Cori Bush never wanted to be a politician. She watched her dad, a mayor and city councilman, work long, thankless hours doing it. Instead, she became a nurse, a pastor, and later, an activist in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing of Michael Brown.
It was in Ferguson that Bush remembers looking around and wondering: “Where are the elected officials who are paid to represent us right here? Where are those people? Because they could save us. They could stop this from happening.”
The only politicians she saw were the ones driving by the protests for a photo op. So she decided to run herself. She lost, twice — Missouri races for Senate in 2016 and House in ‘18. It wasn’t until her third try, in the middle of a pandemic and in the wake of nationwide protests against police violence, that her message finally landed, ousting a longtime Democratic incumbent in the Congressional primary, a win that essentially guarantees her a seat in Congress representing the heavily Democratic St. Louis area.
From the beginning, Bush says, the question that stuck in her head was, “How do I save my son and my daughter and my other loved ones, the rest of our community, from being the next hashtag?” The answer? “Step up and run.”
How did your experience as a nurse shape your support for Medicare for All?
I did not go to nursing school and take a class that said, “These are the people that you let live; these are the people that you let die.” Like, there was no class for that. I just want to care for people. If they’re in my care, then I want to do my best to make sure that they’re whole, and that they’re healthy. But instead what I saw was so many holes in our system. I’m watching my patients who are suffering because they don’t have the money to pay for their medications or they don’t have money for those co-pays. They have to fight with these insurance companies to get the basic things that they need — to get testing. And it was just too much. I’m not OK with letting people die. I’m not OK with having people struggle, deciding whether to pay for their rent or pay for the medications that they so desperately need.
I understand that you were hospitalized earlier this year with Covid-19. Can you tell me about your experience?
One day I was fine — back in March — I was fine all day long. And then later in the evening, all of a sudden, it was like a train hit me. I was really, really, really cold. My head started to spin and hurt. I couldn’t taste anything. I had shortness of breath and tightening in my chest. I started to feel like something was sitting on my chest. And I took some medicine and took some vitamin C and used an inhaler, and I just was hoping that whatever it is, like, I could knock it out. I felt a little better. The next day, woke up, I was fine, and then a few hours later, it hit me again, like a train. I went to the urgent care because I didn’t want a bill from the emergency room because I’m uninsured. They took care of me, gave me a breathing treatment, gave me flu tests, and everything was negative. They sent me home. Within a few hours, I was in the emergency room. I was breathing like 30, 35 breaths a minute. I was there for a couple of days. I still was not feeling well, but they sent me home. The next day I started to feel worse. I was right back at the emergency room, and I was kept at the hospital again for another hospitalization for another few days. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I was so weak that I could barely pick up my cell phone even if it was laying next to me. I could barely move. My whole body ached. It was really rough. And not knowing if this is gonna be my last breath — I had to make myself inhale and exhale every breath of every second of every hour, every day. And this went on for weeks.
Do you have medical bills from that stay, or was any of it covered by the Covid relief Congress passed?
No, because my actual diagnostic tests said that it was negative. So I don’t have any help. I owe thousands to hospitals. Two hospital stays: $2,000.
You used to be a nurse. I’m curious about your colleagues in the health-care industry, how they’ve been handling the pandemic? What are you hearing from them, and what do you think Congress could be doing to help nurses right now?
What I’ve been hearing is disturbing, devastating, unbelievable. I met with some nurses and some other support staff that talked about how they have to wear the same mask for three days. Now, when I worked on the floor as a nurse, I had to put on a new mask to go into my patient’s room, and then I had to take that mask off and wash my hands before I exited that patient’s room. Every time I went into that patient, any patient’s room, I had to put on a brand-new mask. That’s how we’re taught. But right now, nurses and other other staff are asked to wear the same mask for three days in a row. It is absolutely disgusting. It’s disgusting. It’s horrible.
Nurses aren’t being able to get tested as much as they need to be. They’re being asked to work — even after they’ve tested positive for Covid — they’ve been asked to come back to work before 14 days. They’re saying, ‘Oh, well, it’s OK to come back after seven days as long as you don’t have symptoms.’ We have people who are saying that they’re using their own PTO time — their own paid leave time — to cover because their jobs are basically saying if you don’t come back to work, then you’re going to be fired. They have to use their PTO to cover that time off because they’re still not well. And when I think about what happened to me, I was on my back for two months. I was too weak to do anything for two months. I can’t imagine being told that I’m going to lose my job if I don’t come back to work, and I have to use my PTO.
Can you tell me about the moment that you decided to run for office, the first time?
I never thought that I would go into politics. I actually said it out of my mouth: I will never go. It’s not my thing. You know, I watched my dad work hard. He’s been in politics for most of my life. But I saw a lot of corruption around him. I saw him hurt as he was trying to help. And so I was like, ‘Wow, who would volunteer for this?’ As a kid, I’m like, ‘Dad, why do you do this?’ So I went into ministry, became a pastor. I went to become a nurse after working in child care for a long time and was working with the unhoused population, was working fighting human trafficking. And then Michael Brown was murdered.
