Why Is This Happening?: Taking the fight to Congress with Rep. Cori Bush: podcast and transcript
From her experience as a single mom trying to figure out how to pay her bills, to her time as a nurse working tirelessly for her patients, to her dedication as an activist marching for accountability in the streets of Ferguson, Rep. Cori Bush can tell you exactly why her district voted for her in 2020. She knows she didn’t take the road well-travelled on her path to Congress, and her defeat of 10-term incumbent Lacy Clay was one of the biggest upsets of the election, but it’s her relatability that sets her apart. It also helps that she’s a natural born storyteller – and if you don’t believe us, then you need only listen to this episode.
Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.
CORI BUSH: This was years ago – I was sitting in front of a payday loan company. I needed money for a bill and I still had to pay rent. Single parent, not getting child support.
I just remember just thinking, “Why do I have to live like this? Who is speaking for people like me? Who’s speaking for the single parents that are out here doing our best?” I’ll never forget that moment of not wanting to walk into those doors with my two children sitting in the backseat. I want to be that person now in this position that other people are looking to, to say, “Yes, she sees me. She hears me. She is listening to my situation.
CHRIS HAYES: Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me your host, Chris Hayes. The United States Congress, the legislature for the American state, is two bodies, the House and the Senate, which are representative bodies that represent the people in the United States. Obviously, the President is the lone figure that represents the totality of all Americans, but as a representative body like Congress, Senate are not particularly representative. That’s been true for a very long time, obviously. For a very long time, it was only White men.
The racial and gender diversity has improved, particularly over the last 20 years or so, but still, it’s way, way, way, way, way more White men than the country as a whole. But it’s also not particularly representative in terms of… economically, in terms of class and education, things like that. I mean, that’s not crazy. A lot of legislators around the world are like that, but you’ve got a situation in which I think the median wealth for all members of Congress is about $1 million, which means half of members of Congress have more wealth than that half who have less. The median wealth for Americans at large is about $75,000, right? So, half of Americans have less than $75,000 of net worth and half have more.
So, you’ve got a situation in which a lot of members of Congress are very wealthy. Some are businessmen or businesswomen who got into politics for that reason. In fact, recruiting candidates… My brother, Luke Hayes, who is a campaign manager, talked about this. Fundraising is huge part of what you do as a candidate. One of the best ways to have a Rolodex of rich people you can call is to be rich yourself. So, when you’re recruiting candidates, you tend to recruit a lot of people who are either themselves high net worth individuals or have professional contacts. They have professional contacts with the donor class. All this skews the degree to which you get, for lack of a better word, normal people serving in Congress.
I think one of the things that was so striking when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary race was that here’s someone who was recently removed from being a bartender, who was not coming from some multimillion dollar business or some big corporate law firm and seemed, I think, to a lot of people, particularly people I think around my age and younger, incredibly relatable and recognizable as a person who’s just seemed like them. And then in this last election, there was this incredible primary upset that in some ways was even more surprising than AOC’s primary upset. It happened in St. Louis and Ferguson in the first congressional district of Missouri.
Lacy Clay was the incumbent, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, a Black political royalty, you might say, in St. Louis, a family name, replete with elected officials and local leaders. He was upset in a primary challenge by Cori Bush. Cori Bush became the first Black congresswoman in Missouri history. Now, Bush had run in a primary and lost to Kander for that senate race back in 2016, ran for congress in 2018, lost to Clay, then ran again in 2020 and won. It was really one of the most surprising results of that election year.
I have to say, every time that I see Cori Bush, watching her speak on the House floor or speaking on my show, it’s so palpable how different she is and again, more like a normal person than most politicians. It’s so striking. It’s so refreshing to hear from someone who is just coming to politics from a very different place and not from the normal mechanisms that essentially funnel people into elected office. I thought from the first moments that I started to follow her that she would be a great guest of the podcast. So, it’s my great pleasure to introduce Representative Cori Bush. Thank you so much, Congresswoman.
CORI BUSH: Thank you for having me.
CHRIS HAYES: Usually, when you get introduced to a place, everyone talks about your accolades and I’m talking about how normal and real you are.
CORI BUSH: I love it.
CHRIS HAYES: I was like, “I hope she’s appreciating this.”
