Early this month, Cori Bush was defeated in the St. Louis MO congressional primary, by Congressman Lacy Clay. Clay has held the seat since inheriting it from his father in 2001, and his father had it for 32 years. That’s 50 years of a congressman named Clay. Missouri’s first district includes Ferguson, an inner suburb of St. Louis. When four summers ago we saw a handful of public officials in the streets trying to chill out Ferguson protestors, there was a black congressman among them. But that was Emanuel Cleaver, from Kansas City, not the black face who’s family by then had repped the district a good 45 years.
Challenger Cori Bush lost no opportunities to remind people that Clay was AWOL during the entire Ferguson episode, but it was not enough. Bush campaigned on free college, not accepting corporate money, raising the minimum wage, restraining killer cops, more money for public education and Medicare For All, but that wasn’t enough either. She had a great personal story too, a single mother who earned a nursing degree, and spent a while living out of her car. Bush won the backing of Justice Democrats, a national outfit that had quite a lot to do with the mechanics of the Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez campaign in the Bronx a few weeks before. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Bush is not a member of Democratic Socialists of America, and has never identified herself as a socialist.
So how exactly did she lose? Nobody else seems willing to offer explanations, beyond shallow wisdom that “St. Louis MO ain’t da Bronx.” The folks who had a thousand good reasons Ocasio-Cortez was the front end of a blue wave have passed on explaining why this blue wave missed in Missouri.
The first thing to see is the obvious, that St. Louis really is NOT the Bronx. Ocasio-Cortez was a working class Puerto Rican woman in a largely Latino district, and her opponent was a 20 year incumbent white guy who was obviously ready to leave for a more lucrative career as a lobbyist. Lacy Clay on the other hand, really wanted to keep that St Louis congressional seat. In 2016 he faced another black woman who’d been tear gassed in the streets of Ferguson, state rep Nadya Chappelle-Nadal, who got 24 thousand votes to Clay’s 56 thousand. So unlike Crowley in the Bronx, Clay didn’t sleep the 2018 race, he ran up 81 thousand votes to Bush’s 53 thousand.
Another dimension in which St. Louis is not New York is voter turnout. New York Republicans and Democrats have deliberately engineered primary elections for low turnout, requiring votes to register as Democrats many months prior to election day just to be eligible. But in Missouri you show up and ask for the Democrat ballot. So Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s 57% of the vote was just under 17 thousand. But Clay’s 57% share in Missouri was 81 thousand, again to Bush’s 53 thousand. Ocasio-Cortez said it took 120,000 phone calls to get that. I don’t know yet how many calls Bush needed to get her 53 thousand but I’ll be asking.
We have to look at the national organizations which backed Ocasio-Cortez, Bush and the rest of this blue wave which is supposed to swamp Congress and state legislatures in 2018. There are at least 3 organizations which help raise money, funnel experienced campaign help, do social media, recruit national phone and text banking assists and more. Those would be Our Revolution, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats. Brand New Congress claims to have “recruited” Ocasio-Cortez, who was previously one of those in charge of Bernie Sanders’ New York effort. A leader of Justice Democrats served as Cori Bush’s communications director, and both outfits named Bush, who’d run statewide in Missouri for US Senator in 2016, as one of their own. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez Cori Bush has never been a DSA member either, and has never called herself a socialist.
What Brand New Congress, Our Revolution, and Justice Democrats have in common are three things.
The first is a commomn commitment to taking over or rescuing the Democratic party.
The second is a real reluctance to make any but the sketchiest reference to anything that takes place outside the US – as if the US didn’t have troops in a hundred foreign countries, at least 800 bases in a hundred countries and a trillion dollar military budget supported by most of the Democrats in Congress. Justice Democrats has a statement at the end of their foreign policy that seems to put the military budget around $100 billion instead of the actual trillion, which ten times that size. Cori Bush’s page is typical of the blue wave, it doesn’t mention anything on foreign policy or empire at all.
The most optimistic way to see this collective blind spot is that maybe the blue wave of Congressional candidates don’t want to incur the wrath of the DCCC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is running about 40 former CIA, Homeland Security, State Department, local police and military types for Congress this year, and has plenty money for last minute negative media offensives against would be peacenik congressional candidates in places where they don’t even have candidates.
