How Cori Bush set out to change Congress from the inside Behind the scenes of freshman Rep. Cori Bush's first weeks in Congress.
ByKatie Kindelan andJessica NaudziunasviaGMA logo April 20, 2021, 4:03 AM • 35 min read
PHOTO: Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, is photographed inside her Congressional office building on April 1, 2021. Image Icon Tyra Mitchell for ABC News Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, is photographed inside her Congressional office building on April 1, 2021. Cori Bush had been through Black Lives Matter protests, overcome homelessness, gone public as a domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor and even recovered from COVID-19 while running for Congress during the coronavirus pandemic.
On her third bid for office, she defeated in the Democratic primary an incumbent whose family dynasty had represented the first Congressional district of Missouri for over five decades.
But Bush, despite her years of activism and protest, had never faced anything like the deadly insurrection she lived through on her fourth day as a member of Congress.
"It wasn’t until a couple of days later, as I’m standing in my office, that it hit me, what had happened," Bush told "Good Morning America" about her first weeks in office. "It was like, oh my goodness, an insurrection happened. People broke into the U.S. Capitol. White supremacists ran through the Capitol building with Confederate battle flags."
"It just started to replay in my head. It just really hit me that we were in danger," she said. "I had to sit down."
In a series of interviews during her first several weeks in Congress, Bush -- the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress -- described what it was like to be spring boarded from being a Black Lives Matter activist to being a member of Congress during a time of racial reckoning as well as a global pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted Black Americans.
I remember when I was sworn in and there’s a picture of me with my hand up and you can see my tattoo on my chest
No matter what legislation Bush sponsors or what speeches she makes, Bush said she knows that by simply being in Congress, she is enacting change.
She saw that in action her very first day on the job, Jan. 3, when she was sworn into the 117th Congress, one of 122 women sworn in that day, a record for female legislators.
A picture of her raising her hand and displaying a tattoo on her chest caught people's attention, she recalled.
"The comments, the quote tweets that I had," Bush said. "People saying, ‘I feel seen. I feel seen because you weren’t afraid to show that. We were told that we can’t do that, that it’s unprofessional, especially as Black women, because you have to work so much harder. You can’t wear things the way a white woman wears them. You can’t do that. You have to push harder."
PHOTO: Rep. Cori Bush is sworn in on the House Floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 3, 2021, during the first day of the 117th session of the House of Representatives. Greg Nash/The Hill Greg Nash/The Hill Rep. Cori Bush is sworn in on the House Floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 3...Read More Bush said she thinks daily about how every move has to be her "best move" because she is a Black woman in Congress, which is still an anomaly, even in 2021, after the two most recent elections brought record numbers of women of color to Capitol Hill.
When she was attending a new member orientation at the Capitol last year, she said she was addressed by other members as Breonna Taylor -- a 26-year-old emergency room technician who was killed by police in her Louisville, Kentucky, home during a botched police raid -- while wearing a face mask with Taylor's name on it.
"It hurts," Bush tweeted about the incidents. "But I’m glad they’ll come to know (Breonna Taylor's) name & story because of my presence here."
A few weeks into office, Bush said she “absolutely” feels added pressure as a Black female U.S. Representative, one of only 25 in this Congress.
"I feel it as a woman. I feel it as a Black woman, the pressure to perform in such a way to where people feel like you did a good job. In their eyes, you belong in that seat. In their eyes, you’re meeting their expectations at least," she said. "I do feel that pressure, because there are people who would like to see me fail."
In her first month in Congress, Bush sponsored or co-sponsored nearly 40 pieces of legislation on issues ranging from raising the federal minimum wage to improving voting access and paying reparations to Black Americans.
"I have spent a lot of time just studying up myself, trying to learn things that I’ve heard other people speak about that I just didn’t know much about," she said. "I even ask, like on my committees, 'What is it that I could be doing to try to get up to speed or to just better prepare myself to be ready for the workload?'"
The people Bush has surrounded herself with in Congress -- those she said she leans on for support -- include Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., members of the so-called "Squad," who are all women of color who defied the odds to earn their seats, too.