CORI BUSH: No, I love it. I’m like, “You see me. You see me.”
CHRIS HAYES: Can you just first tell me a little bit about where you’re from, where you grew up, what your childhood was like?
CORI BUSH: Yeah. Our journey started in St. Louis City on the west side. We moved to St. Louis County, not very far away, just minutes away. That’s mostly where I grew up, I think just before kindergarten and up through early adulthood. So, actually, the community that we moved to was still pretty White community. It was starting to become a little more diverse from when we moved in. And now, it’s a predominantly Black community. My father got into politics in that community early. He’s been in politics for most of my life.
CORI BUSH: So, I grew up in a place where the police knocking on the door to talk to my dad. It was something that happened several times a week or going to the council meetings and campaign meetings and just all of those things, going to banquets. That was just the way that I grew up, but we didn’t come from wealth. So, my parents still struggled every single day, but my dad was a union meat cutter. So, that’s how he was able to take care of his family.
CHRIS HAYES: So, your dad was a union meat cutter. What kind of political position did he have in the town you’re in, in St. Louis County?
CORI BUSH: Yeah, he’s definitely a Democrat, but he was from that age where you had to – as a Black politician – there were… For me, I ran without taking any corporate money. That was not necessarily the thing back then running for office, especially if you’re going to go on the federal level or I guess on the state level. Having those ties with corporations and big business, I think, were part of the thing. My dad wasn’t necessarily one of those people, but those were people that he was around. It wasn’t frowned upon, necessarily. My dad was one that would boycott on the highway if there were contracts for these highway projects that didn’t include Black workers. He was that type of father.
CHRIS HAYES: So, you grew up in this household. Now, that experience, I want to talk a little bit about, because I was struck when I was in Ferguson how much that shaped the context of Ferguson, which is basically, you had White flight in the ’70s out of St. Louis City into the County. And then you had a lot of Black folks moving from the city to the county for the same reasons that White folks had. They wanted bigger houses. They want a little bit of space. They want a little greenery. The schools are better, right? But that created both tension and then White flight further out essentially.
CORI BUSH: Yes, yes.
CHRIS HAYES: Is that what happened, where you were?
CORI BUSH: Yes, that’s exactly what happened. People continue to move further north. Some moved further north. Some moved west. But we saw that with that, also meant that a lot of businesses also left. The bigger chain stores left. I just saw them one by one, grocery stores leave the community and other businesses. So, this turned into a lot more mom-and-pop kind of businesses in the community. We still have some franchises, but I just saw it. I just didn’t understand as a youth why these businesses were leaving our community.
CHRIS HAYES: You ended up going to nursing school, right?
CORI BUSH: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: What drove you towards that?
CORI BUSH: So, I always wanted to be a nurse. Both of my grandmothers were in the nursing field, along with their sisters. So, it’s just nursing or the military is just who my family is for the most part. But I always saw my grandmothers in the white hat, the white dress and the white stockings and shoes, but I never saw them working. They were sitting on the couch or walking around the house. So, I didn’t even think about being a nurse, but it wasn’t until I was a candy striper at a hospital and I saw this Black nurse. She had on the same type outfit, but she was working. She was taking care of the patients. She was running things. She was just on her game. And then her makeup was flawless, hair was flawless. She had the rings. Back then, we wore rings and the jewelry.
CORI BUSH: I was like, “She is amazing. Who is this? I want to be her.” That’s when I realized I wanted to be a nurse, because I saw how the patients responded to her. One thing that we were told in school and I saw it actually happened in nursing school, we were taught that with our cancer patients, turning on The Three Stooges, it would help them to heal. Laughter and having the right atmosphere will help with healing. I saw her touch do that. I saw her presence, and I was like, “I got to do that.” So that’s how it started. And then I just wasn’t able to go right out of high school into nursing. So, when I was able to, I had to go.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s really always striking to me when I’m in the presence of nurses and good nurses. Most nurses I’ve ever encountered have been good nurses. I mean, my little girl, my nine-year-old just broke her arm.
CORI BUSH: Oh, no.
CHRIS HAYES: She’s okay. She’s fine, just wrist break, school ground kickball situation, but there’s just something so incredible about a nurse, a good nurse. I mean, we were in this urgent care and just attentive to her and helping her get the IV in. It requires so much brains and heart and so much of a person to be a good nurse. I have a lot of nurses in my family. I think it’s got to be amazing preparation for almost anything you do in your life. It’s very high stakes work.