The least optimistic view is that sketchy or absent references to US empire and foreign policy are how the blue wave candidates signal their willingness to adopt the imperial consensus if they are lucky enough to get elected. After all four fifths of the Congressional Black Caucus and just over half the House Progressive Caucus just voted for Ttump’s record military 2019 military budget.
The third thing they all have in common is that few or none have distanced themselves from the drumbeat of RussiaGate, the nonsense that holds Russia responsible for Trump’s victory in 2016, that posits a credible ongoing Russian plot to steal the US elections. To our knowledge none of the blue wave candidates nor the national outfits which back them have stood apart from themselves tendency to label anybody to their left stooges of Russia either.
Bringing it back to St. Louis, Cori Bush had to face something Ocasio-Cortez didn’t. It was something her blue wave backers hadn’t dealt with either. It was the peculiarities of black politics in the US. The 1st CD Missouri is 50% black and there are some unique and well established characteristics of the Democratic party in districts like that, whether they’re in Chicago or Philly or Dallas or Atlanta or wherever.
The first is the black church, which is ridden with local, and since the advent of Bush’s and Obama’s faith based initiative, federal patronage. Black churches are often tied hand and foot to local politicians for everything from real estate deals to charter school contracts, and their leaders are often fixtures in local Democratic party affairs, even public officials themselves. The second is the nonprofit industrial complex, a literal army of advocacy groups sometimes doing housing and homeless activism, sometimes feeding the hungry, sometimes doing worker centers, womens health, tenants rights, LBGTQ activism, environmental stuff. There’s another section of the nonprofit industrial complex which can’t even be called nonpartisan with a straight face, offshoots of the NAACP and the Movement 4 Black Lives. These forces are tied to the political preferences of their corporate philanthropic funders. Executive directors of nonprofit organizations who don’t find a way to support the right Democrats in primary season and all Democrats in general election put their careers, the livelihoods of all their employees, and the outfit’s good works in jeopardy. And there are the unions – heavily public sector and disproportionately people of color, again all tied to the most right wing established Democrats on the local, state and federal level.
Unlike the troops the blue wave outfits can raise once every two years, these things are permanent institutions in black communities. Remember when Atlanta civil rights icon John Lewis stood up in Ebenezer Baptist Church to tell young black folks that free college tuition and free medical care were un-American and the crowd was with him? That’s the complex of forces against which relatively leftist electoral candidates in black communities must run. In old school political language that’s called a Machine, a standing bunch of political institutions which can put significant money into broadcast ads and mailings, speakers and preachers into pulpits, hundreds of bodies in the street and hundreds more the phone banks. Clay had them, and Bush did not. All Bush had was what she could raise on the issues.
The big blue wave outfits probably hadn’t done much work in black communties and didn’t know this. Maybe they were listening to DSA theoreticians like Adam Hiton who imagine the Democratic Party in such places has no real organization. But it’s organized, and it’s very, very real. If you’re going to knock out the right wing Democrats who dominate the electoral politics of black communities you have to do more than hire the right black consultants, although they and the Movement For Black Lives Electoral Justice Progect will be glad to keep taking your money. Somebody has to build some other permanent organizations, some other centers of popular power in those communities. It hasn’t been done yet, and won’t be done before the 2018 midterm elections. That’s why Bernie didn’t crack the black vote in 2016, and that’s why the blue wave didn’t crash Missouri in 2018. It’ll be why the wave misses in other black constituencies.
For Black Agenda Report, I’m Bruce Dixon. Please know that Google and other corporate social media suppress the appearance of Black Agenda Report’s articles and commentary. The only way you can be certain you’re getting fresh news, commentary and analysis in audio and print from the black left each week is by going directly to our site at www.blackagendareport.com, and subscribing to our direct from us to you FREE email newsletter containing links to everything we air or print each week. That’s why they call email the dark social media, because it can’t be stopped or tracked – yet. So go to www.blackagendareport.com and subscribe, it’s free.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Report, and one of the co-chairs of the GA Green Party. He lives and works near Marietta GA and can be reached via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.