Congressman Lacy Clay may be the Missouri equivalent of professional-wrestling great Mr. Perfect.
That’s because the St. Louis Democrat has never lost an election for the Missouri Legislature or Congress. In fact, his father, former Congressman Bill Clay, won every aldermanic and congressional race during his long tenure in public service. Many attribute this electoral success to a stout political organization — and decades of loyalty.
Florissant resident Cori Bush is the latest Democrat to try to end Clay’s undefeated streak in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. The Florissant resident is getting support from St. Louis’ cadre of left-of-center Democrats, as well as an up-and-coming New Yorker who upended a powerful congressman earlier this year.
The Clay-Bush race is the latest salvo in the long-running battle in St. Louis between established Democrats and those dissatisfied with the status quo. While Clay is stressing his experience and service to the community, Bush contends it’s time for a change.
“Experience doesn’t necessarily equate to effectiveness,” Bush said. “Yes, experience sounds wonderful. But if the experience is not actually touching the people that it’s supposed to touch, and if the people on the ground are not feeling represented by that experience, then how is it benefiting them?”
This isn’t the first time a St. Louis Democrat questioned Clay’s political pull. For his part, Clay isn’t worried that Bush will be the first to defeat him.
“I’m comfortable that we will get our message out to the public,” Clay said.
“Voters in this district are quite intelligent. And they vote in their best interest.”
Level of service
Clay is the dean of the Missouri congressional delegation, having first been elected to the U.S. House in 2000. If he were to win against Bush and two other Democrats on the Aug. 7 ballot, Clay will reach 20 years of service in Congress. That’s in addition to an extensive tenure in the Missouri House and Senate.
Clay believes that type of experience matters to the 1st District. Members with more tenure tend to be able to do more in the U.S. House, since power and seniority go hand-and-hand.
“And for the years of service that I have given to this community, I think it’s important,” Clay said. “I’ve developed a reputation of being hands-on and being able to deliver for people who have various issues that they encounter with our government.”
If Democrats are able to obtain a majority in November, Clay said he’ll be able to effectively advocate for economically distressed parts of the district through his seat on the House Financial Services Committee. His focus, he said, will be bringing economic opportunities to the federally designated Promise Zone — which covers most of north St. Louis and north St. Louis County.
“And I think that’s important, because for so many years those areas have been deprived economically,” Clay said. “They have been redlined. And from my position on the Financial Services Committee, I will fight insurance companies and urge banks to extend credit to that area, to those families.”
Clay is also a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has conducted high-profile hearings regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election cycle.
He said President Donald Trump “has done a lot of harm to this country in the area of policy, be it immigration policy, separating families, turning back the clock on civil rights, on workers’ rights, on workplace safety, on the environment, and on the relationships that we have with longtime allies.”
“I just think it’s very disappointing, having served under Presidents Bush and Obama, to now be in the midst of this president’s first term,” Clay said. “And the country seems to be regressing and going backwards.”
A challenger enters
While Bush hasn’t been elected to anything before, she’s not a stranger to politics or activism.
Bush’s father, Errol Bush, has served either as mayor or an alderman in Northwoods for years. She gained notoriety and built relationships for her activism after a Ferguson police officer fatally shot Michael Brown four years ago.
When Bush ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2016, she also stumped for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign — even making a speech for him in Edwardsville. All of this experience, she said, sets her up well to run against Clay.
“This time around the reception immediately was just really good. People already had an idea of who I am. So the name recognition wasn’t as much of a hurdle,” Bush said. “Also, I just think people in the district are ready for something different. So when I would go out, people already knew Cori the activist. And they already heard of Cori trying to run into politics. But I think seeing it this time, and seeing how much support I started out with really made people feel like this is viable.”
Bush said she would make education policy a priority if she were to make it to Congress. And, like Clay, she’s a critic of Trump’s immigration policies — which she says is “destroying families.”
“We can’t even connect the children back to their parents,” Bush said. “I’m frightened. My children are 17 and 18. But if I don’t know where one of them is, I want to know where my child is.”
More than any particular policy issue, Bush said if elected she wants to use her post to empower people throughout the district. She said that her life experiences — which include being homeless and dealing with financial problems — give her empathy for the working poor.
“Yes, I may be new walking in the door,” she said. “But the experience that I have from the street going to sit in that seat, I believe that I can move more mountains with this fresh new passion — and just lived experience — than someone who has been sitting there.”
Thus far, Clay amassed more campaign money than Bush — and has more money to spend in the run up to the primary election. But Bush’s campaign received some national attention after a visit from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who upended incumbent New York Congressman Joseph Crowley earlier this year.
Defeating someone like Clay, Bush said, would send a message that Ocasio-Cortez’s win wasn’t just “lightning striking in her race.”
“It would show that the Midwest can stand up and have this positive change,” Bush said.
Clay said he’s unconcerned about Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to get involved in his contest. He also disputes the idea that he’s not “progressive,” pointing to a voting record that ranks him high on some national lists of liberal members of Congress.
Moreover, Clay said that St. Louis’ renegade faction of Democrats haven’t done a particularly good job of gaining favor in north St. Louis or north St. Louis County. For instance, St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura Jones, who had support from St. Louis’ “progressive” activists, failed to carry north St. Louis wards.
“People in that community want to hear, ‘How are you going to make my life better?' Such as, 'Are you going to help us get health coverage for our families?'” Clay said. “'Are you going to provide us with the protection in the workplace, and ensure that we can make a living wage?' Progressives in this race never talk to those issues and never talk to that community, because they don’t have a real connection to it.”
A number of St. Louis ward organizations and labor unions are backing Clay’s candidacy. Organized labor members are expected to come out on Aug. 7 for the referendum over right to work.
But other elected officials, including state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., D-St. Louis, and Alderman Annie Rice, D-8th Ward, are supporting Bush. Two leading candidates for the 2nd Congressional District, Cort VanOstran and Mark Osmack, have attended Bush’s events with Ocasio-Cortez, though they told St. Louis Public Radio that doesn’t constitute an endorsement.
Bush said the energy from her supporters will present her campaign with a different fate from Democrats who lost badly to Clay, such as state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal and former Congressman Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis.
“When we’ve been knocking doors, it’s, ‘Oh, well, now we feel like we have somebody else that we can vote for. We have an alternative,’” Bush said. “And people are seeing that it’s OK to have this change. It’s leadership over loyalty.”
Because the 1st District is heavily Democratic, the winner of the Aug. 7 contest will be favored in November.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum