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Bush-vs.-Roberts contest in 1st District primary is more than simply moderate vs. liberal

Sheets of rain wrapped around the playground shelter in North St. Louis’ Fairground Park on July 9, where canvassers for Congresswoman Cori Bush’s re-election campaign huddled together. 

The event’s organizer, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, took advantage of the captive audience.

“Even in the rain, we have the faithful few who are out here because we know what’s at stake,” Jones said to about a dozen people. 

But by the time she finished speaking, the number had doubled despite the rain still coming down. 

“I have never seen the kind of cooperation and collaboration between a federal office and a local office as I see between our offices,” Jones said of working with Bush. “Our staffs’ talk to each other more than we know, but we make sure that we are in sync.” 

In total, Bush’s campaign touts that she has brought $1 billion in federal relief funds to her district, including $200 million for St. Louis Public Schools and $200 million for the federal Child Tax Credit program. She was also able to get an $600,000 earmark recently to help build St. Louis a new 911 dispatch call center. 

For Bush and her supporters, that fluidity between local and federal government is among the biggest things at stake in the Democratic primary, where she is being challenged by state Sen. Steve Roberts. 

The 1st Congressional District includes all of the city of St. Louis and north St. Louis County, along with pieces of the central corridor such as Clayton and Webster Groves.

Roberts, chair of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus represents about two-thirds of St. Louis, has focused his campaign on the idea that Bush is too much of an activist and not enough of a legislator. Some of her votes have threatened federal funds and development opportunities, he said, and that’s why she has to go.

“You’ve got someone who doesn’t have any interest in being an elected official, they’re more interested in…bringing attention to themselves,” Roberts said, “where your role as an elected leader — as steward of St. Louis City and St. Louis County — needs to be focused on bringing back federal resources home.”

Roberts points to $18 million he secured for his district this year, including $8 million for the city’s new 911 call center. All this despite having to contend with a Republican supermajority in Jefferson City.

“I’m willing to work with anyone who has the same interests and objectives as I do, which is making St. Louis a better place and a safer place for everyone to live,” he said.

Bush, Missouri’s first Black congresswoman, was unavailable for an interview for this story. But she told the canvassers in Fairground Park that she isn’t worried that she’s going to lose her bid for re-election. She just wants the results to send a message that her 2020 win over longtime Democratic Congressman Lacy Clay was no accident.

“That lightning didn’t strike, that it wasn’t just a fluke,” she said. “That people meant to send me to Congress because sending me to Congress sent us to Congress.”

On the surface, that’s the stage for the primary battle — a moderate challenger versus a liberal incumbent.

But the race has an undercurrent shrouded in grief and resentment. While Democratic primaries can often cause divisions in St. Louis politics, this race has already shredded political relationships.

The allegations

On March 11, former state lawmaker and St. Louis County official Cora Faith Walker died suddenly from a heart condition, shocking the local and statewide political community. 

Her death came 17 days before Roberts announced his campaign for Congress. 

In 2016, Walker accused Roberts of sexual assault, though the police investigation did not result in any charges. Roberts has denied the allegation and later sued Walker for defamation. She filed a countersuit. Eventually, they signed a confidential settlement that didn’t involve any money.

Steve Roberts, a state senator who represents the city of St. Louis, is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Cori Bush in the Aug. 2, 2022, Democratic primary in the 1st Congressional District. Handout photo

In the days following Walker’s death, some people close to her – including the mayor – posted on social media that they believed Walker’s claims and vowed not to forget “what he did.” 

About two weeks after formally entering the campaign, Roberts publicly released the confidential terms of the settlement with Walker, saying he did it because Bush’s supporters were resurfacing the allegations. After seeing a TV interview where Roberts denied the allegations, a second woman who had accused Roberts of sexual assault — St. Louis attorney Amy Harms — spoke up publicly. 

In an interview with The Independent, Roberts insisted the allegations resurfacing was the fault of Bush’s campaign and had nothing to do with Walker’s friends grieving her death.

“I can just speak through what I witnessed real time as far as how these allegations were coming up and who was posting about them,” he said. “It was very clear some of these folks had actually worked in her office or volunteered for her campaign. Who it was exactly, I couldn’t tell you.”

State Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, a St. Louis Democrat who has endorsed Bush, works closely with Roberts in Jefferson City and was also close with Walker. He said the sexual assault allegations were brought back up by the people who loved and supported Walker – and not because of Roberts’ then-rumored bid for Congress. It tore him and many others apart, he said, to see Roberts disclose the settlement so soon after her death and with her unable to defend herself.

“Now this is how we’re remembering her, with a person that’s running for Congress using this for campaign material,” Aldridge said. “I have been around politics a lot, but I think this is the lowest of lows I’ve seen. It is disgusting.”

Roberts said voters will see past the allegations, as they did when they elected him to the Senate two years ago and as Black legislators did when they made him chairman of the Missouri Legislative BlackCaucus. 

