Racial justice activist Cori Bush’s stunning upset against a Congressional Black Caucus-backed incumbent in Missouri underscores the power of the growing movement against racism and corporate greed.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Trump: This will be the most corrupt election in the history of our country.
Crowd: What do we want?
When do we want it?
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. Incumbents are officially on notice. If you are out of touch with working people and instead serving corporate power, progressives will vote you out. That was the message delivered by voters in the August 4th primary that took place in a number of States, including Missouri, where, in a stunning upset, Cori Bush, a protest leader, former nurse who was at one point homeless, unseated 10-term Congressman Lacy Clay, whose family has held the seat for half a century. Bush tweeted, “For the single parent living paycheck to paycheck, for those in the streets, standing up for Black lives, for the Black girl in Missouri who has never had a representative who looks like her in Congress, for those who don’t always get a seat at the table, I’ll always be your champion.”
Overall, progressives remain a small force in Congress, but does Bush’s victory signal that change is coming? Joining us to discuss this is Lester Spence, professor at Johns Hopkins University, author of Knocking The Hustle, Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. Thanks so much for joining us.
Lester Spence: Thanks for having me.
Jaisal Noor: So, Clay’s father co-founded the congressional Black caucus. The only elected official in national office to back Bush was Bernie Sanders, which makes sense because Bush backed Sanders in the primary and was a surrogate. How significant was this victory?
Lester Spence: So. It’s even deeper than that. Lacy Clay’s grandfather, I think, was the first Black St. Louis city alderman. So, there have basically been three generations of Clay’s who’ve been in politics, kind of working for Black people. But in this case, the Clays, granddad and dad, have this long history, even if they’re not necessarily on the left, this long history of anti-racist action, and Lacy Clay just didn’t have that history. I actually lived in St. Louis before I moved to Baltimore and Clay was on the wrong side of almost any issue we fought for.
So, this is a tremendous victory. It’s important to note that this is the second time Bush has gone against Clay, I believe. She just wasn’t able to come out on top in 2018, but 2020 did the ticket. And, if we think about takeaways, I think it speaks to the power that social movements can play in Black politics. Right? In fact, if you think about this, if you think about Jamal Bowman in New York, Rashida Tlaib … I always claim Rashida Tlaib, even though she represents my parents, she doesn’t represent me. But Rashida Tlaib’s victory in Detroit over, or in that district over Brenda Jones, what they say … In each case, what you’ve got is an existing social movement, a progressive movement, and even if you have to do it more than once, we see those movements actually matter.
Jaisal Noor: So, Bush got tear gassed during recent protests. She was an organizer, a protest leader in Ferguson, which was years ago. You mentioned her 2018 run. She was actually the first candidate that Justice Democrats recruited. Obviously, they also recruited AOC who went on to win her primary in 2018. So, what has changed this time around? Last time we spoke, we were in the streets of Baltimore marching with thousands of other people in one of the biggest demonstrations the city has seen in years.
Lester Spence: Well, I mean, the thing is elected office, formal electoral politics, is its own animal. So, to a certain extent, we can just say that it just took Cori, all Cori Bush had to do is just learn, right? So, all she had to do is just kind of … Not all, but one of the things you have to do is you actually have to figure out what do you need to do to run a formal political campaign?
And then the thing is, Black people are like any other voting block, name recognition means something, right? So, the first time out in the Bush campaign, she’s a known entity in activist circles, but she’s not necessarily known and in broader St. Louis circles. Whereas William
Lacy Clay, he’d held that position literally for 50 years. There’s a way that people are going to give him the benefit of the doubt that it might not necessarily give a benefit of the doubt for somebody who was doing it for the first time.
But once she actually learns, and then once it’s really clear that Lacy Clay’s politics aren’t appropriate for this moment, and she has a movement behind her that’s willing to go door to door, is willing to articulate a different vision, it was a different outcome.
Jaisal Noor: And so, we’re talking about movements and I think this Black Lives Matter rebellion, this movement is taking place during the pandemic, and these protests against racism and police brutality, and the devastating toll that the coronavirus has taken on this country, is really laid bare. The flaws of our social system, the lack of a safety net … The bailout showed how much both parties were willing to prioritize the needs of corporations while working people got scrapped, essentially.
Especially compared to what they got in other wealthy countries. Maybe 40 million renters will be out in the streets in the next coming months. What role do you think that, specifically, has played sort of this, for those who who weren’t already aware of how frail our system is, how weak it is, that they’re now being confronted with this reality?
Lester Spence: There are a couple of different roles, right? As a result of the pandemic, people like Clay and Engel who Bowman defeated, and then Jones, who ran against Rashida Tlaib in Detroit, they simply, they weren’t able to engage in the types of campaign activities that they would normally engage in. They weren’t able to raise the money that they would normally, that they would normally be able to raise. But in comparison, in Bowman’s case and Bush’s case and Tlaib’s case, they were consistently out in front of voters giving them an alternative narrative that wasn’t that different from what they were seeing with their own eyes. Right?
So, you take Bush, Clay was one of the people who was actually on the wrong side in almost every way in Ferguson. What Bush was able to do in this election is connect him being on the wrong side several years ago to him consistently being on the wrong side now and him not standing and being out there struggling and fighting.
And again, people, at the same time Black voters are risk averse and kind of conservative, they respect authenticity and integrity. So, I think that what Bush was able to do, again, alongside Bowman in New York and Tlaib in Detroit, is articulate and present a convincing narrative about what’s happening with police brutality locally and nationally, what’s happening with the pandemic locally and nationally, what’s happening with the government response locally and nationally. They’re able to articulate a compelling vision that says, “This is why these things happen, and this is what needs to happen to solve it, and this is what I’m willing to do.”