"Ayanna (Pressley), she and I, we talk about all kinds of things," Bush said. "But she also just calls to check on me, just to see how I’m doing, to see how I’m navigating, just to check on me from Black woman to Black woman."
"Alex (Ocasio-Cortez) will call to check on me, just, ‘Hey, this is going on. Are you OK, sis?'" she said.
Once I ran and won and then after the general election, there was no paycheck
In the first several months after winning the Nov. 3 election, Bush was at the pinnacle of her career, but she was not getting paid to work, and the expenses just to start up her congressional office were piling high.
It’s a topic few lawmakers discuss openly: How do you pay for your first weeks as an elected official? As a regular American who ran a grassroots campaign, Bush’s concerns mirrored the financial concerns of her Missouri constituents, who have a median household income of just over $50,000.
"I just didn’t really know or understand, (but) once I ran and won and then after the general election, there was no paycheck," Bush said. "And you immediately start doing things, you know, preparing ... but you don’t have a paycheck, and then even thinking, 'OK, you know, once I’m sworn in then I’ll have a check maybe a week or two weeks later, but no."
In the previous Congress, where members earned $174,000 a year, the median net worth of members was just over $1 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks money in U.S. politics.
"You don’t receive your first check for a whole month," she said, noting the same was true for health insurance, and the same for her staff. "Because it’s Congress, I was really surprised by that."
Bush made it through the several-month period between the Nov. 3 election and receiving her first paycheck on a "tight budget," which consisted of payments trickling in from past speaking engagements. During the all-important transition to office, much of her time was spent searching for an affordable place to live in the Washington, D.C., area and shopping at Target and local thrift stores for a wardrobe.
"That’s privilege in itself," Bush said of being able to pick up and move to a new city without an income. "For me, I had to figure out first of all, what is my budget looking like pre-first check, and how long can I survive that way paying rent? Credit-wise, can I just get the place that I want, and what does that look like?"
"Because I’m not moving my stuff from St. Louis, I had to buy all new furniture. I had to buy a laundry basket, like every single thing, shampoo," she said. "It was a lot at once."
Bush said too that she has had to deal with people's incorrect assumptions that she no longer struggles financially just because she earns a Congresswoman's salary, saying, "Even now, people just assume that now that I’m in the seat, everything has changed."
I don’t know what I was expecting walking into Congress, but I know I was not expecting an insurrection
Bush was still learning the basics of Congress on Jan. 6, when rioters sieged the Capitol.
"I don’t know what I was expecting walking into Congress, into this position," said Bush. "But I know I was not expecting an insurrection, and especially within just days of being sworn in."
The community leader was favored to win Missouri’s first Congressional district - putting an end...Read More At around 1 p.m. on Jan. 6, Bush sat in the gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives chamber as a joint session of Congress convened to count the Electoral College votes for the 2020 election.
Outside, rioters protesting the election's outcome stormed the Capitol building, resulting in an hours-long insurrection that left five people dead, including a Capitol police officer.
The energy in Washington that day triggered memories of events that were foundational for Bush. She recalled feeling on Jan. 6th like she would need to defend herself as she did at protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, Jr., an unarmed 18-year-old Black man who was fatally shot by a white police officer.
It was Brown's death on Aug. 19, 2014, on a street just minutes away from Bush's home, that she said sparked her activism and changed the course of her life.
"I just remember at one point thinking, I feel like I need my bandanas, my T-shirt and my boots," Bush said of watching the siege from her office, where she had moved safely to from the House gallery. "I feel like I’m back there in that (Ferguson) mode."
"In that mode, you’re ready for anything," she said. "It’s almost like you are numb to what’s (happening). You just move. You don’t feel afraid. You don’t feel hurt. You don’t feel upset even. You just feel like I’m doing what I have to do. What I need to do to protect people and myself."
Bush did not get home from the Capitol until around 4:30 the next morning, after Congress had reconvened and certified the election results.
"I think I finally fell asleep about 6 a.m., and then I had to be up at 9 a.m.," she said. "I didn’t have time to cry when I wanted to cry. I didn’t have time to break down or anything. I just had to keep going."
