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Democrats’ Tough Choice in Missouri 1

Re-elect Squad member Cori Bush despite her far-out views? Or vote for her challenger despite his baggage?
by Jim Swift
April 6, 2022
Democrats’ Tough Choice in Missouri 1
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) on Capitol Hill in December 2021. (Photo By Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call / Getty)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the Democratic establishment in 2018 by primarying and defeating Joe Crowley, a member of Democratic leadership who’d held his seat in the House since the Clinton years. Shortly after she was sworn in, Ocasio-Cortez formed “The Squad” with a few other congressional freshmen—Reps. Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib—each of whom had either directly defeated or took over seats long held by Democrats with establishment ties (respectively Keith Ellison, Mike Capuano, and John Conyers).

It’s not that the House lacked progressives—they have their own caucus!—but the progressives were less effective than their GOP counterparts, the Republican Study Committee and the House Freedom Caucus. The Freedom Caucus in particular created headaches for Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan, and the Squad sought to do the same for the Democratic leadership. Their notoriety quickly grew thanks to their media savvy, press coverage that was sometimes fawning, and an obsession from the conservative media world that resulted in a lot of conservative self-owns. Although the Squad lacked votes, its members were helping to shape the debate.

The Squad added two more members in 2021: its first man, Jamaal Bowman, who defeated Eliot Engel, a New York member who’d been in office since the days of George H.W. Bush; and Cori Bush from Missouri, who defeated Lacy Clay, a legacy congressman who’d been in office for twenty years.

Both victories were surprises, especially Bush’s, since her district is the most moderate of all the Squad members. After all, it is Missouri.

Through a longstanding unwritten rule, the political parties and their campaign committees generally did not mess with incumbents. Democrats have tended to adhere to that rule more than Republicans—even before the Tea Party started breaking it—meaning that even Democratic House members who are constant thorns in their leaders’ sides do not face primary challengers who have their party’s backing.

So when a Democratic primary challenge arises, it happens at the local level. And when a challenge succeeds, the local party machines don’t like being beaten, so it’s natural for them to want to get revenge and retake what they think is theirs.

Which brings us back to Rep. Cori Bush. She has spent the first fifteen months of her first term casting votes and making broad statements of policy that seem consistent with her beliefs but inconsistent with the conventional wisdom on what is best for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, the state’s most liberal, comprising Saint Louis City and its northern suburbs. (Missouri has yet to approve its new post-2020-census map.)

Here’s one: “Defunding the Pentagon.” The far left loves to rail against defense spending which, sure, is replete with waste. But defunding it entirely? The idea is as dumb as “defund the police” but in this case the intended audience is a congressional district that hosts one of America’s premiere spy satellite agencies as well as the National Personnel Records Center, which handles military records archives.

Cori Bush was also one of two House Democrats, the other being Ilhan Omar, to reject a bill endorsing a ban on importing Russian oil. Fifteen Republicans supported the measure.

Bush’s primary opponent, a state senator named Steve Roberts Jr., who filed the necessary papers only two days before the deadline, called her out on her support for defunding the Pentagon. In response, this is how Bush described the choice voters face between her and Roberts:

Their congresswoman who loves them and delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to St. Louis, and a host of ego-driven men who seem to think all that Black women leaders do is never good enough.

It’s kind of bizarre. Then again, so are Rep. Bush’s votes. Defunding the Pentagon would impoverish Saint Louisans, many of whom are her constituents, immediately. It would never happen, but that she’d stand for it as some sort of protest vote is bizarre. When your agenda is to throw rocks at the establishment, you generally want to avoid throwing rocks at your constituents. Aided by Republicans, Bush’s record will be demagogued by Republicans, no doubt, and even moderate establishment Missouri Democrats during the primary.

Which brings us to Bush’s primary opponent, Steve Roberts Jr.

On paper? He’s gold. He should crush Cori Bush. The state senator has the backing (mostly silent at this point) of establishment Missouri Democrats, many of whom are not big fans of Bush’s, and he comes from a wealthy family with a history in local politics. Not only that, he’s an officer in the U.S. Air Force. He has a law degree from Pepperdine, and is well regarded as a serious legislator who replaced a controversial legislator who was term-limited out in the city’s posh Central West End.

But there’s an asterisk.

Roberts was accused of rape in October 2016, when he was running unopposed for a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives. The accusation became one of the more-talked-about sagas in Missouri Democratic political circles at the time, in part, because his accuser was also a member of the political class: Cora Faith Walker, also then a candidate running unopposed for the Missouri House.

Walker, a Democrat from Ferguson (the St. Louis suburb made famous in 2014), was a rising star in 2016, with energy and talent and a master’s in public health and a law degree. Her accusation—she said she visited Roberts’s apartment, drank two glasses of wine, and woke up the next morning in a bed in the apartment—divided the Gateway City’s Democratic establishment.

Roberts denied the accusation and was never charged, and as he and Walker went on to become freshmen state lawmakers, Roberts took the additional step of suing Walker for defamation, with his attorney even laying out his side of the story to Bill McClellan, a longtime columnist for the Post-Dispatch, providing texts, receipts, and even a nude picture. It wasn’t pretty. Walker then filed a countersuit, alleging that Roberts drugged her the night she alleges he raped her. The two ultimately dropped their lawsuits in 2019. But that wasn’t the end of it, as you can imagine: One does not accuse a future colleague of drug-induced rape, countersue him after charges aren’t filed, and then ride off into the sunset with no hard feelings. Walker left electoral politics, taking a job as chief policy officer for Saint Louis County Executive Sam Page’s administration. And as Roberts continued his rise, the rift among the various supporters of both Walker and Roberts continued.

And then in early March of this year, Walker died suddenly of cardiac arrest at age 37 in a hotel room downtown after attending a birthday party for Saint Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones. Police do not suspect any foul play or wrongdoing, and a preliminary toxicology report apparently did not provide any indication that drugs were involved.

Now, as Roberts seeks to climb another rung up the political ladder and take Cori Bush’s seat in the U.S. House, Cora Faith Walker isn’t around to tell her story. Democrats are left with a fractured political machine: Those who believe Roberts, those who believed Walker, and a silent majority who are content not to weigh in.

However, Roberts has also been accused of sexual assault by another woman, Amy Harms, who came out (anonymously at first) after Walker accused Roberts, later to reveal herself and sue him. Harms alleges that Roberts fondled her in 2015 at a bar popular with lawyers near Saint Louis University law school and the region’s courthouses. At the time, Roberts was an assistant city prosecutor; he was arrested but not charged. (The city used a special prosecutor from nearby Saint Charles County to avoid any appearance of self-dealing.)

Harms ultimately gave up on her suit, but at the time, Roberts’s lawyer was defending his client pretty aggressively, telling the Post-Dispatch:

“It’s been two years,” he said. “[Harms has] seen the press eat up the story about Cora Faith Walker and she guessed that if she filed her own suit she’d get press. And she is.”

And that’s where Missouri Democrats find themselves in 2022 with the safest of congressional districts that Missouri Republicans cannot take away: choosing between incumbent Rep. Cori Bush, content to throw bombs and cause problems with her “Squad” teammates, or State Senator Steve Roberts Jr., who brings some fairly serious baggage.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.