CORI BUSH: Very, very. People don’t realize that all we do as nurses, even if we just take our documentation, how tight our documentation has to be to not only care for the person but show how you care for the person, caring for multiple people at a time with different disease processes and then what their mental status. As a nurse, I didn’t know walking in the door that I would take so much abuse.
I have literally been kicked, spit on, punched, chased, jumped on, all of that trying to take care of patients. But then also, every time I walk into a room and I get my patient, it’s like, “This is my baby.” That’s how I see them and maybe other nurses do, too. Even if it’s a grown person who’s older than me, this is my baby. I have to protect this person and care. Everybody else is going to hurt this person. I’m the one that’s going to take care of them.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, because you’re also much more present than the doctors who are always just in and out a lot more. That’s always the experience of being in the hospital. I mean, the thing I always think of are labor and delivery nurses who are some of the greatest people on earth. I think they also have an amazing job, because they’re present in people’s most amazing moment, but also extremely fraught and high stakes. They’re so present for those moments. I still think about those labor and delivery nurses for each of the births of my three kids as just precious relationships in some way, those moments that you’re with this person at the most important moment of your life.
CORI BUSH: Yes. That’s who you have to rely on. That’s the thing is I get to work to help this person, in some cases, save this person’s life, just that spectrum, just depending on what’s happening. So, being skilled and in the moment to be able to do that is such an amazing thing.
CHRIS HAYES: I was going through your bio. I realized that you are also a pastor, which in some ways explained a lot, because I mean, obviously, you have an incredible gift for speaking clearly and have real rhetorical dexterity. When I found out you’re a pastor, I was like, “Oh, that I get it now, I can see that this is something that you worked on and trained.” Tell me a little bit about that experience.
CORI BUSH: Yeah, I think for me, it just happened. I didn’t set out to become a pastor, the same as I didn’t set out to become an activist or a politician. My dad, because I grew up on stages, with him saying, I’m eight years old, go up there and give that Easter speech. I’m like, “Dad, I don’t want to speak and get on a microphone.” He’s like, “No, go do it.”
CHRIS HAYES: This would be a church or this would be at a political event?
CORI BUSH: That would be a church, but then I also did it for political events. If it was a campaign rally or some type of event, he would have me hop upon the stage.
CHRIS HAYES: Wow, you started getting trained really young.
CORI BUSH: Very early. But then once I decided to go into ministry, I think it was just allowing my heart and my passion to speak for me. I think that’s more of what it was. It was just realizing that how deeply I feel about this thing, it’s okay, so express it just like that. Don’t try to put that fire out to make yourself more palatable to people. Just be who you are. Actually, Chris, what it is, it’s all the hurt and all the pain, all the turmoil that I’ve gone through or witnessed that is speaking.
CHRIS HAYES: What specifically when you say that?
CORI BUSH: I think about how I could have lost my life in intimate partner violence situations that I went through. I think about how just in my community, so many friends that I lost. Just in a two-year period, I lost more than 40 of my friends due to either gun violence or just being picked off and sent to jail, sent to prison, just a lot. I just went through a lot of sexual trauma. I was sexually assaulted multiple times in just different situations. So, just all of that.
Even being a low wage worker, working for such a long time, caring for children to the point to where I saved the child’s life giving him the Heimlich maneuver one day. He was choking. This young guy was choking on a piece of hot dog. But because I knew the difference in how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a 5-year-old, how different that is from an infant or a 20-year-old, I was able to save his life. So, all of those things – I speak from that place of, “What it was like in that moment to live through those things? How can I carry that forward when I was assaulted by law enforcement during Ferguson?” I think about that whenever I’m talking about criminal legal reform. I think about how I felt when my face hit the ground after they threw me up in the air and I landed on my face. They stomped me like a rag on the street. So, all of that, I keep with me.
CHRIS HAYES: First of all, thank you for sharing that. I’m sorry that happened to you. I know that you’ve talked about some of those experiences on the campaign trail. Are you still a person of faith? Do you still go to church? Do you still pray?
