The St. Louis County prosecutor challenging Rep. Cori Bush for her House of Representatives seat in Missouri started his day Thursday by being interviewed by a prominent black radio personality in St. Louis.
The prosecutor, Wesley Bell, later taught a sociology class at St. Louis Community College, where he once taught criminal justice, and had lunch at a soul food restaurant in Ferguson, peaceful now nearly a decade after protests practically created the Black Lives Matter Movement there.
That afternoon, he met with worker unions, stopped at a community Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration and ended late into the night at the North County Democrats Club in suburban Hazelwood.
“If you call me, I’ll answer,” Mr. Bell, 49, assured members of the Laborers International Union of North America, whose leaders once supported Mrs. Bush and now support her challenger. Mr. Bell. “And if you want me to come, I’ll introduce myself.”
Driven by passions surrounding the October 7 massacre of Israelis and the subsequent war in Gaza, pro-Israel groups are funding a series of primary challenges in heavily Democratic districts, aimed at overturning vocal critics of Israel in the within the political left.
The deadly war has divided centrist Democrats from progressives like Mrs. Bush, who condemned Israel for its response, seeking to withhold aid while pushing for a ceasefire as the death toll in Gaza rose. . Late last month, