In early August, just as most of her congressional colleagues were adjourning for the late-summer recess, first-term congressman Cori Bush, of Missouri’s First District, made the kind of defiant statement for which she’s quickly become known. The expiration of a federal eviction moratorium was hanging in the balance, with hundreds of thousands of people on the brink of losing their housing. Those stakes felt particularly urgent to Bush, a 45-year-old ordained pastor and registered nurse who emerged as a powerful activist during the 2014 Ferguson protests. Driven by an unshakeable “energy” stirring inside her, she spontaneously launched a five-day sit-in on the steps of the Capitol—camping out in an orange sleeping bag and inspiring colleagues to join her protest. She made clear that the issue of housing security was not an abstraction, sharing her own story of being unhoused and living out of her car while caring for her children. Her efforts worked: The Biden administration yielded to her insistence and extended the moratorium.
Just a month later, Bush was again moved to speak for the marginalized. On September 1st, the Supreme Court refused to block Texas Senate Bill 8, which effectively made abortion illegal in the state after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. Bush knew she had to say something. A copycat law was emerging in her home state and others. After the Texas abortion bill took effect, Bush bravely testified before a House panel about her own abortion as a teenager. “In the summer of 1994, I was raped,” she told the panel. “I became pregnant, and I chose to have an abortion. To all the Black women and girls who have had abortions and will have abortions, we have nothing to be ashamed of. We are worthy of better. That’s why I’m here to tell my story.” In running for office, Bush once asked herself who spoke up for people like her. The answer is now clear: She does.
GQ spoke with Bush in October about how a time of protest inspired her to enter politics, what she learned about race and America on the campaign trail, and how she hopes the stories of her abortion and her eviction will give voice—and a new and authentic kind of representation—to all those who have endured the same struggles.
Your late friend Muhiyidin d’Baha—a prominent Ferguson activist—urged you to run for office. Why did you resist for so long?
Bush: I watched my dad in politics for so many years—a man who only wanted to show people a difference in their lives. But he would also take a lot of criticism—all of these darts. It seemed like a lot of people around him in politics did not have the same heart. That’s what I witnessed growing up. I supported him on every single campaign. Later on, I felt my role was other types of public service: ministry and nursing. But I said at 18 years old that I would never go into politics.
It wasn’t until after Michael Brown was killed, all of the protests over those 400 days, and Muhiyidin asked me to run, that it even crossed my mind. I said no.
But he reached out to local community leaders, and when they asked me, I knew even though I told them no, there was something inside of me that was saying yes. It was actually the same feeling I felt when I made the decision to stay on the steps of the U.S. Capitol [to protest the end of the eviction moratorium]. I had no clue what was going to come out of it. But it was like, Do this.
After your initial reluctance, you dove head first into politics. In 2016, you lost your first campaign for the U.S. Senate by 56 points, then you endured an assault, and then you launched your next campaign for Missouri’s First Congressional District just four months later. That seems intense. Campaigns are incredibly grueling. Why not take a breather?
It was very intense. Not only was I working a full-time job, I was running a community mental health clinic that had several sites. I was taking care of my kids. When I didn’t win, it was a hard blow. But I realized that through running all over the state, I was able to make connections, hear people’s stories, and let them hear my story.
One day I had to go speak in a small town in Missouri. A message was sent to my team: tell her, don’t come. They even put it in the newspaper that I was coming there to burn down the building. I’m like, Okay, you say I can’t come? That’s the place we need to go. So we went and there was a police blockade entering the town. We got out and walked to the place where I was supposed to give the speech. The only people of color in this packed auditorium room were the people that came with me. I gave the speech in front of this crowd that was very unwelcoming. But by the end of my speech, I had a standing ovation.
This elder white woman walked up to me and she starts to rub the back of my hand. She said, “I just wanted to see if it rubbed off.” I knew at that moment, that it was just ignorance, and not being exposed to one another. And she said, “Well, Cori, you have to understand, we don’t have Black people here.” Since then, they invited me back. I even went into the school system. It opened the door.
When I did lose the race three weeks later, then the sexual assault happened, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t wash clothes. It was a very difficult four months. When some folks came to me and asked me to run for the seat, I said, I don’t want to do this, you know. I’m doing therapy. I just came back to work.
But when I thought about what happened in my sexual assault case, when I thought about how I went to court four times and never even got an order of protection, let alone the guy being brought to justice, where I didn’t have any help, I realized who speaks up for victims. And I thought about my son and my daughter being the next hashtag. [I said to myself] Cori, you’re going through that right now, but you’re in therapy, so while you’re healing, you can be working to help somebody else.
Tell me about what happened after that second campaign—before you beat former Rep. William Lacy Clay, whose family had held the seat for 50 years, in the Democratic primary in 2020.