CORI BUSH: Oh, absolutely. That’s the only way I’m able to do the work that I do, 100%. That’s the very core of who I am. I do everything – I first pray.
CHRIS HAYES: So, you mentioned Ferguson. Ferguson, I think, is a real turning point in your personal story. So, I want to take a quick break. When we come back, if you could talk a little bit about what happened in Ferguson and how that changed your trajectory. We’ll be right back.
So, when Michael Brown was shot and killed, what were you doing at that point in your life? How did that affect you?
CORI BUSH: I was the clinical director, I believe, was my title at the time or nursing supervisor, one of the two, working for a community mental health center in St. Louis City. I was also pastoring a church. At the time, I was looking for a new building, we were trying to move locations and just taking care of my two children, who were I think 13 and 14 or 12 and 13 at the time. Part of my work as a pastor, I was working with people who were in sex trafficking. So, I was fighting sex trafficking every day. I was working with that in-house, community. Nobody knew my name, but that’s just the work that we were doing, very boots to the groundwork. And then he was killed.
I remember the first day that I saw a post on social media. It was just the picture of his body laying on the ground. I remember I saw it and was like, “Oh, my gosh,” but I scrolled past it. I kept seeing it in my feed and I kept scrolling. I went on about my day. I had church service that morning. Anyway, I just went on about my day until I finally stopped and looked at it and realized, “This is a real person. This happened. What happened?”
Not only that it was in Ferguson, which was just six minutes from my home, it happened in the area that I frequented. So, I took to the street. I didn’t know what I would do other than I felt like, “Okay, I’m a nurse. I can be a medic on the street,” because there was so many people out. People were angry and rightfully so. I was angry. I could pray with people, because I’m the pastor. So, I felt like that was my work. I just didn’t realize that showing up that first day that I would end up showing up for 400 more.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean you kept going and kept going and kept going, right? You got more and more involved in the movement there. You just referred to a moment when a police threw you. What were the interactions with police like from your perspective during that time, during those protests?
CORI BUSH: Horrific, traumatizing, intrusive, brutal. It was just a very terrifying time. The later the day got, we knew that things would get worse, especially once it got dark.
CHRIS HAYES: I remember.
CORI BUSH: Yeah. I remember rubber bullets, real bullets, dogs, tear gas, pepper spray, batons. Yeah, that’s what it was like.
CHRIS HAYES: You’re a member of congress now, which means that you interact, I’m sure, with law enforcement all the time. There’s police departments that you represent. There’s probably sheriff’s offices. Obviously, there’s a Capitol Police. I wonder – what are those interactions like? How do you think about the interactions you have with the police now from your position?
CORI BUSH: Yeah. So, for me, it’s just been this roller coaster, I think, because when I started early on when I was a child, the police were always at my home. I think I was 11. I volunteered at our local police department where my dad was the mayor, I think, at the time of that community. So, it wasn’t until I got a little bit older that the relationship with police changed. I remember I started to get harassed sexually by police officers in police cars. I started to see my friends get picked on a lot and profiled the older I got into my teen years. I just didn’t understand, because in my neighborhood, I didn’t see that happen to me. But when I stepped outside of my neighborhood, it was a different story.
After Michael Brown was killed, to have the reaction of the police, to have this militarized force to treat us like we were terrorists every single day, every moment, as long as they thought you were a protester, you were treated in this way. So, it was just very, very different. And then now to be the Congresswoman in that same area, to be able to now influence what that service looks like from those departments, for them to know that Cori is going to show up if this happens. If something’s going to happen, Cori is going to move. Cori is going to mobilize if something happens. To have that is saving lives every single day.
Now, there are some departments or police that I haven’t had as much direct conversation with. So, they only know what they’ve heard or seen on television. But there are a lot of police and police departments in my community who know and understand why I’m the way that I am. So, we have great relationships. They call me. We talk. They understand why I’m doing what I’m doing. They applaud the work that I’m doing. Let me say just as an example, just over the weekend… It’s still a really tough thing to talk about … there was a young girl, 12 years old, who lost her life. There was a bad storm in St. Louis. Her parent’s car, it was washed away with the water. She was sucked into a storm drain in a ditch into a storm drain.
