WASHINGTON • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the self-described democratic socialist who knocked off a powerful New York congressman in a primary last month, is coming to St. Louis on Saturday in an effort to repeat that result on nine-term incumbent Rep. William Lacy Clay.
Clay, D-St. Louis, faces a Democratic primary in which his principal opponent is Cori Bush, a community activist, nurse and pastor who is part of the same phalanx of challengers that Ocasio-Cortez comes from.
Ocasio-Cortez and Bush will campaign door to door together Saturday afternoon, after a morning breakfast fundraiser. The two will appear, along with state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. at a 7 p.m. Saturday rally at the Ready Room, 4195 Manchester Avenue in St. Louis.
Bush says Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance “is huge for us,” and that the two share common traits and ideas as community activists with real-world struggles. Bush said she “cried like a baby” the night Ocasio-Cortez defeated Rep. Joe Crowley, who many thought would be the next Democratic leader in the U.S. House.
“Having Alexandria come here to stump for our campaign, I think, is on so many levels a perfect fit,” Bush said.
Clay says he welcomes Ocasio-Cortez to the city to contrast his record from Bush’s.
St. Louis, he said, “is not the Bronx.”
This primary race Aug. 7 in St. Louis highlights the struggle within the national Democratic Party between establishment politicians and an insurgent left wing that was energized in the 2016 presidential campaign by independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The day before Ocasio-Cortez appears in St. Louis with Bush, she is slated to campaign with Sanders in Kansas for Democratic congressional candidates. Sanders won’t be in St. Louis, a spokesman said.
Some Democrats, including national Chairman Tom Perez, have fully embraced Ocasio-Cortez. Perez called her “the future of our party.”
But 2000 vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Ocasio-Cortez was “more socialist than Democrat” and that her election “will make it harder for Congress to stop fighting and start fixing problems.”
Ocasio-Cortez has had rough interviews since her victory, with some fact-checkers questioning her grasp of issues. But she is celebrated among Sanders supporters and others on the left, and Bush, 41, says she draws inspiration from Ocasio-Cortez, 28.
“People said she can’t do it, people said, ‘You are up against a longtime incumbent, you are going to be outspent,’ but she was still able to do it,” Bush said.
“Yes, we are outspent. Yes we are up against a longtime incumbent. … Now, (after Ocasio-Cortez’s win) I am hearing, ‘You are going to do it.’”
Clay is the descendant of a powerful political legacy that is in its 50th year representing St. Louis. His father, Bill Clay, served in Congress for 32 years, and was a pioneer in the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus. He retired in 2001, the same year his son came to Congress.
Reps. Lacy Clay and Ann Wagner and their challengers face voters on Aug. 7.
The younger Clay, 61, has been an electoral juggernaut. He easily defeated fellow Democrat Russ Carnahan, a member of another well-known Missouri political family, in a primary in 2012, and then won in a landslide over Democratic state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal in another primary challenge two years ago.
Two other names will be on the primary ballot — DeMarco K. Davidson and Joshua Shipp — but Davidson has suspended his campaign and Shipp has raised no money.
“First of all, I welcome Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to my hometown — St. Louis, Mo.,” Clay said. “I am glad she is coming because it will now highlight the differences with my opponent.
“I am a progressive Democrat, whereas my opponent is a democratic socialist,” Clay continued. “I have a record to run on, unlike her and my other opponent, and I have results in the areas of health care, of housing, of voting rights, the environment. I can point to that. The people in the heartland in St. Louis, they know that this is not the Bronx.”
Bush says she refuses to accept the socialist label.
“I believe that just taking care of my community should fit, rather than a title,” she told the Post-Dispatch. “What people have called me mostly is a progressive, which is what he says that he is.”
Added Bush: “St. Louis is not the Bronx, but the thing is (Ocasio-Cortez) ran a race in an area where she had a lot of help from people of color … which we have that happening in our own district. Regardless, her race was people-powered, and the exact same thing is happening in our race.”
People relate to her, Bush said, because “I was an early childhood teacher for years and seeing how children couldn’t come to school because their parents didn’t have money to pay for it. I have been without health care before. It is that type of person that should be seated (in Congress) — someone who is actually from St. Louis, from the streets, who understands what is happening and is able to advocate.”
Bush and Franks both rose to activist prominence in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown nearly four years ago.
“I like the fact that Cori is the people, she is exactly who she wants to represent,” Franks said. “I think our candidates these days are looking more like the community: the single mothers, the folks who have gone through challenges and barriers, who can speak to a lot of the issues that we are fighting for.”
The primary battle in St. Louis between Clay and Bush also spills over into Missouri’s pivotal U.S. Senate race, in which Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is expected to face the winner of a Republican primary.
Franks has been highly critical of McCaskill, D-Mo., saying in February the incumbent senator was distant from minority communities, and that “I’m going to vote for Claire, but Claire is going to have to bring her ass to St. Louis.”
McCaskill and Franks say they have had productive private conversations since then.
Clay says he considers McCaskill a supporter, a friend and colleague for many years, even though she hasn’t officially endorsed him.
McCaskill’s communications director, Meira Bernstein, says that the senator does not endorse in Missouri Democratic primaries, but that “she and Rep. Franks talk often and she’s working very hard to earn every vote she possibly can.”