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Bell backs Israel, abortion rights and radiation victims in challenge of incumbent Bush

Sophie Proe
St.Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell photographed at St. Louis Public Radio on Wednesday

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell’s challenge of Congresswoman Cori Bush was already garnering the attention of national political prognosticators as it represented a serious challenge to a high-profile House member who’s been a vocal critic of Israel.

But during an episode of the Politically Speaking Hour on St. Louis on the Air, Bell noted that his race for the Democratic nomination against Bush and former state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal to represent Missouri’s 1st Congressional District isn’t the same as other challenges to a group of House Democrats known as “The Squad.”

“I think that each district and each race is unique in its own right,” Bell said. “And our district is a very diverse district, the most diverse district in the state. And, and I think as a result, there's unique issues that we have to deal with.”

Some national political reporters took more notice of the 1st Congressional District race after New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman’s defeat in a primary where his opposition to Israel in Gaza was a major issue. But Bush’s district has a plurality Black population, while Bowman’s district has a much larger percentage of white and Latino voters.

Both Bush and Bell have said that Black voters don’t see the war in Gaza as the prime issue that determines who they’ll vote for on Aug. 6. That’s backed up in some polls of Black voters showing that candidate opinions on Israel rank much lower than other issues.

“There are folks in this district who are not showing up to the polls with what's going on in the Middle East as their main reason for voting,” Bell said. “And while that's true, that doesn't mean it's not important.”

Bell’s campaign is receiving several million dollars of outside support from groups such as the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s political committee. After Bowman’s loss, Bush stated that groups like AIPAC “poured a tidal wave of cash into [Bowman’s] primary race showing us just how desperate these billionaire extremists are in their attempts to buy our democracy, promote their own gain, and silence the voices of progress and justice.”

Even though Bell acknowledged candidate opinions about Israel aren’t the primary issue in the heavily Democratic district that includes St. Louis, he said he backs the United States providing support for the country after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

“We want to see a peaceful resolution. I want to be part of the coalition that brings a peaceful resolution to that region,” Bell said. “But it is a tough situation. But in the meantime, we do have to stand by our allies.”

Abortion rights and federal compensation for radioactive exposure

Bell also discussed a number of other topics on the show, including his support for putting abortion rights into federal law and his backing of legislation expanding the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to the St. Louis area.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley’s version of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act would provide access to the program to people in the St. Louis region who became sickened due to radioactive waste exposure. It passed the Senate twice but ran into roadblocks in the GOP-controlled House.

Asked how he would approach that issue when other lawmakers such as Hawley, Bush and U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner have tried all sorts of strategies to get it passed, Bell replied, “The toughest part of this job is the coalition building, and there's no workaround, there's no shortcut.”

“And in order to get legislation passed, you have to not only work with your own caucus, but also you're going to have to reach across the aisle.”

Some of Bush’s allies chastised Bell’s campaign recently for sending out a tweet that implied he received the endorsement of Planned Parenthood in the race. Bush has received the organization’s endorsement. Bell later amended the tweet to say he received the support in past races but added that his support for abortion rights remains strong.

“Let's reinstate 50 years of precedent that was taken away with the Dobbs decision,” he said.

He also said that he would push to increase federal support for court diversion programs for people who are accused of crimes with mental health or substance abuse issues.

“When they come to our doors, it's because they've been charged with a crime,” Bell said. “We're uniquely situated to be able to offer the carrot and stick: You work this program in good faith, we won't prosecute you.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Ulaa Kuziez, Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr and the production intern is Roshae Hemmings. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

Wesley Bell joins the Politically Speaking Hour on St. Louis on the Air

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