Her body ended up coming out of the storm drain about a couple miles from there. So, she lost her life. During that process, as the community, we came together. We were trying to find her, because we couldn’t find her. She just was swept away into this drain. So, the community came out with ropes and boots and who knows how to dive and who has an oxygen tank to be able to go into this small space to see if we can find the girl. The police were there. Law enforcement was there. Missouri State Highway Patrol was there. They know who I am.
As soon as I walked up, “Hey, Congresswoman, let’s talk about what’s happening.” So, we talked. We were able to work together to help in this moment. So, there was no, “Oh, there’s Cori. We don’t want to talk to her.” No, they understand that my heart is for my community and I love all people. That’s the thing. I don’t want to see anybody hurt. I don’t want to see anyone discriminated against. I don’t want to see anyone assaulted, anyone’s rights taken away. I believe in humanity and they get that.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s interesting, too, because what you’re describing, I feel like, the relationships, people talking about police-community relationships, which is always a weird smoothing out term, but they’re complicated. I remember in the early 1990s in the Bronx, there was a lot of complaints about a lack of policing, the feeling that basically the cops were inattentive, that they didn’t respond to the calls from folks in the Bronx. And then there’s huge anger about over policing, mass incarceration.
Obviously, Eric Adams in New York City was an interesting figure, because he’s a cop, but he had clashed with the police union over allegations of racial discrimination. He’s very, “We got to crack down on crime, but also reform the police.” What you’re describing speaks to some of the complexities of that relationship, which I imagine that you’re navigating day in, day out.
CORI BUSH: Yes. I mean, just one thing that you just said. There is a thing called community and police relations, but there is no sheriff and community relations. There is no firefighter and community relations, nursing and community relations, cashier and community relations. So, if we just look at that piece, why is it that there is even a need for that? Like you said, in some communities, there was this thing about police not showing up. That happens in other places, too, where they’re like, “We called the police. This thing happened. There’s a body in the street. Nobody shows up or it takes a very long time.” But are we talking about what makes our communities safe? Or are we talking about what happens after there is a situation because we weren’t safe?
So, our work is to look at, what is real community safety? What is real public safety? So, for us, public safety is making sure that our social safety nets are full, making sure that while our communities don’t have the resources that they need, that we’re doing the work to get those for them in those social safety nets. We can’t expect for our communities to be whole when our police departments who are not social workers… We don’t pay them to be social workers, but they get to be social workers and nobody says anything. If I as a nurse went to do the work as a social worker, people would be saying, “You’re out of scope,” and vice versa. So, that is part of the problem, because our police should not be everything. Just be police.
CHRIS HAYES: It’s also interesting too. Just to go back to what you said about being attacked or spit on or kicked as a nurse, I mean, when I was in this urgent care center the other day, there was a guy who was screaming, cussing out a nurse to the point where the police came in. And then he threatened to fight the cop. Everyone’s just like, “Whoa.” To the cop’s credit, actually, they just completely deescalated. They led him away, but they didn’t take the bait, because I was really worried. We were all worried what was going to happen.
But I was thinking about as I was watching this man scream at this nurse, I was thinking about how awful it was, how angry I was at him for doing this, and how much I wanted to get her out of there, but also, there are all kinds of public facing people who deal with folks who are in the throes of terrible mental health crises, dealing with addiction, sometimes just rage, sometimes people with very violent impulses. You have to deal with them as a nurse, but you don’t have a gun. You have to figure out your ways to negotiate that situation in a lot of different positions without a gun and the authority that a police officer has. You’ve probably had that experience when you think about them being called to the scene of something where they are essentially deployed as social workers.
CORI BUSH: Multiple times. Chris, that is one of the biggest reasons why I am the way that I am and why I won’t bend in this area. I won’t, because I’ve seen it myself. There are nurses who can attest to it. There are former clients of mine who can attest to it, how they’ve seen me deescalate. I’ve deescalated people who’ve had a knife. I’ve deescalated a couple folks that had guns. Literally, I went chasing someone down a major street in St. Louis. He came to me one day to my office at the clinic. He said, “Nurse, I’m going to kill all five of my family members.” I said, “Well, when you feel like it’s that day that you’re going to do that, you come and tell me first. Just tell me. All you gotta do is just tell me. Just tell me before you do it, okay?” He said, “Okay.”