It was only weeks later, when Bush saw videos of the riot replayed during Trump's impeachment hearing, that she began to allow herself to feel some of the emotions she buried while the siege took place.
"I don’t think that I’ve really processed it much yet, but that second day of the impeachment hearing, I think that’s when I dug into it just a little bit," she said. "Just thinking about it myself, just watching it, I could see how much it was affecting me. I allowed myself to kind of just vent in my own home about how I felt and about how angry I was."
So far, more than 300 people have been charged in connection to the Jan. 6 siege, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Congress never sleeps. It's just a 24-hour job
One lesson Bush learned soon after the Jan. 6 riot was that she was going to have to make time for self-care amid days that she said typically end with dinner at home around 10:30 p.m.
"Now work is just my life now, versus being a nurse and working a 12-hour shift and once I left the clinic or once I left the hospital, then my day is done," she said. "With Congress, these are things that have to be done, and the people of St. Louis are counting on me to be able to be on at all times."
Bush said she turned back to a self-care tool she learned from a therapist she saw during her second run for Congress, after surviving what she described as a violent sexual assault -- a traumatic experience she has been open about throughout her political career.
Bush spoke about her self-care tool -- making a point to celebrate small victories -- the week of Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate. She said celebrating small wins helps her move forward in situations that would otherwise be too overwhelming.
"I’m not able to take this journey that I’m on right now day by day. It’s a moment-by-moment thing," she said. "So, I have learned how to celebrate the little steps and the little things that I’m able to do or get accomplished or that are good in the midst of trying to deal with everything else that comes with being an activist, being a single parent, being a Black woman in America, being a congresswoman and everything else."
For Bush, a small victory could mean staying on schedule or acknowledging to herself that she performed well in a meeting.
Like many women, Bush has no problem speaking loudly for others, but said she has found it harder to speak up about her need for time for herself.
"In a day, I may know that today is a day that I need some self-care time, so it's being OK with saying to my team, 'I need some time today,'" she said. "Even if it’s just 15 minutes, even if it’s an hour or whatever it is, celebrate that, being able to advocate for yourself and also making that space."
Jan. 13: The day she called the president 'white-supremacist-in-chief'
Bush entered Congress thinking the first thing on her agenda would be speaking loudly in favor of COVID-19 relief payments.
Instead, the first piece of legislation she attached her name to in Congress was a resolution that would initiate investigations for “removal of the members who attempted to overturn the results of the election and incited a white supremacist attempted coup.”
The resolution, which Bush introduced with around 50 co-sponsors, did not produce any legislative results. U.S. Capitol Police announced soon after that they were investigating whether any members of Congress gave visitors access to the Capitol ahead of the Jan. 6 siege.
As of February, at least seven House and Senate committees also were conducting their own investigations into the attack. No members of Congress to date have faced charges or disciplinary actions related to the siege.
On Jan. 13, two days after introducing the resolution, Bush delivered her first speech on the House floor. In it, she called Trump, whose supporters stand accused of inciting the riot, the "white-supremacist-in-chief" and called for his impeachment.
"If we fail to remove a white-supremacist president, who incited a white-supremacist insurrection, it's communities like Missouri's 1st District that suffer the most," Bush said in her speech, delivered during the impeachment debate.
"The 117th Congress must understand that we have a mandate to legislate in defense of Black lives," she said. "The first step in that process is to root out white supremacy starting with impeaching, the white supremacist in chief."
In a sign of her say-what-you-mean and mean-what-you-say approach to Congress, Bush recalled the speech several weeks later as one of her most positive moments in Congress.
"All over the country, all over the world, people responded favorably, but locally just hearing how people felt, that was such a high point, because even people that may not have supported me in the primary were like, ‘Now we see,’ like, ‘Now I support her,'" Bush said. "So that was such a high point. Even my kids (were) reaching out to me and saying that their friends were watching it. That was just huge."
Bush describes the speech as a defining moment that reaffirmed to her that she could be the same Cori Bush in Congress as the Cori Bush who led protests on the streets of Ferguson.
