ST. LOUIS — Cori Bush’s historic victory over longtime incumbent William Lacy Clay upset conventional political wisdom, providing a rallying point for activists forged during the Ferguson unrest and a boost to supporters of left-leaning politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York.
But to win the Democratic nomination in the 1st Congressional District, Bush didn’t just energize her progressive, multiracial base, she made significant inroads into predominantly Black areas she lost in 2018 — areas long held under the sway of a formidable political machine built over decades by Clay’s father, civil rights activist Bill Clay.
On Aug. 4, Lacy Clay won the north St. Louis and north St. Louis County portions of the district, but by narrower margins than in the primary in 2018, an analysis of Election Day results shows. The slide underscored growing disenchantment with the 10-term incumbent during a time of turmoil in St. Louis and across the United States.
In Ward 5, the one north St. Louis aldermanic ward Clay lost, some voters may have been frustrated by his role in bringing the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to the area, which required dozens of longtime residents to leave, said Patricia Dees, president of the St. Louis Place Neighborhood Association.
Clay has touted his role in bringing the NGA project to the near north side, one of the largest developments in the area for decades. And he defended controversial developer Paul McKee, who was responsible for acquiring much of the land that would be used for the NGA site.
“Not only the NGA, but the McKee situation — both of those left a sour taste in the St. Louis Place neighborhood,” Dees said. “That was something that caused some dissension with Clay — the way the buyouts were handled, a lot of people in the neighborhood at that time, and even now, I’ve heard say, ‘We don’t have a voice.’”
Clay was among elected officials who didn’t respond to invitations to join neighborhood meetings on the issue, Dees said. One person who did: Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, who grew up in the area and was one of the few local elected officials backing Bush’s candidacy, Dees said.
“In the four or five years down here, I haven’t seen Clay down here except when they broke ground,” she said.
Dees, who moved to the neighborhood in 2015 from Ferguson, also criticized Clay for his physical absence from Ferguson during much of the unrest that followed the police killing of Michael Brown. She said she remembers Aldridge, Bush and Bruce Franks, the activist who preceded Aldridge in the Legislature, from the protests.
“The people that ran against (Clay), I saw their faces,” she said. “I saw their activities, I saw what they were doing in the neighborhood, in the community. But he was not there, he wasn’t at any function unless it was a fundraiser or far or few between photo ops.”
Clay, who noted that Bush benefited this election cycle from campaign support and donations from supporters tied to Sanders, on Friday defended the NGA and pointed to a long voting record in support of Democratic policies.
“Taking nothing away from Ms. Bush’s victory … my successful effort to bring the $1.7 billion NGA Western HQ to North St. Louis is a monumental achievement that generations of St. Louisans and our nation will benefit from,” he said in a written statement.
Winning more voters
Clay lost Ward 5 by 27 votes, a 1.6-percentage-point margin that is a testament to Clay’s popularity in north St. Louis and St. Louis County, said St. Louis University political analyst Ken Warren. Despite Bush’s inroads in predominantly Black areas, they still chose Clay, he said.
But turnout in those areas was relatively low compared to south St. Louis and parts of St. Louis County that include blocks of non-Black, progressive voters, which were higher this year because of the presidential election, Warren said.
That combination helped push Bush over the edge, giving her a 3-point margin over Clay, boosted especially by a roughly 10-point lead over Clay in the city.
“To me, the key factor was that Clay won in areas where turnout was lowest,” Warren said.
Clay also did not campaign hard enough in white majority areas, he said. “He wasn’t running like he could lose,” he said.
In raw vote numbers, Bush drew thousands more votes, while Clay’s support stagnated, and in some cases, dropped steeply.
In the city, Bush gained 11,775 more votes than in 2018, while Clay won 97 more votes. In the county, she gained 8,249 more votes, while Clay lost 13,022 votes.
Bush won south city wards with the highest turnout — averaging around 43% — compared to roughly 31% in north St. Louis, Warren said.
Her strongest showing, for example, was the ward represented by Alderman Megan Green, a vocal Sanders supporter. Bush defeated Clay in Ward 15 by 49 percentage points — 1,659 more votes.
Bush made significant gains in St. Louis County, bringing her within a 3-point loss to Clay. In 2018, she lost the county by roughly 27 points.