One day he showed up to the office and he came in. He just poked his head, not even his whole body, just his head around the corner of my door. He said, “Nurse, I’m getting ready to go kill all five of my family members.” He walked out of the room. He had a gun. So, I went after him. I talked to him. I got him to stop. And then he just decided, “You know what? No, I’m just going to go ahead and do it.” He took off down the street. Well, what did Cori do? I left the clinic and I went. My nurses had the clinic. I ran and I chased him down the street. He was about to hop on the city bus that didn’t know that he had a gun and what he was about to do.
So, I chased him down the street and was able to stop him as he was getting on the bus and was able to deescalate the situation. Now, he’s been doing better for the last year and a half. His family members are alive. I’ve had even worse situations than that where someone was physically hurt. We’ve had some really horrible situations, but no one died, no one. No one was tased. So, it can happen. The other thing is this: not only do we have to do this, sometimes, Chris, folks are so mean and nasty to us and then we have to treat them. We got to help you. We got to do a good thing. We got to be nurturing and all of that and take good care of you, because that’s our work. So, I feel like I don’t understand why police can’t do that.
CHRIS HAYES: That’s a really good point. I think it’s interesting to hear your perspective on this, because I am reminded a lot of times when I talk to police officers, when I’ve been around cops in these very tense environments, it’s not roses and unicorns. One cop once said to me once… It has always stuck with me. He’s like, “Anytime I’m talking to someone, almost by definition, it’s one of the worst days of their life.” We don’t go to weddings. We’re just seeing people in distress. That’s their whole lives, seeing people in distress. But your point that yeah, that’s what nurses do. There’s a lot of people that do that and find ways to negotiate those situations.
So, you were out on the streets in Ferguson. You were getting more and more involved in police reform, civil rights work. You decide to run for office. You run twice and don’t win. You lose a primary in 2016 and then you lose another primary in 2018. I’m so curious why you kept trying and what you learned and then what changed in those two years that you ran it back, as we used to say on the basketball court, and won the second time.
CORI BUSH: So, the first time I was asked to run, it was after 400 days of protest in Ferguson, seeing how we didn’t have the support that we needed in positions of power to be able to have our demands met or at least start to have those conversations to really have our demands met and feeling like if we don’t do something, the conversation even around what we’ve been working for out here on the streets all of these months will just be washed away. So, an activist who has just been murdered is the person who asked me to run for US Senate. He said that “We don’t have enough Black women in the US Senate. I just want to know if you will run.” So, it took some thought. Other community leaders, some elder leaders came to me and asked me.
Eventually, I said yes, because I realized that “How do we get this change if we don’t have somebody who’s from this movement that saw and experienced all of these things if we don’t run?” So, I ran. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but I just ran. But then, one thing I was able to do, though, I was able to go all over Missouri. I went into places where I was told, Chris, not to go. My team was given the information, the messages, the calls, saying, “This is a sundown town. Tell her she should not come. Tell her don’t come because if she comes, she might not make it home.”
So, when I was told that, I’m like, “Oh, I’m going. Now, I really want to go,” because I’m like, “Look, you should have caught me before I stood before tanks, real bullets and rubber bullets and all of this. You should have caught me then. Now, my skin is too tough.” By going into those areas, allowing those communities to be exposed to somebody like me, it broke down walls, because some of them even said, “You know what? We’ve never seen a Black person in real life before. So, all we had to go by was what’s on TV.” It helps to change community. So, I saw change happen that way, too.
So, the second race, I had no plans on running again. I suffered a very violent sexual assault three weeks after my first race. I just didn’t think that I would ever run or do anything again. I was just in a very bad place after that assault. But after four months of my rape kit sitting on a shelf, after not getting justice in my situation, after almost losing my job, my home, my car, everything and myself, someone came to me. Bruce Franks Jr., a former state rep in St. Louis, a very close friend of mine, came to me and said, “You should run for this seat.” I was like, “No, I can’t. I’m still going to therapy. I just can’t.”
But when I thought about it, when I thought about how the person who was in the seat at the time could have voted to demilitarize the police just two months before Michael Brown was murdered and he didn’t and I thought about so many other things, about how people didn’t show up for us during Ferguson, I realized, “And then how do I save the life of my son? What if my son is the next hashtag? Would I be saying I could have done more if my daughter was the next? Would I say I could have done more?” I didn’t want to have to say that. So, I ran.
