It is hard to find someone in politics whom you feel that you can truly trust. It is rare to find someone who is going to speak truth to power and not try to give you the answer you want in order to get your vote. It is that rare, elected official who is willing to tell you what they don’t know and listen to learn from the grass roots so they can make informed decisions that reflect the needs and the political leanings of their constituencies. Cori Bush, Congresswoman from the 1st District in Missouri, is that politician. But if you ask her, this was probably not how she envisioned where she would find herself in 2021.
Cori Bush is St. Louis born and bred, the daughter of a local suburban mayor and alderman, her focus was never on public office. She holds a nursing degree and has served her community in that field as well as a childcare worker and as a member of the clergy. But her heart and soul is clearly linked to the unhoused – something she had personally experienced a number of times, including 20 years ago living in a 1996 Ford Explorer. Those and other experiences led her to community organizing, working with the unhoused in her district.
But the trigger point for Cori Bush came with the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. She spent more than 400 days protesting for justice. She was nursing and providing medical care to the community during the day and marching for justice – surviving police brutality in the evenings. What followed in the next few years was continued activism, organizing and protest. While public office was not on her “to do” list, she eventually saw it as a means of protecting her children (she is a single mother) from the injustice and from the brutality that she had both witnessed and endured. She defeated a long-term, moderate incumbent and is now serving her first term in Congress.
But something that happened just as the House of Representatives was adjourning for its August recess made Cori Bush stand out as the real deal when it comes to “walking the talk.” The pandemic-era federal eviction moratorium was about to expire on July 31st and it was clear that neither Congress nor the White House was going to do anything to extend it. The result would be hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans at risk of losing their homes in the midst of a surging pandemic. For someone like Cori Bush, who had experienced first-hand what it is like to be evicted and unhoused, this was not tolerable. So she did what any credible community organizer/activist would do – she got a sleeping bag and a lawn chair and began a 24/7 sit-in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. She was joined by others, visited by House and Senate colleagues who cheered her on, and she stayed put through rain and summer heat until her message made its way to the one person who could make a difference – President Joe Biden.
After a 4-day sit-in on the Capitol steps, the President announced a new 60-day federal eviction moratorium covering areas that were overrun with the Delta variant of the coronavirus. In doing this, President Biden expressed his concerns that the courts might declare this moratorium unconstitutional. But this timeframe would also allow time for states and local governments to distribute billions in federal funds for rental assistance that had yet to be allocated.
Bush tried to convince her House colleagues to stay and work on this issue. She felt strongly that they should not just throw up their hands and say, we cannot get something passed so we are leaving. In a letter to her colleagues, written before the recess, she wrote: “We have a deeply rooted misconception in this country that unhoused people have done something to deserve their conditions — when the reality is that unhoused people are living the consequences of our government’s failure to secure the basic necessities people need to survive. If Congress does not act now, the fallout of the eviction crisis will undoubtedly set us backwards as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravish our communities — needlessly contributing to more death and suffering.” After they left town and her sit-in began, she spoke to the New York Times about staying after the House had recessed, “My brain could not understand how we were supposed to just leave,” recounting the months she spent 20 years ago living out of a 1996 Ford Explorer. “I felt like I did sitting in that car — like, ‘Who speaks for me? Is this because I deserve it?’”
Of course, Cori Bush is not without her critics on both the right and the left. There are those who question her goals and her techniques, but you will not count me among them. In choosing an unusual path that drew attention to an issue that she knew first-hand, Cori Bush was able to move the needle and gain time for those who needed it most. She was unwilling to give up the fight and go home. She had made promises to her constituents in St. Louis and in communities across the country. They deserved her full attention, and she was willing to give it to them. They matter. And she matters. And that is why I love and support Cori Bush. We could use a lot more Cori Bush’s in public office…