serious and very clear about how he feels about certain things. And even though some of it was absolutely disgusting, people know where he stands. I think as Democrats, we have to show up that same way so that we don’t end up in this position in four years, where there is this clear line, this is what we believe, and this is it. 

I understand that sometimes people are trying to toe the line because of the districts that they live in. But when people know how you feel, they feel like you’ve been standing on this. People want bold leaders. They want serious leaders. They want leaders that are going to step out of the box because if you’re going to follow, why are you running? If you’re going to lead, then that’s why you run. I think that is the difference.

The Independent: As the election neared, it seemed Republicans continually tried to make you a key figure in the governor’s race. What was your take on that?

Bush: Well, first off, I truly believe that it was just all racially charged. Because if I was a white woman saying the exact same thing, no one would have said anything. It wouldn’t have started a thing. The issue is because I’m a Black woman who fights for Black lives and has been very vocal about it, calling out systems and calling out people who I feel have been complacent in those areas that could have done different work but chose not to because their lives are on the line. That was the reason why I believe that they used me to try to hurt her campaign. 

It was totally racially charged. It was that southern strategy. It was really to invoke fear and panic in people to make them not think clearly, and not research the person, not look at who Nicole really is. It was just about, “My governor said this, and so I’m sure it must be true. And now I’m afraid.” 

I think that that was a huge error on Parson’s part. He has not been taking this seat seriously, in my eyes, as a governor. He is running this seat like he is the chair of the carwash committee. He has to remember that 24 hours of the day, seven days a week, he is the governor of an entire state. And if he does not want to be the governor of a state that has people that are black, brown, and so many are from different backgrounds and all walks of life. If he does not want to be the governor of all of us, then he needs to move on. And right now, he does not want to be that and it’s very evident. 

The Independent: Is there one line or one thing that sticks out in your mind, from all things people have told you since you were declared the winner on Tuesday?

Bush: Oh, wow. Well, someone said to me, “I see me in you.” And this was someone I had never met. A young Black woman. And that meant everything to me. Because that’s what this is supposed to be. Because I’m taking St. Louis to Congress, not Cori.