Cori Bush Said The Democrats’ “Old Ways Of Thinking” Are Holding Them Back

Cori Bush set out to make Congress more reflective of activism outside Washington. But in an institution with hierarchical power structures, how much say does she have?

ST. LOUIS — Before she was in Congress, Cori Bush was a registered nurse. And because she was a nurse, in uniform, she says she was the one who was called over — Cori! Cori! — when a newborn got tossed out of a car at the feet of protesters a few years ago at a march for racial justice in Ferguson, Missouri. Bush says she tucked the baby under her arm like a football and ran behind a building where she checked on it.

Sometimes, you are put in a position where you are in the right place at the right time to save a life. “But you can choose to not. That’s a choice. And so that’s how I approach every single day, as a choice,” Bush says as she recalls the incident. “People are hurting every single moment, every single day, and we know this. So it’s a choice to actually go and do the work.”

Bush is only about one year into her first term and is already one of the highest-profile progressives in the House of Representatives. If you saw the 2019 Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, which captured Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s winning campaign against a powerful Democratic incumbent, you also saw Bush’s losing 2018 primary challenge in the Midwest. If you heard of the lawmaker who camped out on the Capitol steps over the summer and was widely credited with winning an extension of the eviction moratorium, you’ve heard of Bush as she is today. Most recently, Bush was one of six House Democrats to vote against the infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law on this month, withholding her vote not in objection to the bill, but in objection to the fact that Democrats had moved forward with it before the social programs bill progressives had been promised they would pass alongside it.

Bush is determined not to fit in. Her office describes her as a “politivist,” someone who is both a politician and an activist, trying to change the system from within. She’s willing to criticize party leaders like Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and ridicule party moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin. She’s not in Congress to move up in leadership, she says, or hoard institutional power.

But what power that leaves her with is uncertain. Progressives in Congress are in a precarious spot, trying to flex over Biden’s agenda while getting heat from constituents about symbolic votes and looking down the very real possibility of being a small slice of the House minority after next year’s elections. The tension between her role in Congress as she sees it and the realities of the institution, her party, and its leadership are palpable.

“When I was on the ground protesting, it felt like we were teeing up these balls, and nobody was there to hit the ball out of the park. So now I’m like, OK, I know who tees up the balls, so I’m not going to push you all away,” Bush tells BuzzFeed News. “You keep teeing up these balls, and I’m in the position to hit them.”

Bush is sitting at a two-person table in Kingz Turkee Shack, a tiny restaurant tucked in a strip mall in her home city of St. Louis. She’s wearing a T-shirt from her freshly announced reelection campaign and sparkly, mid-calf lace-up boots, and she’s suggesting that a lot of the Democratic Party’s woes are self-inflicted between bites of a meal that includes a tantalizing turkey leg the size of something you’d find at a state fair.

“If you’re not willing to fight for the things that we need, stalling or stifling things because of all of this incrementalism and old ways of thinking, that is what is hurting this party.”

She’s diplomatic in the way that she talks about the forces within her party hurting progressives, not that she’s unwilling to name names. Earlier this month, she released a scathing statement on West Virginia’s Manchin, one of the two Democratic senators who’ve prevented the Build Back Better bill from being the sweeping social spending legislation progressives initially envisioned. She accused him of being “anti-Black, anti-child, anti-woman, and anti-immigrant.” (Asked if he’d ever responded to the statement, whether the two lawmakers had had conversations, or what their relationship was like, Manchin’s office said, “we don’t have anything to add.”) After the Build Back Better legislation passed the House last Friday, she tweeted, “Senator Manchin, we’re looking at you. The people must win.” Historically, the approach to winning people over in the halls of Congress has more often been trying to butter up the person you want on your side. Bush has little patience for that.

“I don’t care about looking like I’m leading, or care about being the one that is staying within — like, just playing the game.”

Bush also presents herself as being in natural conflict with her party’s leaders. If Pelosi were to decide to run to lead the Democratic caucus again after next year’s elections, Bush does not currently “have an answer” for whether she’d support her. A spokesperson for Pelosi told BuzzFeed News in response to questions that "the Speaker is not on a shift, she’s on a mission."

“I don’t wear those same glasses that she wears,” Bush says of Pelosi. “For me, I’m not a woman first, I’m Black first. I don’t care about party lines the way that she does. I don’t care about looking like I’m leading, or care about being the one that is staying within — like, just playing the game.”

The weekend of the House infrastructure vote, Pelosi flew back to San Francisco and officiated the ritzy wedding of Ivy Getty, an heir of the oil fortune. Asked what she made of it, Bush prefaces by saying that she “didn’t know who those people were until I saw people talking about it,” and she ends with saying Pelosi officiating “didn’t really move me either way.”

“My purpose is to lift up those that have been marginalized and oppressed and overlooked. And she’s in a position of power, and that’s more her lane I guess. That’s where her focus is,” Bush says. “People see things differently than others, and I have learned to not condemn people for the way they see things when they haven’t gone through the things that I’ve gone through. Like I can’t change their experiences, the only thing that I can do is expose them to mine, or those of others that they may not know or understand.”

Like I can’t change their experiences, the only thing that I can do is expose them to mine.”

So much of Bush’s approach to politics ties back to her identity as a Black woman and as an activist. Issues around racial justice are not nearly prioritized enough in Congress, she says.

Bush recognizes Biden hasn’t even been in office for a full year, but she thinks he has a lot of work to do, particularly in that area. She’s candid about how disappointing it was to her that police reform talks collapsed this year. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was, in her words, “not the end-all, be-all, the greatest legislation for police reform that there’ll ever be,” and yet Congress couldn't even get that done.