The second time when I ran, I had a lot more help, Senator Bernie Sanders. Even in the first race, Senator Bernie Sanders took notice, but just even having that help helped me to get my name out there. I was in the film. I met AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Paula Jean Swearengin, and so many others. We met at that time. AOC and I became friends. We were in a film together. That film really helped to get the word out about who we really are, because so many people saw Cori the protester, but they didn’t see my humanity. That film helped people to see my humanity. And then Senator Sanders and his team just really helped to get the word out about our race as well.
CHRIS HAYES: What changed between 2018 and 2020? I think a little bit with AOC’s race, there was a bit of her opponent didn’t see her coming.
CORI BUSH: Yeah. Mine, too.
CHRIS HAYES: But how did he not see you coming? You were literally there two years earlier.
CORI BUSH: Yeah. So, I think the statement that he made, I think, in an article, I believe. He was asked, “What do you see being the outcome of this race, this next race with her running against you again?” It was, “Oh, I expect the same outcome.” So, it was just like, “Oh, she doesn’t have money,” all of those things. I didn’t have the big endorsements from unions and all of that. So, it was just straight ground level. So, I think that was part of it. Plus, just the idea that I’m a progressive. People kept saying that you won’t get a progressive out of Missouri, out of the Midwest. You just won’t, but especially Missouri. So, that whole thing, but that changed.
Also, for 2020, everything that I had been talking about, Chris, leading up to 2020, over those few years prior, it started to show up. So, when the pandemic hit, when COVID-19 hit, people started to say, “Oh, you know what, Cori? You’ve been talking about not having jobs status connected to health care for all of these years. We just didn’t understand. We just thought you didn’t know what you were talking about, but now, we see what you meant.” And then when George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered and the protest started, people were saying, “Cori, you’ve been doing this. You’ve been out in the streets. You’ve been fighting for this for such a long time. We didn’t understand why, but now we see. Not only that, you’re running for Congress and you’re still out on the streets. You still have the bullhorn. You’re still out helping people on the ground and you didn’t change.” So, people were like, “You know what? This is the kind of leader we need.” And that’s what happened.
CHRIS HAYES: Is your father still alive?
CORI BUSH: My father is alive and he is my biggest fan.
CHRIS HAYES: You said he was a mayor at some point to the town you’re in.
CORI BUSH: Yes, yes, he was an alderperson first and then a mayor.
CHRIS HAYES: He’s an alderperson too. So, he must be just beside himself.
CORI BUSH: He is. I used to be called, “Little Bush,” because everybody knew my dad. I was just a part of him going to all of these political functions and stuff as a kid. Now, he says that he goes places and they’re like, “Oh, you’re Cori’s dad.”
CHRIS HAYES: You’re someone who, if I’m not mistaken, had never held elected office before. You’ve been the pastor of a church. That’s a leadership position. It’s funny. I know, Jamaal Bowman pretty well, because my brother was his campaign manager. He said, “Being a principal was very good.” He was never a politician before, but being a principal is a little bit like being a pastor. You’ve got an institution that you’re looking after. You have a lot of social connections with people in the community. You got to negotiate, all that stuff. So, that was preparation, but still, this is the first time you’re ever a legislator, the first time you’re working through bill text, all that stuff. What is the experience been like?
CORI BUSH: Yeah, it’s been three days in and there was an insurrection. It started off very high intensity. So, I didn’t get to ease into the thing. So, it was just like, “It’s go time.” I think that even from that moment, coming from a place of always being in fight mode, being this protester. So, it wasn’t just for Michael Brown. It was for Anthony Lamar Smith and so many others just through the years. So, just kinda always being in that mindset. Not only that, Chris, we’re talking about all the surveillance and the harassment, intimidation, all the death threats and death attempts on my life, for years of this. So, always being in this place of fight and just being ready to go.
So, when the insurrection happened, it was just like, “Okay, now, we got to legislate.” I may not know everything right now, three days in, but let’s work and that’s what we did. So, I was sitting there while the insurrection was happening, we put forward our first piece of legislation. Since then, I think, because we started off so high, it’s just been continuing to do this. I want to be what I wanted. I think about one day that I was sitting… This was years ago. I was sitting in front of a payday loan company. I needed money for a bill and I still had to pay rent. Single parent, not getting child support.
