Cori Bush’s upset victory in Missouri’s first congressional district made national headlines last month. An ordained pastor, nurse, single mother, and leader of the Ferguson uprisings, Bush campaigned on an expansive, progressive platform, including support for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and universal basic income. If she wins in November, as expected, she will be the first Black woman to represent the state of Missouri in Congress. 

Bush’s victory was not inevitable. She faced a longtime incumbent, Lacy Clay, whose father had held the seat before him. The campaign was hit particularly hard by COVID, and not just because the pandemic temporarily ground field operations to a halt. Bush herself contracted the virus — keeping her off the campaign trail for nearly six weeks. But the campaign regrouped, mobilizing 2,000 volunteers in a massive phone banking push (they made nearly half a million phone calls) and canvassing operation (they knocked 25,000 doors in just the last four weeks of the campaign). And they managed to outraise Clay, entirely through small dollar donors.  

We sat down with Bush’s lead organizer, Adrastos Da Silva, to talk about how the campaign coped with COVID, what they did to help voters navigate a maze of vote-by-mail restrictions and voter suppression tactics, and what Bush’s victory means for progressive politics in Missouri and beyond. 

 

Tell me about yourself and how you ended up on this campaign.

I grew up in a home where domestic violence was really prevalent, and we had to deal with a lot of moving around. My father was in prison for most of my life. I remember driving four or five hours to visit him in his prison cell; these were the best moments throughout my childhood. I had seen my mother struggle with not being able to afford anything; we were on food stamps, and she was working three jobs. At seven or eight years old, I was the one who had to watch my brother and sister, who were two and one. 

I went to high school and realized how much this was normal, how many people had also struggled and didn't have any social programs to uplift them and keep them secure. I got involved with a couple of advocacy groups around mental and behavioral health. I started interning with Congresswoman Deb Holland and realized how vast the issues are, that it just isn't just around mental health. It's not just around social programs such as food stamps; it's also about homelessness. It's about adequate transportation for people who can't afford to have a car, and so many other issues. 

I was able to get into the Movement School, and I was very lucky to land a position with Colorado Working Families Party. They got me connected to Elizabeth Warren's campaign after that and then to Cori's campaign.

 

Let’s talk about Cori’s campaign. What do you think this victory makes possible?

It's monumental. Not only for me as a person who's been on the campaign, but also the people here. We had people coming in through the doors saying, "We used to just vote for Clay because that's just who we've always voted for. We didn't actually know that there was any other option."

 

It's been since 1968 that either Lacy Clay or his father, Bill Clay, has been in office. 

Yeah. And, actually, Lacy Clay never did a primary. His father withdrew from the ballot an hour before and put his son's name down so he wouldn't have to have anybody in the primary to challenge him. One thing that sums this up pretty clearly — the amount of voter suppression — is that there are these things called green sheets. It's just a sample ballot. But essentially Clay's family and the dynasty around them have trained voters to trust that sample ballot. So people would just go up, grab those sample ballots, and vote for them. Wouldn't question it, wouldn't do anything. 

Clay has never been in the city; he is not actively part of the community. Whereas Cori has been here fighting for the district her entire life. And not only that, she was on a national stage with the Ferguson movement, and I think that's the really big game changer here. In 2018, I had just turned 18, and I saw AOC win, and I thought that was amazing. I thought that was fantastic. I thought it was going to change everything. Which it did. But I would say this is almost more powerful because it's shaking up what we had originally thought was the establishment. It's everybody now.

 

Cori was deeply involved in the Ferguson uprisings. What was the response on the doors to her organizing and commitment to defunding the police? Was there work to do to bring voters along with you? Did things shift with the recent uprisings? 

The difference between this district compared to basically any district throughout the country is that the protests never stopped since Ferguson. That's the thing here. I hate to say it, but it's almost intertwined with the culture. It's intertwined with being a person of color here. Every year, there's a couple new people who have been unjustly murdered. So it never stopped since Ferguson. They may have taken a break for a few months, but they went back at it again because another person had lost their life, another person had been unjustly arrested. And so the conversation around defunding the police has been here; it's just never been explicitly said.

When George Floyd happened, a lot of people were furious. The pain of the community was definitely showing. When we started saying defund the police, that never really changed anybody's minds [about the campaign]. When we started going to the more affluent neighborhoods, they were like, "Oh, well I'm not too sure about that." But they're around these protests. They know how prevalent and how systemic [police violence] is in this community. After George Floyd, a police officer — in an unmarked car with no lights on — was trying to chase somebody with a broken tail light and ended up running over a man who was not connected to the crime. Then the police officer got out of the car and started beating that man with three other officers watching. That sparked a huge uprising. There's videos of [Cori] being maced when she was trying to help somebody get down, when the Florissant police were pushing everybody back. And not only pushing them back, started beating them with clubs while they were down. It's a very real situation here; it's never stopped.

 

How did the pandemic affect the campaign? You started on the campaign in March. How did you pivot to remote organizing? What technology has been useful and what have some of the limits been?

