Opinion: 1st District Democratic primary will be an expression of what the St. Louis community values

In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, God poses a compound question: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Isaiah answers, “Here am I, send me.” 

Isaiah’s willingness to accept the assignment speaks to who he is.

We generally think of elections as about candidates, but actually elections are about communities. Really, they are about the people that make up those communities. In a representative democracy, even one as flawed as this one, an election is really the expression of who a community is and what it values. 

You could argue that elections juxtapose the question raised In Isaiah — it’s not about who wants to go, but who we send. And who we send says more about us, the senders, than it says about who’s sent.

The Aug. 2 primary for the Democratic nomination for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District is one of these juxtaposed questions. 

The race is between first term incumbent Congresswoman Cori Bush and first term State Senator Steve Roberts. The winner of the primary will most certainly be elected in November to represent Missouri in the next Congress, given the district’s Democratic tilt. 

The current 1st Congressional District is a product of the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Wesberry v. Sanders, which established that states must draw federal congressional districts containing roughly equal populations. One person, one vote. 

In 1968 William L. Clay Sr. became the first Black man elected to Congress from Missouri, and the district has elected an African American to Congress ever since. Bush became the the first Black woman to represent the district in 2020.

There is no question that after the primary, the district will be represented by an African American. But the politics of the next member of Congress is clearly the open question. 

I consider Bush and Roberts as members of the same generation. Their fathers are contemporaries of mine, and while both are scions of St. Louis Black politics, they are clearly different expressions of that experience.

Historically (at least since World War II) Black political leadership had been incubated by Black protest movements, whether it was the traditional Civil Rights movement or its legitimately more angry offspring, the Black Power movement. These movements shaped and informed the political identities and personalities of the Black men and women who entered the political arena.

Former Congressman William L. Clay Sr. was the personification of this kind of political leadership. In point of fact, he defined Black political leadership in St. Louis for over three decades.

But by the late 1970s, these mass social protest movements had atrophied and were no longer producing reform oriented, anti status quo politicians. 

In the 1980s the Empire struck back in the form of Ronald Reagan and neoliberalism. The ascendancy of Clinton Democrats in the 1990s signaled the Democratic acquiescence to the reality of the neoliberal Republican hegemony.

The 1990s also saw the emergence of the first generation of Black politicians that were not the product of a mass Black social action culture. This is the beginning of what I call the entrepreneurial Black politician. 

An entrepreneurial politician is the same thing as an entrepreneurial business person. Entrepreneurs don’t work for anybody or on behalf of anybody. Now that doesn’t make them bad people. And it doesn’t mean they don’t want the best for others. It’s just that their metric for evaluating that is how things benefit them.

Cori Bush, like Bill Clay, comes to public office via the Black activist route. I view her as a throwback to that era of structural reform minded, anti status quo Black politicians. While Ferguson and Black Lives Matter has resonated with this generation, it hasn’t taken root in the Black community the way the Civil Rights movement did, and it has yet to cross pollinate politics to create a critical mass of anti establishment Black political leadership.

Bill Clay’s politics epitomized his generation. Cori Bush’s politics is an anomaly to hers.

Roberts is clearly a member of the Black entrepreneurial political generation. Like a Barack Obama or Cory Booker, he strives to be a politician that happens to be Black, not Black politician. His messaging is designed to appeal to the broadest possible segment of voters and assumes that Black and white voters have the same priorities.

The current 1st Congressional District is 49% Black and 41% white. Both candidates will have white Democratic support, the winner will be the one who can win a substantial majority of the Black Democratic vote. Given the heated and deranged nature of the Republican primary there won’t be any Republican crossover. This race will be decided by Democrats.

And this is where we get back to the juxtaposition of the question to Isaiah. We know who wants to go. The question is who do we send. And what does whom we send say about us?

This commentary by Michael Jones is published from The Missouri Independent through a Creative Commons license.

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