State Rep. Marlon Anderson, D-St. Louis, said he’s supporting Roberts because his legal experience as a former prosecutor and his service as a captain in the Missouri Air National Guard speak to his ability to make “tough decisions in adverse situations.” 

“He has shown that he can work across the aisle and do what is in the best interest of Missourians and all Americans,” Anderson said. 

Roberts also won the endorsement of the man Bush unseated in 2020, former U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, though he declined an interview request to speak about his support of Roberts.

But the fallout from the sexual assault allegations has persisted.

Pro-Choice Missouri, formerly known as NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, endorsed Bush but chose to withhold endorsements from numerous Democratic state lawmakers who had appeared on a host committee list for a fundraiser for Roberts last year. The group pointed specifically at the allegations of sexual assault against Roberts, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that it could not support candidates who don’t stand up against “the status quo in Jeff City that allows for and sustains a culture of abuse.”

Their records

Roberts has repeatedly criticized Bush’s vote against the infrastructure bill approved by Congress earlier this year that allocated more than a trillion dollars in spending for roads, bridges, mass transit, electric vehicle charging stations, rural broadband and lead pipe removal.

Bush was among six Democrats who voted “no” because it lacked the originally included Build Back Better proposal for preschool and child care funds.

Roberts contends Bush abandoned Democrats on an important vote.

“You need someone who shows up and is able to work with leadership on both sides of the aisle and find compromise,” Roberts said. “It can’t be this all or nothing approach.”

At the canvassing event, Bush anticipated that question could come when they spoke with voters. 

“Our work has to start with those who have the greatest need,” she said. “If we start there, everybody benefits. When you do it the other way, you miss people.”

Every candidate that has secured a city-wide office in St. Louis in recent years has put public-safety policies at the top of their platforms, including structural racism and police brutality in the Black community. 

Half of Missouri’s Black voters live in the 1st Congressional district.

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., speaks to canvassers on July 9, 2022, at Fairgrounds Park in north St. Louis, with St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones (left) and former state Rep. Bruce Franks (right). Missouri Independent photo

Last year, Roberts sponsored legislation to require the Missouri Attorney General Office to compile a use-of-force database and produce an annual report of how each law enforcement agency in the state fared. He also fought against a bill that included the “Law Enforcement Bill of Rights,” providing further protections for law enforcement under investigation for misconduct or excessive force. 

Bush, a frontline Ferguson protestor and vice chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, commended President Joe Biden issuing an executive order in May that mandates a number of police accountability measures. It includes a new national database of police misconduct that all federal law enforcement agencies must participate in. 

 She introduced the People’s Response Act that urges a health-centered approach to public safety and alternative crisis-response programs. 

“I have worked tirelessly to ensure that we are not investing in failed strategies that further militarize our neighborhoods and schools,” she said in a May press release, “and the need to prioritize comprehensive, public health-based gun violence prevention strategies that will keep every student safe.” 

Roberts secured a historic $5 million for refugee resettlement for St. Louis, a passion for him that came out of working for an Los Angeles legal clinic for asylum seekers. He also said a priority for him if elected would be to codify Roe v. Wade in order to ensure abortion rights, though he doesn’t have any official plans yet.

On July 1, Bush laid out a 23-point action plan for “protecting reproductive freedom” and she launched a new reproductive justice hub on her campaign website designed to serve as a one-stop for abortion care resources and an activism hub for Missourians and people across the country to understand their rights after the Supreme Court’s recent ruling.

She also recently launched a TV ad about how she was raped and became pregnant at 17.

 “That’s the start of my abortion story,” Bush says in the ad. “Millions more have their own.”

Both candidates have pushed to revitalize north St. Louis, which has faced decades of disinvestment and is plagued by hundreds of vacant houses. 

Roberts sponsored an amendment to a larger bill that he says will enable “reinvestment in disenfranchised areas” by clearing titles for St. Louis’ vacant properties.

In September 2021, Bush worked alongside Sen. Elizabeth Warren to introduce the legislation “Keeping Renters Safe Act” to authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to place a moratorium on residential evictions during the pandemic. 

A month before, she camped out on the Capitol steps in protest of Congress not extending protections for vulnerable tenants. The Biden administration had said it could not legally extend that ban, and a last-minute legislative effort by congressional Democrats failed to extend those legal protections through mid-October. Many credit her protest with mounting the pressure necessary to get the Biden administration to act.

Roberts criticized Bush for protesting outside the U.S. Capitol instead of working alongside members of the Congressional Black Caucus inside the building.

“She made it appear that she was the reason why it happened,” Roberts said, “whereas really, you had Democrats working together on the inside to get this done.”

But Jones said Bush’s protest was a big reason why the moratorium was ultimately extended.  

“We know that was why President Biden extended the eviction moratorium,” Jones said. “I don’t care what anybody else says. Her activism saves lives, and that’s the kind of activism that we need in Congress.”

This article by Rebecca Rivas, with contribution by Rudi Keller, is published from The Missouri Independent.

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