Jaisal Noor: And what impact, and it might be too early to really know at this point, but what impact could all of these candidates have on Democratic party as a whole? We know that, for example, in the platform, the majority of delegates voted against including something like Medicare for all. Which, by many indications, a majority of Democratic voters support, but that ended up not being a platform. That’s not something that Joe Biden supports, even though millions of people have lost their employer-based health insurance due to the pandemic. Do you think that these, the Bowmans the Bushes, the Tlaibs, in this next election … Even the next coming months, because Biden’s going to need folks like this out getting votes for him, especially in swing states. Do you think that that’s going to have an impact on Biden and the Democrats?
Lester Spence: There are direct effects and indirect effects. A lot of resources in Congress are distributed based on seniority, right? Lacy Clay had 50, was in office for 50 years. He had … There only a few, I could probably count on one or two hands the number of congresspersons who had as much seniority as Clay did. Engel, I’m not … Engel was the chair, I forgot what committee he was the chair of, but Engel was actually the chair of a pretty important committee in Congress and Bowman defeated him. So, directly, by replacing those types of centrist Democrats, with a great deal of seniority, with younger energy, with folk who aren’t as liberal, but that are actually on the left, it actually kind of serves as a testimony that the landscape is changing. Even though we’re only talking about two people in a house with 435 representatives, that tendency now has a great deal of symbolic power.
We can also think about the effect it has, I’ve talked about any direct stuff, we can also think about the effect it has on other kind of centrist Democrats, including a lot of Black Democrats, a lot of Black CBC members, who are looking at that race and saying, “Okay, that could happen to me, and I can respond to that in one of two ways. One way is I can double down on my politics, on my central politics, on my centrist politics, and then just fundraise, fundraise, fundraise to stave off competition. Another thing I could do is actually start to move to their direction ideologically in order to basically catch the wave to prevent myself from being primaried.”
It’s hard to talk about longterm politics in this moment, but I think that just if we think about replacing people with a lot of seniority and then the effect that that replacement has on other centrist representatives representing predominantly Black and Brown districts, it has to signal to the Democratic party, and to Biden, that they need to move a little bit further to the left than they have already moved.
Jaisal Noor: Yeah, it’s interesting. Lacy clay probably, I’m sure he was Elliot Engel’s defeat because Engel was MIA in his own district. During the pandemic, he was caught in open mic basically saying, I wouldn’t be at a rally if it wasn’t for his primary. I think Engel was the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House. He had a large amount of, one of the leading contributor of the military industrial complex and the Israel lobby, something that Jamal Bowman challenged him on successfully.
Finally, we’re expecting Biden to announce his VP pick the next couple of days. What significance do you think that holds? During this primary Biden’s been sort of hiding out in his basement, but if there is going to be bold change transforming this country, if there’s going to be even undoing what Trump has brought on this country, it’s going to take all levels of administration being able to make an impact and get things done.
I know that some progressives have been lobbying against someone like Kamala Harris, who is considered a leading pick, because of her history as a prosecutor and some of the actions she carried out in California. What are your thoughts on that? Where do you see that falling down?
Lester Spence: I think that the pick is really, really important, not just for, one, for the signal that sends to people on the left who’ve decided to kind of participate in traditional politics. It sends a signal. But I think the most important thing is I don’t see him … Biden’s old. I don’t see him running for two terms. I see him, if he wins, I see him winning one term and then not doing it again. So, the person he named as his successor is likely going to be the person who ends up running at the head of the ticket, if not in 2024, but by 2028. So, that pick is pretty important.
A number of folk have taken his statement that he plans to appoint a woman of color to heart, and I think that is important. But more important is how supple is the person, and how willing is the person that he names to actually move to where the direction that the party actually needs to go. And, and it’s funny, because I wouldn’t have … As a presidential candidate, the only candidate I disliked more than Harris was Biden, but I’ve seen signs that Harris is willing to move to the left. I believe she actually co-sponsored with Sanders a bill that would have paid every American citizen something like $2,000 a month during the epidemic. And that actually signals…
We have to remember that there are two ways that we could think about politics and political representation. One way is you elect somebody, you elect somebody like an AOC or a Rashida Tlaib or a Cori Bush, and you know they’re down with you. You know that once they get there, they’re going to roll like you want to roll. But the other way to think about political representation is to think about the effect of social movement power on people who actually may not have your same political attitudes, may be actually opposed to you in some ways, right? If you can’t get that person out, in some instances you’re able to use power to make that person move. And I think that based on that, granted, only have like one thing, but based on her working with Sanders, that suggests that she’s willing to actually move.
But what that also suggests is that, and we knew this already, that left social movements are going to have to consistently engage. Now, we know that a lot of people don’t want to vote anyway, and we know that electoral politics is fraud. But in order to actually move the state in our direction, we have to be consistently engaged. Voting isn’t the only thing we have to do. It may not even be the thing we have to do, but we have to be consistently putting pressure on the state, such that whoever Biden names …
And it’s important not to say one thing. Warren can’t be … It’s not just that Warren is white, but the reason that he wouldn’t appoint Warren as VP is not just because he promised to put in a person, a woman of color, it’s also because the governor of Massachusetts is a Republican. So, if you name somebody like Warren to VP, that Republican is going to name a Republican to be Senator and the road to hoe is going to be even tougher. I had to actually interject that. But, yeah.
So, whoever he names, we have to be able to put kind of pressure on that person so that they end up making the right moves as VP, and then also when they step up to run the party.
Jaisal Noor: Lester Spence, thank you so much for joining us. Professor at Johns Hopkins and author of Knocking The Hustle, Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. It’s always a pleasure.
Lester Spence: You’re very welcome.
Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.
General Assignment Reporter
Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent.
Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.