ST. LOUIS — Two summers ago, criminal justice protest veteran Cori Bush did what many in politics believed was unthinkable, unseating longtime U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay in the 1st Congressional District Democratic primary.
“They said it was a fluke,” Bush told more than 300 supporters at a campaign rally at a Cherokee Street concert venue last Friday night. “Was it a fluke?”
“No,” many yelled back.
No longer the underdog, Bush now is the incumbent with a fundraising advantage as she approaches Tuesday’s primary in the heavily Democratic district against state Sen. Steve Roberts and three lesser-known opponents.
Roberts, a state legislator for six years, argues that an experienced lawmaker like himself can get more done in the U.S. Capitol than a streetwise activist.
“You have to be willing to compromise,” Roberts, a lawyer, said in an interview. “That’s a balancing act that comes from experience.”
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He and his allies also say Bush’s repeated calls to “defund the police” are out of step with voters’ concerns about crime and have criticized other Bush stands that line up with the left wing of Congressional Democrats. Roberts says he regards himself as a progressive but also a “reasonable Democrat.”
Bush, as she did in her 2020 race, makes a point of saying she identifies with the day-to-day struggles of many of the residents of the district, which takes in St. Louis and much of north and central St. Louis County.
“I know what it’s like to be brutalized by police. … I know what it’s like to be hungry. … I know what it’s like to be burdened by student debt,” Bush, a former nurse, said at the Cherokee rally, which doubled as her 46th birthday party.
Roberts, 34, acknowledges that Bush is good at “bringing attention to issues she’s passionate about” but says it doesn’t translate into effectiveness in Congress.
Among other things, he criticizes Bush’s vote along with just five other Democrats last fall against President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure spending package.
“This is going to raise funds for our region and she voted against it as a political stunt,” Roberts said.
Bush had vowed not to support the bill without a vote on a separate Build Back Better proposal addressing universal preschool, climate change and other progressive proposals. She said she did so to keep the pressure on moderate Democrats to support Build Back Better in the future.
Regarding crime, Roberts said “if anything, we need more funding for police” along with reform efforts such as the unsuccessful bill he introduced in Jefferson City to restrict no-knock warrants.
In response, Bush says when she uses the phrase “defund the police,” she is referring to getting rid of military-type weapons and equipment that she says hurt communities.
“Let’s put (the money) into social services, into education” and other programs, she said in an interview with the Post-Dispatch. She added that she doesn’t want to do things such as eliminate 911 or take police off the streets.
Bush, meanwhile, said she helped bring over $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money to the metro area, much of it to the city and county governments and to the city public schools.
She also cited more than $9 million in federal earmarks for local organizations dealing with issues such as homelessness, gun violence and health care access.
Bush says protesting also can work in Washington. She points to her widely publicized overnight campout outside the Capitol last summer that helped spur Biden to issue a new moratorium on evictions — although the move was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court a few weeks later.
Roberts also has attacked Bush’s vote against banning fuel imports from Russia amid its war against Ukraine, saying in a campaign commercial that Bush was “choosing a dictator over democracy.” She has said the measures weren’t accompanied by a clear diplomatic process for de-escalation.
Another Roberts complaint: Bush doesn’t support a major employer in the district, Boeing. He cited her failure last year to join in a bipartisan letter by 50 House members requesting $900 million to buy new Boeing-produced Super Hornet fighter planes built here despite the Navy’s plans to stop purchasing them.
In response, Bush’s campaign issued a statement saying that year after year, “the military-industrial complex pushes Congress to approve budgets far beyond what the Pentagon asks for.”
Instead, the statement said, Bush believes that the nation should start giving priority to “resources for people” instead of building more weapons of mass destruction “to enrich defense industry executives.”
Roberts, whose father and uncle were both St. Louis aldermen and mayoral candidates, is trying to take another step on his own political ladder that began with his election to the Missouri House in 2016 and then the Senate in 2020.
He says he’s been able to work across party lines in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
Examples, he said, are laws aimed at spurring redevelopment of abandoned property in St. Louis and protecting the identity of crime witnesses who notify CrimeStoppers, a nonprofit offering rewards for such information. He got the Senate to attach the measures to other bills.
He said he also worked with other senators to add $5 million to this year’s state budget to aid refugees moving to the state.
But Roberts has been dogged throughout the campaign by Bush supporters’ references to a disputed 2016 rape allegation made against him by the late Cora Faith Walker, a former Democratic state representative who died of heart disease earlier this year.
That followed an accusation by a law student, Amy Harms, that Roberts had sexually assaulted her at a downtown St. Louis bar, which Roberts also denied. No criminal charges were filed in either case and a civil suit by Harms was settled in 2019 for $100,000.
Bush referred to the allegations herself when asked by a reporter the main difference between her and Roberts. “I have not been credibly accused of sexual assault and rape,” she responded.
Roberts, in an interview last week with the Post-Dispatch editorial board, reasserted his innocence and said “voters are going to see the truth of the matter and continue to support me.” He compared the accusations to unproven allegations of election fraud made by former President Donald Trump.
The most recent finance reports on file with the Federal Election Commission show Bush has raised $1.8 million. In addition, outside committees have spent more than $147,000 to aid Bush, according to Opensecrets.org, a nonprofit research organization.
Roberts’ campaign reported raising $436,000 and a separate pro-Roberts committee $255,000 for a total of more than $691,000.
Also in the spending mix are mailings attacking Bush and supporting Roberts paid for by a nonprofit, Progressives for Missouri Inc., not required to disclose donors or expenditures to the FEC.
Three fellow female members of the Squad, the informal group of House progressives, campaigned for Bush last weekend in the St. Louis area.
In addition, she’s pulled in backing from two prominent Senate progressives, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
On Tuesday, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC endorsed Bush. The nod followed an April report by Washington outlet Punchbowl News detailing friction between Bush and some caucus members. Among Bush’s local supporters are St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones and the mayors of Ferguson, Maplewood, Pagedale and Dellwood.
Among Roberts’ backers are Clay and his father, former U.S. Rep. William Clay; St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts; Collector of Revenue Gregory F.X. Daly; and the mayors of Bridgeton, Bellefontaine Neighbors, Florissant and Overland.
Both Bush and Roberts say they support abortion rights but only Bush has the backing of Pro-Choice Missouri, a leading abortion rights group. Bush has run a pro-abortion rights TV ad saying she got an abortion herself after she was raped and became pregnant at age 17.
Meanwhile, officials with Pro-Choice Missouri last week accused Roberts of falsely claiming support from the abortion rights group in an online push poll, which Roberts’ campaign denied.
Roberts’ campaign said it was filing a complaint with the FEC alleging illegal coordination between the pro-choice group and Bush’s campaign.
Bush’s campaign disputed that and in turn alleged there is a direct link between Roberts’ campaign and Progressives for Missouri, which could be considered illegal coordination.
James Hill, treasurer for the Roberts campaign, also is the registered agent for Progressives for Missouri and also works for Roberts’ law firm. Mark Milton, a Republican attorney who is treasurer for numerous GOP committees, is listed as a contact for Progressives for Missouri.
Ryan Hawkins, a Roberts campaign spokesman, declined to comment on Progressives for Missouri.
Also in the Democratic 1st District field are Michael Daniels of St. Louis, a lawyer who formerly worked on the staff of St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. in the 1990s; Earl Childress of Florissant, a pastor and founder of a venture capital firm; and Ron Harshaw of St. Louis, an assistant high school football coach.
Daniels and Childress each reported raising less than $35,000; Harshaw did not have a report filed with the FEC.
Jack Suntrup of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report