I just remember just thinking, “Why do I have to live like this? Who is speaking for people like me? Who’s speaking for the single parents that are out here doing our best?” I’ll never forget that moment of not wanting to walk into those doors with my two children sitting in the backseat. I want to be that person now in this position that other people are looking to, to say, “Yes, she sees me. She hears me. She is listening to my situation. Even though I didn’t donate to her, even though I don’t have the money to do this or that, even though I don’t have a name, she hears me and she sees me and she’s working for me.”
CHRIS HAYES: So, there are members of Congress on the Democratic side, like AOC who I know you knew and you were both in that documentary. There’s obviously a core group of you and Jamaal Bowman’s a new member of Congress in the same progressive space. But I wonder, are there relationships you’ve made with other members of Congress there that are surprising to you or people that you vibed with or had a good working relationship with that you wouldn’t have expected?
CORI BUSH: A lot of my relationships, I didn’t expect. I think it’s because I was told before I came, “Nobody’s going to like you, because you’re progressive. Nobody’s going to like you, because you say defund the police. So, people are going to shun you. They’re going to box you in,” or “Because you don’t come from money and by not taking corporate money, you’re like spitting at them in their faces.” So, that was the bar for me. So, walking in the Congress and meeting so many people that are like, “Hey, Cori, it’s so good to have you here,” even those that were close to my predecessor that have said, “You know what? You’re the one who’s here right now. So, we’re going to work together.” We have great relationships.
I think about Barbara Lee and Karen Bass and how they welcomed me in so easily and so fast. They’re like my aunties now. But then I think about others that I’ve been able to do work with, I think about Senator Markey that I didn’t know that I would even get to know. So, there are just different folks, even people that are more of the moderate Democrats, even though we don’t see eye to eye on everything, but the fact that we have this mutual respect. Sometimes we’re like, “Okay, I’m still with you on that bill.” I’m like, “Hey, I’m still with you on that bill,” even though we knew that this might be an issue for us, but just trying to work together. It’s been way better than what I thought it would be.
CHRIS HAYES: You’re vaccinated, I imagine.
CORI BUSH: I am.
CHRIS HAYES: I wonder if you have encountered among your constituents, folks you know, vaccine hesitancy, if you’re worried about what the levels are. I know, Missouri has had very low levels of vaccination and have rising case rates. Those rising case rates are not in the St. Louis metro area. They tend to be in rural areas that are very low vaccination rates, like counties that are at 25 or 30%. But I’m curious what you’ve encountered in your own district.
CORI BUSH: Yeah, there’s still vaccine hesitancy in my district. I understand. I was hesitant myself at first. I thought about it from a nursing standpoint, from a medical standpoint of any medication that I get from a provider or that I’m told to take, I want to know what my provider thinks. I want to have the nurse go over this information with me. And then even as a nurse, I’m like, “Okay, this area of nursing isn’t my field. So, you talk to me about this.” So, in the same way, that’s what we should do with the vaccines. So, I did.
I went and brought in an epidemiologist and someone who also works in racial equity and racial justice, and we had a conversation. She went over so many of the misconceptions or just questions that people have had, especially when we talk about the Black community and our mistrust in healthcare. So, that helped me to be able to go ahead and get the vaccine. There has been so much misinformation that’s been put out there, and we’re seeing the impact of that misinformation right now with what’s happening, the Delta variant being on the rise in Missouri, and the idea that people are actually dying because of the misinformation.
Locally, in the district, we are trying to figure out more ways to get especially our Black community, but our elder Black community to get vaccinated. I mean, I understand why. Even in our jails, the group that’s the most high risk in our jails, just been trying to figure out ways to get them to want to be vaccinated. The other thing about the Delta variant, I will say, even though it’s in rural areas in Missouri, oftentimes, people are transported to my district, transported to St. Louis for treatment. So, that is another way that it’s brought into our community.
CHRIS HAYES: Cori Bush is the member of Congress for the first district in Missouri. She was elected in 2020. It’s such a delight to talk to you. Thank you, Congresswoman. Really appreciate it.
CORI BUSH: Thank you, you as well.
CHRIS HAYES: Once again, great thanks to Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri’s first district.
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