"You know, before I made it to Congress, people would say, ‘Oh, your colleagues on the left aren’t going to like some of the things that you say,'" Bush said. "When I gave that speech, many of my Democratic colleagues came up to me and thanked me or congratulated me or gave me the high five or high elbow. On the side of the Democrats, no one was saying, ‘Cori Bush you went too far.’"
Bush said she was even happy to receive boos from some of her Republican colleagues, because it meant they heard her.
"They weren’t on their phones ignoring me. They weren’t having sidebar conversations," she said. "They were listening to Cori Bush from St. Louis, newly elected, newly sworn-in freshman say that the president is the white-supremacist-in-chief, so that meant everything."
Bush also did not avoid pointing out after the speech that while she was booed for calling Trump a white supremacist, one of her colleagues, a white woman who also spoke about white supremacy, was not booed.
The colleague, Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., the assistant speaker, said on the House floor: "This must be a turning point for America; a moment that we reject partisan excuses that allow white supremacy to continue terrorizing America, a moment that we come together and demand accountability as one body, as one America, united in our commitment to democracy and justice.”
Clark also pointed out the disparate reactions, writing on Twitter, "On the House floor, my colleague Cori Bush and I both called out the white supremacy at the root of the attack on our democracy. She was booed. I was not. The difference is skin color.”
A hallway confrontation with a fellow Member of Congress
Bush came to Congress not only at a time when the body was so divided she was literally calling for members' expulsion, but also at a time, during the coronavirus pandemic, when members could not socialize in person or even see each other's full faces because of masks.
Face masks were the point of contention, at least superficially, in a much-reported confrontation between Bush and another freshman member, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., while the two were walking on Capitol grounds.
In Bush's retelling of the encounter, she had been troubled to learn that some of her Democratic colleagues tested positive for COVID-19 in the days after huddling in police-protected rooms with some Republican members who reportedly refused to wear face masks during the Jan. 6 siege.
It was in that mindset that Bush encountered Greene as they each walked with their staff down a hallway on Jan. 13, the day of Bush's floor speech.
Bush described hearing Greene and her staff becoming "more forceful and aggressive" as she said they spoke about Black Lives Matter and Democrats and got closer behind Bush and her staff.
Bush said she and her team stepped to the side as Greene -- an outspoken Trump supporter who lost her House committee assignments after uproar over her past comments made prior to her election -- and her staff passed by in the hallway.
"She looked at me and I looked at her, and then I just said, ‘Put on a mask,’ you know, because she’s still talking, and she’s yelling into this phone, and you have people walking back and forth," she recalled. "I’m like, ‘Put on a mask.’"
"She starts to go off. Her team starts yelling at me, saying, ‘Stop inciting violence with Black Lives Matter,' and they just went on and on and on," recalled Bush. "I just kept saying, ‘Put on a mask. Put on a mask. Put on a mask.’"
Bush was so startled by the verbal encounter with Greene that she asked to move offices to be further away physically from her Republican colleague, a request that was granted by Democratic House leaders.
"I feel more comfortable. The team feels more comfortable," Bush said of her situation now in the new office.
Greene later issued a statement of her own in which she accused Bush of lying and trespassing, while also referring to Black Lives Matter as a "terrorist mob."
"Rep. Cori Bush is the leader of the St. Louis Black Lives Matter terrorist mob who trespassed into a gated neighborhood to threaten the lives of the McCloskey’s. She is lying to you. She berated me. Maybe Rep. Bush didn’t realize I was live on video, but I have the receipts," Greene alleged.
While a face mask appeared to be the tipping point, her encounter with Greene signified a broader frustration Bush said she has had with Congress since starting in January.
"It’s not even just about her," she said of Greene. "It's just about this culture right now of folks just doing whatever they want to do in Congress when it’s still a job. You receive a paycheck. It’s a job. It’s not volunteer work. This is a job."
Despite her frustration, Bush said she is willing to work with Greene and other colleagues she may disagree with because of lessons she learned in a lifetime of fighting against the odds.