It was really tough. The biggest thing when doing remote is being really organized, really thoughtful. Because I remember being on multiple Zoom meetings that lasted an hour and a half, and they should've only been 30 minutes. So being really thoughtful and organized because you can't just yell across the office.

Cori had COVID too. We lost a good bit of traction when COVID hit. Not like other campaigns where they just lost fundraising or a few volunteers. We had lost our candidate. She was down for almost a month and a half in the hospital trying to recover. And when she would feel better she'd be able to do things for one or two days, but then she would just get super sick again and would have to take a week off.

That really slowed down our campaign because volunteers didn’t really feel that excited. So we had interns carry the field program, especially for those few weeks, and just offered college credit as much as we could. They were doing remote calling, phone banking, helping out with comms work.

When we got closer to the election, we started opening up operations again because of how close the election was. We started lit dropping and then we moved into canvassing. It went really, really well. All of our conversations at the door, we had an extremely high contact rate. I think it was upwards of 38% or something like that. Everybody was home. We had nobody get angry at us. We didn't have any of that. And we knocked over 25,000 doors at the end of it. 

We just made sure everybody had a mask on, we made sure that they had gloves, hand sanitizer. We were staying at least six feet away from the doors. We gave a couple of folks little golf balls so that way they didn't actually have to touch the door.

 

Thirty-eight percent is a really high contact rate; I imagine that's a much higher number than the number of people who picked up the phone and were willing to talk with you. 

I think the normal contact rate for phones is around two-to-three percent. Our campaign also had a really good contact rate [on the phones]; I think it was 7.38 percent. Thankfully, when our radio ads started going out, we didn't actually have to talk a lot about Cori. People just said, "Oh, we got a call from you? Great. We're voting for you." We had a lot of conversations that were just a few seconds long because they just wanted to see who would reach out to them. 

Once her name ID really skyrocketed, we just started snowballing and everybody fell in love with the campaign. Even the folks that didn't like getting a political phone call, we still had the majority of them say, "We'll vote for you, just stop calling us." 

 

Let’s talk about vote by mail. What was your process for following up with voters to make sure they got their ballots and were actually able to vote?

Missouri is one of the most voter suppressed states for mail-in ballots. Mail-in voting and absentee voting are different in Missouri. All mail-in voting requires a notary. All absentee ballots require a notary, unless you have COVID, you are at risk of COVID (so that's 65 and above or immunocompromised), or you have a physical disability or ailment where you cannot go vote in person. To make it even harder, they made it where mail-in voting can only be mailed in; you cannot drop it off. So it had to be mailed out a week ahead of time. And it can't be postmarked on Election Day; it needs to arrive on Election Day.

You could drop it off in person, but you would have to go to one of the only two designated places throughout the entire district (one is not even in the district; it's on the other side of the county, and the other one's outside of the city). And then the last thing that made it even harder: under the notary signature, you had to check a box, a small little box to verify your address. If you didn't do all three of those things correctly, your ballot got thrown out. 

 

How did you walk people through this?

We noticed right away, when we started posting what you needed to do in this scenario, people got overwhelmed. They were just like, "I'm going to go vote in person on Election Day." So we had a voting page on our website where we boiled it down to the simplest steps. We made sure that anybody we had talked to on the phones or in canvassing, we made a plan to vote four or five weeks out to the election.

 

How many people ended up voting in person versus by mail or absentee? 

It was mostly in person. There were very long lines at a couple of places. One of the things that carried this campaign was an application called Strive. Which essentially is one of those texting systems where you text this number and text this word and you'll get a reply back. We used that to get voter IDs, to do volunteer recruitment, to do fundraising. But we also used it for voter protection. Everybody who was a poll worker could text the word “starving” if they were hungry, and we would send them food; text the word “supplies,” we would grab them literature. If they had a lot of people at the polls, we would say, text the word “support." If it was slow, just text the word “slow.” And then text “Election Day” if you saw some electioneering or voter suppression happening. We had over 74 instances of voter suppression, intimidation, and electioneering that day.

I was on the phone with the voter protection hotline for most of the day. And the good thing about Strive is that we were able to respond to everybody on the fly; we were able to look at everybody's messages, and then we had one organizer basically watching that system throughout the entire day, letting me know who I needed to call next. It also allowed the poll workers to take pictures and send them to us so that we could save them for our records and eventually send them to the Voter Protection League. It ended up saving a lot of people.

 

What were the biggest lessons you learned on the campaign?

If we had really looked into what was causing folks to struggle with the absentee ballots earlier, I think that we could've intertwined that more with our work at the doors earlier on. But then again, I would say every campaign and every organization in the state struggled with that because they kept changing things — to the point where they even reduced polling locations for the county, from 189 to 83. Despite it all, we had more turnout than we did in 2018. Cori is the right candidate for exactly the right time, when we see all of these protests out in the streets, and all of these major inequities. She's there to face it and call it out for what it is.

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