Bush flipped only one county township, Maryland Heights, and came close to winning a handful of others. In Creve Coeur, Clay won by just 3 votes.
Clay solidly won North County townships, though his support there dropped from 2018. He won Ferguson, for example, by 901 votes — a 13-point margin. But that was significantly down from his 43-point margin there in 2018.
Getting out the vote in predominantly Black areas was a focus of the 2020 campaign, said Isra Allison, Bush’s campaign manager.
Her campaign boasted more than 2,000 volunteers in this election cycle who made phone calls and knocked on doors in their bid to defeat Clay.
In most areas, particularly in north St. Louis, most older Black residents were simply surprised there was another candidate, said Adrastos Da Silva, a field organizer for the campaign. Da Silva, a campaign worker connected to the Sanders movement, said he joined Bush’s campaign after seeing her in “Knock Down the House,” a 2019 Netflix documentary.
The documentary, which featured Bush’s run alongside Ocasio-Cortez’s election, gave her more name recognition and drew hundreds of thousands in campaign donations Bush didn’t have before. That allowed her to broadcast television advertisements this year for the first time.
“A lot of people had just gotten to the assumption that Clay was the only option out there,” said Da Silva, 20, originally from New Mexico. “That was who their parents had voted for.”
Voter outreach is critical in low-income areas or with marginalized communities, said Gena Gunn McClendon, director of voter access and engagement at Washington University’s Center for Social Development.
Because of structural inequities, voters in north St. Louis and north St. Louis County don’t have the same ease of access to voting or to resources to learn about candidates, she said.
“You’ve got to ask people to vote, and you’ve got to show up,” she said.
In places like Ferguson and Florissant, both North County cities that have experienced recent protests for police reform, Bush’s outreach involved talking to voters about her activism and goals for reform, Da Silva said.
Bush, who was not a public figure at the time, was among several locals like Aldridge and Franks who met when they went to the area to protest what they saw as injustice. Later they become dedicated activists, and then some decided to run for office with platforms based on issues highlighted by the Ferguson unrest.
In his campaign this year, Clay argued that his role following the events in Ferguson was to make change at the legislative level, playing an instrumental role in pushing federal investigations of the shootings and policing practices.
But critics drew distinctions between the extent of Clay’s presence during the Ferguson unrest and his involvement elsewhere, including promoting the NGA.
“Of course we got this big geospace facility that’s going to come here,” said the Rev. Darryl Gray, an activist who served as Bush’s campaign manager in her first run for office in 2016, when she sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. “But there are not a lot of people who believe that’s going to bring direct dividends to the Black community.”
Gray, with the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, is one of several activists who credited Bush’s win to years of grassroots campaigning and a platform focused on radical police reform and universal health care coverage.
Bush, a single mother who has talked about experiencing homelessness and struggling to pay taxes, also identified herself with real-world struggles in her district.
“There is a political wind, a political wind of social justice that originates from the streets, and not the suites,” Gray said. “That is the difference.”
Ironically, Bush’s rise mirrors that of Clay’s father, said Warren, who wrote a biography of the elder Clay.
As a St. Louis alderman, Bill Clay was arrested and jailed in 1963 for nearly four months for protesting discriminatory hiring practices of a St. Louis bank — considered a landmark moment in local civil rights history, he said.
But Lacy Clay, 64, came into office after the strident Civil Rights movement had achieved many goals, McClendon said.
“The mantle of passing down that continuous fight for equity stopped, and Clay didn’t have to do that in the same sort of way,” she said.
Dees, 49, who grew up voting for the younger Clay, said she supported him in part because of his father’s legacy.
“Once I was old enough to vote and everything else because of the act of senior Clay, scholarships and different things he did — we voted for junior Clay, thinking that we would get some of that same activism and some of the same things that senior Clay did,” she said.
Dees acknowledged Clay’s longtime position in Congress and ability to bring federal dollars to the area.
But she stopped voting for him in 2016 when his challenger that year, then-state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, more forcefully advocated for expanding health care coverage, said Dees, who has been diagnosed with lupus.
Bush was also a more forceful advocate, and she was on the ground, Dees said.
“You saw Cori Bush,” Dees said. “You did not see Lacy Clay.”
Janelle O’Dea of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.