“He has to deliver a substantial win to the Black community as it relates to policing. He has to, because this is not even about just looking good, this is about saving lives,” she says. Bush hadn’t given thought to whether Biden should run for reelection, but says it would be up to him. Days after Bush's interview, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden intends to run for reelection.

If not him, “the question is, who else will run?” Bush says with a laugh.

Bush stands in front of a crowd in a black sequined blazer giving remarks to a group of her top supporters. Earlier in the day, she’d announced that she was running for reelection, and this is the kickoff event. The booze is flowing, her family is in the crowd, and much of St. Louis’s political who’s who had come by to indicate their support.

“When they tell me, You shouldn’t say that because you hurt the Democrats. You shouldn’t say that because you hurt this thing or that thing. And I say, Well, you should’ve fixed it before I got there then,” Bush says to applause. “So don’t tell me how, what I should do now, because you’ve been there — OK.”

She cuts herself off, to the delight of the audience, but the intention of the last part is clear: a while.

She describes the day that the House moved forward with the infrastructure bill, but not a Build Back Better bill, as the “absolute worst day” she’s had in Congress so far. “I’m Black girl broken,” she’d texted St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones. “I was hurting because I couldn’t believe I did the right thing that way that I did,” she told an audience at the campaign event that Friday night, referring to her “no” vote. She told staff she wanted to be off social media and away from the news to take care of herself.

“It’s probably very lonely for her to be someone that’s taking such a strong stand for our people,” Jones, who was invited to and attended the signing of the infrastructure bill at the White House, tells BuzzFeed News. “But she’ll tell anybody, she didn’t go to Congress to play or to be somebody. She went to Congress to do something.”

But that can be difficult to square with constituents, some of whom have challenged her on decisions like her “no” vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. On a town hall call she hosted this month focused on the Build Back Better Act, one caller asked her what progressives would do to avoid the criticism that they were the ones obstructing Biden’s agenda with their “no” votes on infrastructure. Bush demurred, noting that she supported the bill but didn’t back it because she wanted to keep leverage for the social spending bill. Another caller felt that being so focused on Build Back Better instead of touting the infrastructure bill was hurting the Democratic Party.

“You even voted ‘no’ to pass the infrastructure bill, which is great, it’s going to help St. Louis. It’s going to help a whole lot of cities all over the nation. So why can’t we talk more about what’s in the infrastructure act and then still push for the Build Back Better?” Bush again reiterated her position that both were necessary, and that the focus on the social policy bill was because it was the one whose fate was more uncertain.

Around Congress, Bush is known as part of the expanded version of the Squad of progressives pushing Democrats to go for bigger initiatives than political reality may always allow. Though they are reflective of the diversity within the party, voters have often rejected their ideas and preferences — from the presidential primary in 2020 to local issues like a recent ballot amendment in Minneapolis that was endorsed by Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the Squad members, to replace the police department with a department of public safety. All of the Squad members represent Democratic districts; several, like Bush, knocked out incumbents to turn an already-Democratic district into something even more so, versus flipping a conservative or swing district. They are often used in Republican messaging to get a rise out of their base, and often those attacks are racist.

That’s the only problem I see with that kind of passionate commitment to positions. You gotta count on being frustrated.”

In inquiries for insights into Bush from other lawmakers, BuzzFeed News was told a couple of times by members or their offices that they didn’t know her very well, a reflection of the pandemic and her short time in Congress. And while Democrats acknowledge that there’s a changing of the guard happening within the party and are broadly complimentary of her activist approach, it can sometimes run up against the realities of Congress.

“I’ve always been impressed with what she said, and I share a lot of her positions. The one thing about being that — what’s the best word? — seemingly uncompromising is that you don’t understand that in this body you never get 100% of what you want,” says Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, a House committee chair who is retiring at the end of this term. “If you get 80% of what you want, that’s more than most people will ever get.”

“That’s the only problem I see with that kind of passionate commitment to positions. You gotta count on being frustrated.”

Bush can at times be exactly like other politicians. When you see her on the news or hear her on the radio, what she says is very intentional and thought out. She sometimes sidesteps issues, like on the town hall call. And though her own start in politics came protesting on the streets of Ferguson, and she has shared stories of her past that are hard to imagine coming from many lawmakers but that many Americans find relatable — her experience being unhoused; an abortion; what steel-toed police boots feel like as they press down on your body — her exposure to politics from a young age was unusual: Her father, Errol Bush, is a Northwoods alderman. Though she says she was reticent to enter politics herself because of this up-close seat to that sharp-elbowed world, she clearly ended up changing her mind.

“People back home want something different, and this system has not been working, but until it’s completely changed, we have to still scream and make noise, and I think that’s what makes Cori unique,” says Missouri state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, who met Bush while protesting in Ferguson in 2014. This approach to politics is becoming more common as younger, more diverse lawmakers enter office, some of whom, like Bush, survived a violent pro-Trump insurrection at the United States Capitol on their third day in office.

She brings the insurrection up when asked whether she agrees with Ocasio-Cortez, who was recently targeted in an anime video tweeted by a Republican lawmaker, that “institutions don’t protect [women of color].” Bush does agree — the House, she says, has not done enough to protect members, especially when they take votes on hot-button issues. It’s not just Congress where women of color aren’t protected, but yes, it happens there too. Earlier this week, she called for the expulsion of House Republicans who were seeking to hire Kyle Rittenhouse, who was acquitted of all charges, as an intern, arguing that every day it felt more dangerous going to work.

Bush says she understands that others “have not gone through our experiences” or “walked through what it’s like to be a woman of color” in America. They don’t experience “the vitriol and the hatred” the same way. The problem, she says, is “not just that you don’t understand it. It’s that we don’t see your interest in trying to.” ●

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