I walked into my watch party like HEEEY! YEAH! I didn’t even know that I had already lost. And everyone was crying. A member of the press walked up to me and said, “Are you going to give a speech ’cause you lost? When are you gonna finally say something?” Everything on the inside of me just sunk. I could not believe that I lost again because I knew that this was my fate. I knew that I was supposed to do this work. I can see it so clearly in front of me, the change that that can happen, but why didn’t it happen? I’m trying to help my community. It was rough.
But then you pressed forward.
Actually at the watch party, I went into a different room to kind of cry and get myself together. When I came out, I was looking for my team and I couldn’t find them. The team was in a huddle in the corner working on the next race. They met for the next two and a half months with me saying “I can’t even think about running again.” They said, “That’s okay, we’ll just organize it.”
My dad came to me and he said, “Cori, you know you’re running again, right?” I was like, “Dad, no, I’m not. I’m not doing this again.” And he said, “You are, you’re running, so get yourself together cause you’re gonna run.” That was huge because my Dad felt I was being the sacrificial lamb before being put out there and not having the support needed. So I went again, even after the car accident, even after losing my job, after the second rape, after all of those things. Because I knew I did not complete the mission, the mission was still at hand to make those changes for the district. I knew that if I didn’t run, there was absolutely no way that I could make that change.
Your recent abortion testimony was an incredibly personal experience to tell in public. Could you tell me about your decision to share that story? Because it’s not necessarily anyone’s right to know that.
Right, yeah, you are absolutely correct. So when the Texas law passed, I was just in shock that it actually passed because of how ludicrous it seemed to me. You know, a $10,000 bounty that just regular people can come and have a say in someone else’s life? Missouri also was working a copy-cat law, but this one would be eight weeks and again, no exceptions for rape and incest. It’s affecting my state right now. How many more states will do this? So just like on the steps of the Capitol, I just felt like Cori, well, just use what’s in your toolbox. I don’t know what to do other than pull from myself, you know?
Honestly, I had never processed what happened to me. I had never walked through it piece by piece about what happened. After the Texas law passed, when I walked through it in my head and I’m like, waaaait a minute…that was rape. That was just a week and half ago when I realized that.
Was there a particular moment when you decided to share this story?
It developed over a few days—me just thinking, okay, you got to say something, but what will you say? In my district, some groups—Planned Parenthood, the ACLU—put together a rally. At the time, I said, Cori, okay, tell your story, but I didn’t tell this story. Last week was the first time that I had ever publicly told the story. My dad heard that story for the first time when everyone else did.
Were you afraid of that?
Absolutely. I grew up in a house where my dad was this giant, you know, this hero to me, even as a small girl before he went into politics, he was like the big guy, you know? Everybody knew him in the community. Everybody loved my dad and I didn’t want to disappoint him. My mother was still, you know, mommy, she was nurturing. It was scary for him to find out. Because he is a figure in St. Louis, what people would say to him? What would criticism look like directed at him? [I was] then also thinking about by telling this story how people would pull it apart and not get the message. I even saw some people on the same team saying, “Cori, we love the fact that you spoke up, but it shouldn’t matter if you’ve been raped or not.” I’m just saying that this was my story. It was a worry of mine—people not understanding the story.
You spoke very clearly specifically to Black women and girls in your testimony on abortion. I was just curious, did you feel like you were speaking to a younger version of yourself?
I was absolutely speaking to a younger version of myself. And even more directly, I was speaking to the 13-year-old girl that was at the clinic [the day I was there]. It was what I wish someone would have been saying to her. She was sitting in that clinic by herself. I just can’t get that memory of that out of my mind… She kept her head down the whole time that we were in that waiting area. She didn’t look up one time, and she was so petite, so petite. She had her hair back in one ponytail. She was just a child, you know. These adults were talking by her, like within earshot, and no one helped her and no one spoke up for her. So I was speaking to what I wish I could’ve and would’ve said to her, but then also to all of those that came before her and after her, and are now going through that.
People may feel like, Oh, she’s always just singling out Black girls and Black women. What I’m talking about is making sure that Black women and girls know that we are loved and that we are worthy because society tells us all the time in every area—whether it’s education or healthcare—that we are less than everybody. The fact that when we go missing, it doesn’t make the news, or if it does, it makes 23 seconds and we don’t hear about it ever again. So who builds us up? Who speaks out about us? That’s why that was important.
You’ve mentioned that some of your major decisions were led by this kind of energy inside of you. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about what that energy was.
It is definitely my relationship with my Lord. I am 100 percent someone who believes in prayer. But my Bible told me faith without works is dead. I can believe all day long, but if I don’t act on it… Pray with your feet, you know?