"I’m OK with being able to work with people that I disagree with and/or that I actually have real problems with," she said. "If they have a vote that I need, if they’re holding something that I need where St. Louis benefits, I’m going to do what I need to do without compromising who Cori is ... but I’m going to let them know how I feel about them, too."
Congress is slow-moving, but that's why we're here
Bush's determination to get things done in Congress has come up against the reality of how slow progress sometimes can be in Congress
The federal minimum wage, for example, was last raised in 2009, by 30 cents, and before that had remained stagnant for almost a decade.
This year, a provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 -- something for which Bush is strongly in favor -- was dropped from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, even with a Democratic-led Congress and White House. Democrats in the Senate were forced to abandon their plans to raise minimum wage in the face of concerns among their own ranks, united Republican opposition and a short deadline on the bill.
Bush said she has not yet been disillusioned to the point of changing her strategy of calling for big, progressive change in Congress.
"(Congress) is slow-moving, at least so far what I’ve seen, but that’s why we’re here," she said. "If I sit back and am like, ‘OK, well this is how this place runs and so let me just be a part of the team,’ then why am I here? Why did I run to replace someone who had been here 20 years? He could still be here."
"I was coming in as a politivist. That means pressure. That means courage. It means advocating for the people," she said. "So that’s what I’ll continue to do. Stopping helps no one."
Bush -- who serves as deputy whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus -- has so far attached her name to more than 90 pieces of legislation, all with a running theme of leveling the playing field for all.
Less than 10 of those pieces of legislation have been agreed to or passed in the House, and none have become law. One amendment that Bush introduced, an amendment to H.R. 1, the For The People Act, was supported by progressive Democrats and would have restored voting rights for people currently incarcerated in state and federal prisons.
The amendment was rejected in March by a vote of 97-328.
Bush's office still praised the vote as "historic," noting it made it to the House floor and saw nearly 100 House Democrats supporting "ending felony disenfranchisement."
"We have been told to kind of take things, like, it’s OK to disagree, but for the greater good, keep that to yourself, and we’ll work it out another way," Bush said. "No. I’m not doing that, because when we don’t speak up, then we have people living through struggles like some of those that I’ve lived through and so many people in my district have lived through."
Bush sits on the House Judiciary Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, the latter of which she used some of her time on to question Postmaster General Louis DeJoy about the diversity of the postal service's leaders.
"Do you see it as a problem that the board of governors of the United States Postal Service looks like a millionaire white boys club?" Bush asked DeJoy at a Feb. 24 hearing.
The next day, Bush tweeted a news article about President Joe Biden announcing that his next appointments to the Postal Service's board of governors would be a woman and two men of color.
"We’re here to make sure that the people who elected us are brought to the forefront," Bush said of her approach. "And you’ve got to advocate for yourself, and you have to advocate for your district. You have to advocate for your issues that are most important to you."
Not the last Black Lives Matter activist in Congress
This August will mark the seventh anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, Jr..
In seven years, Bush has gone from a single mother who showed up at a protest for a Black man killed by a white officer to a member of Congress who is looked to as a leader of both the progressive and the Black Lives Matter movements.
“I didn’t want my son or daughter or anyone in my family to be the next hashtag,” she said of her motivation to protest and then to run for office. “I didn’t know what else to do to affect that kind of change other than showing up. We needed representatives there representing us, so I decided to run."
While Bush may feel the pressure of so many eyes and expectations placed on her, she said she is determined to pave the way so that she is not the last Black Lives Matter activist elected to Congress.
"The door is now open for so many others (to run for office)," she said. "We need justice for George Floyd. We need justice for Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and Mike Brown Jr., Anthony Lamar Smith and so many others ... and another way to get there is for more of us to run."
Bush said she will be leading the way. She is not unsettled that she is one of just a handful of Black women in Congress, nor is she overwhelmed at the magnitude of what she has set out to do.
"I feel encouraged, because I’m not watching this from home and just wishing that I could do something," she said. "I’m in a position to be able to do something -- and I’m not afraid to step up and do something."