You know, I took to the streets as clergy and as a medic. And I just remember seeing something that I hadn’t — I just never thought I’d see in my day. It just looked like civil rights footage from the 1960s in my community. And then, day after day, you know, just seeing the police brutalize innocent people. Beating people unconscious, arresting people for stepping off of a sidewalk. Tackling people. Just the tear gas, the rubber bullets, the sound munitions, just so, just so much. But they’re also wondering, ‘Where are the elected officials who are paid to represent us right here? You know, where are those people? Because they could save us, like, they could stop this from happening.’ And, you know, oftentimes — not 100 percent of the time — but oftentimes, we saw photo ops.
I’m an activist. Some community leaders asked me to run, and initially I said no. Because my initial thought was, ‘Why would I want to do this? Why?’ You know, I don’t want to be in politics. But the more I thought about, you know, How do we get the heart of those people who have been out here on the ground? Who’ve been protesting, putting their lives and livelihood on the line? Those people who just wanted to see justice for Michael Brown and for black lives? They don’t want to see the next hashtag.… How do we get that heart into these seats? Somebody from here has to run. So I see it. Yes. And I also thought about, How do I save my son and my daughter and my other loved ones, and that the rest of our community, from being the next hashtag? Step up and run.
When you talk about defunding the Pentagon, what does that look like?
Basically, we need more money for social programs. Us carrying on endless war, us helping war profiteers while we have people who need health care, people who need food, people who need clean water, while we have communities who are suffering, people who are living off of starvation wages. We can fix that. What we’re talking about is removing a portion of the budget. We’re talking about removing fat. We’re talking about supporting our veterans who are in our communities. So many of them don’t seem to have received the resources that they need. We’re talking about taking some of the money that has been allocated to go into places where we don’t need it to go in our defense budget. We’re going to support our veterans, because we’ve got to make sure they don’t have to sleep on the street. We’re going to make sure that they have the mental-health services for those that want to; we’re going to make sure that they have a place to live. We’re going to make sure, of all of those things, we support our troops and we support our veterans.
As a pastor, did you give sermons?
If you were to speak to your community right now, what would you give a sermon on?
Love people. Love people. Because to me, that should be the basis. That should be a primary requirement for holding any elected public office. Because if I love you, then I care that you have food and that you eat. If I love you, I care that you have health care. If I love you, I care that the police don’t murder you and get off with impunity. I care that you live in safe housing, that you have clean water. If I love you, I care that you are not separated from your family on the basis of where you used to live and how you look, where you were born. If I love you, then I care that you get to love who you choose to love. If I love you, then I care that your body is your own and you get to make your own decisions for what you need … if I love you.
If you had a political genie that allowed you to enact just one law, what would it be?
Ending qualified immunity for police officers.
Which year in American history do you think was the best one for the greatest number of people?
This is the worst question in the world. I honestly have no answer to that.… I’ve seen too much struggle to even be able to give a day on this.
Do you think that 20 years from now we’ll have a higher or a lower standard of living than today?
Higher. Unless more of us like-minded folks [don’t] get into these seats.
When you think about the 2020 election, what’s keeping you up at night?
The election doesn’t keep me up at night. Nothing about the election keeps me up at night, but what is a concern of mine is just wondering if we will have an answer within the first couple of days after the election, or even in 24 hours, or if it’s going to take a while.
Where are you planning to be on election night this year?
I will be at my campaign headquarters, right here in St. Louis.
Where were you on election night in 2016?
I was at home in my bed, thinking that we won and I just knew that I would wake up and we would have won. And that wasn’t the case. I woke up horrified.
If you could give one piece of advice to Joe Biden, what would it be?
Talk to us. Listen to us. We are not your enemy. But there is another side to how people live. There is another side to how we get there. It’s not about a machine, it’s about actual people. And it’s time.
Do you have a personal theme song?
Two! There’s a song called “You Will Win” — it’s a gospel song, love the song, that’s something that just kind of keeps playing in my ear. But I’ll tell you, on my Election Day, August the 4th, I woke up with this song — I think it’s the Rocky song — kept playing in my head. All day, every time I hopped on the van to go to a different polling place. That’s my other song now.
Who would you want to play Cori Bush in a movie about your life?
That would have to be, like, Taraji P. Henson or Gabrielle Union or somebody like that. You know, they have to be my hue of chocolate. So Regina King or Regina Hall. I love them.
What does your self-care Sunday routine look like?
So, if I am able to do self-care Sunday: It is sleep in, first of all, I’m not up at 7 o’clock in the morning. I get to watch a little TV, watch a few of my little my morning shows, and then I go get my favorite meal: I go to my favorite soul food restaurant. Yep. And that’s my lunch. And for the rest of the day, I’m watching movies. I’m eating ice cream, reading a book, you know. I would even talk on the phone.
What is your soul-food order?
It depends on the day, but usually it’s either fried chicken or baked chicken, dressing with gravy and cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese, and turkey — your turkey, greens, and cornbread. And pear cobbler.
What’s the first thing you would do if Covid were eradicated tomorrow?
I would then go to work reaching out to people within my district to see, ‘OK, now that it’s done. What do you need?’ You know, a one-on-one basis the same way we did. Make those same wellness-check phone calls. Now that it’s over, ‘How can we build for you?’