Cori Bush of Netflix's 'Knock Down the House' Discusses Her Newest Campaign
We spoke with Cori Bush — one of the grassroots congressional candidates featured in the Netflix documentary ‘Knock Down the House’ — about her first run for Missouri’s 1st congressional district House seat, as well her upcoming election in 2020. Her opponent, incumbent Lacy Clay Jr., succeeded his father, Clay Sr., who took the seat in 1969. During the 2017-2018 congressional cycle Clay accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars of corporate PAC money which came from companies like Bank of America, Boeing, Goldman Sachs, and AT&T. Bush refuses all corporate PAC money and is endorsed by progressive leaders like Angela Davis, Nina Turner, and Shaun King.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
MFU: Brand New Congress, the organization that supported your congressional campaign, is identifying non-politician candidates from across the political spectrum who want to fight for the interests of working-class citizens. In other words, it’s not about left versus right; it’s about top versus bottom. Why do you believe this message can win in your community?
CB: I think people are just at their wits’ end. They are fed up with our political climate. They are fed up with the circus that’s happening in Washington. People want to feel like they’re being represented by people that speak to them and that can speak for them. Due to the current conversation surrounding politics people are finding out that we don’t have to take what we’ve been handed for so long. We don’t have to accept politicians who only cater to their high-dollar donors. We don’t have to accept politicians who speak for their lobbyists. Now people are seeing that there are candidates out there who come from their same community, and are willing to fight, and are winning.
MFU: Netflix’s release of the film ‘Knock Down the House’ — a documentary covering Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats’ 2018 congressional candidates — has brought a lot of attention to your campaign and the broader political movement. What role does the media play in making or breaking a grassroots campaign like yours? What role does social media play?
CB: The media plays a huge role and my biggest lesson with that was probably during the Ferguson uprising, seeing the media portray what was happening on the ground as something completely different than what was actually happening. They would say something really bad was happening and it wasn’t, or they would skip the great thing that just happened and only talk about the bad thing, or they would say how all things were great when somebody was just beaten by the police.
We learned early that we need to control our narrative and that’s what we began to do. Then we saw how things started to change once we started doing that. We had our own independent media telling our stories.
Whenever a journalist writes a story about me, Amy Vilela, or Paula Jean Swearengin, and does not mention our names — calls us the other women, the other candidates or something — we have been making a point to strike back immediately and say, ‘No — name us.’ What they are doing is the exact thing that we fought against in our races. We fought against the media not saying our names because the incumbent, or the person with the most money, or the person that was the party favorite was the one they wanted to talk about. We weren’t important enough for them to say our names, and so in that way this movie really helps.
Social media plays a huge role in helping people see that there is validity in your race. And I would say on more of an external level, because those people may not be in your district, those may not be your voters. But those are still people that tell other people about you, and it puts you in a position to where even the media will see you and then maybe they’ll write a story or add you to a story and say your name. Social media is also a great way to reach certain demographics. You won’t reach our elder population for the most part you, but you’ll definitely reach millennials and younger crowds. And we can’t turn away from any group, we have to make sure that we’re outreaching to everyone.
MFU: In the 2017-2018 cycle, PAC contributions made up 87% of Clay’s donations. The money came from Bank of America, Boeing, Goldman Sachs, AT&T, Ameren (a gas and electric company), and other corporate donors. Do you see Clay’s financial connections to these corporations expressed in how he has been serving your community?
CB: Yes — in the way that he feels that he doesn’t have to reach out and be present in the community. It is well-known in the St. Louis area that he is the absent representative, because he doesn’t have to be accountable to the everyday St. Louisan, he doesn’t have to be accountable to the people of his district, he doesn’t have to show up here, he doesn’t have to live here — because he does not live here. He does not have to do those things because he does not rely on the people of St. Louis to keep him in office because he’s getting money from other places. He accepts money from the Pay Day loan industry and he votes for the Pay Day loan industry.
Being someone who did not come from money, who did not grow up in an affluent neighborhood, I did not have that type of life, and I remember feeling very underrepresented, and feeling like I had no voice and no amount of money I could give to a candidate who I felt would change that. And I feel the same way now as it relates to him.
One thing that he has been quoted saying is — and these are not the exact words that he used — that he can take the corporate money and vote however he wants. He basically says, ‘If you can’t take corporate money and vote against them, then you shouldn’t be in this seat.’ But the problem that I have with that is that you can do the same thing to voters. You’ll tell your residents one thing and then you’ll vote another way.
MFU: And there’s a reason the corporations keep funding him.
CB: Exactly. A quarter of a million dollars was offered to me in my race in 2018 and I turned it down — every penny.
MFU: You are going up against a political family which has held this congressional seat since 1969. Your opponent, Lacy Clay Jr., who succeeded his father, Clay Sr., saw little opposition to his seat until your 2018 primary challenge. Do you see parallels between this race and the race Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran in the Bronx against Crowley, who had not faced a primary challenge in over a decade?
CB: Absolutely. The amount of time that they’ve both been serv...I won’t say serving...the amount of time they’ve both been occupying their seats. Also the fact that they do not live in their communities. They did not raise their children in their communities. It is disheartening.
I know what St. Louis is like. I know what the heart and soul of this district is because I’ve lived here. I’ve cried here. This is where I’ve gone to school. This is where I grew up. This is where I’ve worked. This is where I’ve fought in the streets. I almost lost my life in these streets fighting for justice.
To see someone say that they represent this community and have for eighteen years yet this person does not have the same soul for St. Louis that not only I but many people have, is disheartening. And he’s not even trying to. It’s one thing to say, ‘Okay, I’ve made these mistakes before but I see now. I understand that maybe I wasn’t doing some of these things right, but I can change.’ But to feel like, ‘No, I don’t have to do that. I’m great and you’re little. I’m big and you’re small’…that’s the problem that I have with it.
MFU: You are a nurse. What is it like to have such a personal connection to the crises of the healthcare system?
CB: It is overwhelming because you want to help and fix everything and everybody, but you fight with a lack of resources, and you fight with misinformation and miseducation. And so it’s like a horrible, never-ending cycle.
I worked for quite a while in community-based mental health; now I not only work in mental health but I also work in community-based medical. We’re trying to remove the stigma from mental health. We’re also trying to help people not only be able to get medicine but be able to live once they pay for their medicine. That’s such a hard thing. It’s such a hard thing when the resources are not there.
Missouri did not expand Medicaid. But we have so many people who do not have Medicaid, that have no insurance; they’re low wage, or they don’t have income. How do we expect to have a great, thriving St. Louis when we’re allowing our people to be sick? When we’re allowing them to have to decide between their rent and medication? When we don’t have any wrap-around services to make sure they have clean water in their home?
As a nurse I have to look at all of those pieces. I can’t just say, ‘Okay, you have diabetes. Let me make sure that you get medication and we monitor you.’ If you have a mental health issue and you hear voices then you don’t care about diabetes; you don’t even realize you have it because the voices are so strong. Once we get rid of the voices we can get you on medication for your diabetes, but do you live in a food desert? Do you have access to quality food? Do you understand how to read the medical material? Is it on the third grade level or is it too advanced? You know, all of those pieces.
And another thing we are battling with in St. Louis, which is a problem all over the country, is high black infant mortality rates and high black maternal mortality rates. This is not being addressed and they also want to close our Planned Parenthood.
These are the issues but it makes it even worse when you have representatives who could be stepping out and being really vocal about this — really moving and shaking some stuff around — who aren’t doing anything, who are complacent.