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Now A Congresswoman, Cori Bush Looks To Bring Activist Power To The Legislative Process

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, poses for a photograph at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Bush became the first Black woman ever to represent Missouri in the U.S. House on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021.
The Office of Congresswoman Cori Bush
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, poses for a photograph at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Bush became the first Black woman ever to represent Missouri in the U.S. House on Sunday.

A newly sworn-in U.S. Rep. Cori Bush says she is eager to harness her activist energy to push legislation about policing following her historic election.

The nurse, pastor and Ferguson front-line protester is the first Black woman ever to represent Missouri in Congress. Her election ended the 50-year family dynasty in the U.S. House of Lacy Clay and his father, Bill Clay.

“I’m walking into Congress the polit-ivist,” Bush said. “So I may be that politician. But I’m also the activist. I was the activist first.”

Because Democrats have only a small majority in the House, some of Bush’s progressive-minded colleagues may have more power than usual to shape the course of major legislation. She said she already made a difference by getting President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team to appoint a nurse to a COVID-19 advisory board.

“And what we plan to continue to do is use this voice and not back down,” Bush said. “Because as an activist, that’s what we do. We need people to understand what people are actually going through. … They may not have that experience. But that’s what we’re going to bring.”

Cori Bush addresses police officers outside Busch Stadium.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Bush's election to Congress is widely seen as a landmark moment for the protest movement that came about after Michael Brown's shooting death in Ferguson.

Heading to Judiciary Committee

Bush begins her freshman congressional term with an appointment to the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Bush said it was especially significant that a protester who came to prominence in Ferguson will be on that committee “because we’ve seen things that others don’t even know is a thing.”

“So people hear stories. And they read articles,” Bush said. “But when you have that actual lived experience, when you can speak about it from the standpoint of 'I was there' versus 'I heard about what happened' — you are able to inform legislation differently.”

One specific example was on expanding community policing. Bush said it’s important to actually define what the term means in practice. She said community policing requires more than “just taking photos at a basketball court with Black boys,” but also showing up at community meetings.

“We saw a little bit of that in Ferguson back during the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd protests when the chief told the officers to come out and be apart of the protests,” she added. “They came out. They kneeled. They were part of the protests. They were helping people. That’s when we talk about community policing. Not a photo op.”

Bush and Congressman Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., stands for a portrait with members of the "Squad," a group of progressive legislators that have called for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
The Office of Congresswoman Cori Bush
Bush and Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York stand for a portrait with members of "the Squad," a group of progressive Democratic legislators who have called for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

Aligning with other progressive Democrats

Bush has associated herself with a group of lawmakers widely known as "the Squad." Many, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, are philosophically and politically aligned with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Bush has been a vocal advocate for things like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, and she also recently called on Biden to end federal executions when he takes office.

On Sunday, Bush voted for Pelosi for speaker of the U.S. House. Before that vote took place, she said that if “Nancy Pelosi is elected today as speaker, she will be held accountable to do that work.”

“She will be the one who we will be looking to,” Bush said. “But also if there needs to be conversations or pressure applied to get the things that we feel our district needs or the things I feel St. Louis needs, then I will have those conversations with her.”

Bush noted that nobody else was running for Pelosi’s seat on the Democratic side and said “she’ll be a better person to do the work than [Republican] Kevin McCarthy.”

“She has been talking about a $2,000 direct payment,” Bush said. “And hopefully we’ll be able to get that in the next package. And so, we will work together. The thing is, we may not always agree. But I’m here to make sure the voices of the people of St. Louis, the regular everyday folks are heard, that the exposure happens. So that’s what I plan to do regardless of the title.”

President Donald Trump speaks at a Granite City Works warehouse on July 26, 2018.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Bush has panned efforts from Republicans, including Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, to overturn the results of the election in which President-elect Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump.

Outrage over election challenge

One of the other major events that will occur during Bush’s first week in office will be the ratification on Wednesday of Biden’s win over President Donald Trump.

This typically pro forma affair is getting more attention this year because scores of Republicans, including Sen. Josh Hawley and at least four representatives from Missouri, are planning to object over the election results.

That bid is doomed to fail, especially since Democrats control the House and a number of Republican senators have panned the idea. A number of House Republicans announced on Sunday that they would not go along with objecting to the election results.

Even the four Missouri Republicans who signed onto the objection acknowledged that their action is symbolic.

“We have no illusions about the outcome, at the end of the day, this is still Nancy Pelosi's House. Our only hope is that more will join us — that more will value protecting the vote of every American living in their state as much as we do fighting for yours,” Reps. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville; Jason Smith, R-Salem; Sam Graves, R-Tarkio; and Billy Long, R-Springfield, wrote in a joint statement.

Bush condemned the push by some Republicans to object to the election as an affront to Black and brown communities that came out during the COVID-19 pandemic to put Biden and Harris in the White House. She went on to call the planned objections “a threat to our democracy” and “a slap in the face” to those who worked to register voters for the election.

“When we talk about voter suppression, that is a form of voter suppression,” Bush said.

Democratic nominee for Missouri's 1st congressional district, Cori Bush, votes at Gambrinus Hall in South St. Louis on Election Day Tuesday, November 3, 2020.
Theo Welling
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Cori Bush votes at Gambrinus Hall in south St. Louis on Election Day. Bush's personal story of being a single mother who experienced poverty is one of the many reasons her victory gained national attention.

Impact on family

Because of the pandemic, there were limitations Sunday on who newly elected members of Congress would be allowed to bring into the chamber for the swearing-in. Bush said she would bring her sister Kelly to the ceremony. Her children would watch from her office.

She also noted how her election to Congress, which drew nationwide attention, has had an impact on her family’s lives.

“I signed up for this. My family didn’t sign up for this. And so they have to deal with the attacks the way I do,” Bush said. “They have to deal with the scrutiny. … It’s absolutely unfair. But my family is right there with me.”

Bush’s father, Northwoods Councilman Errol Bush, didn’t make the trip to Washington. Cori Bush said her dad, who has been involved in north St. Louis County politics for years, “is absolutely overjoyed” by her becoming a member of Congress.

“Because the thing is, with my dad being in politics for so long, this is like the next step — me standing on his shoulders,” Bush said. “He is the foundation for everything I’ve done as well as the rest of our family.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.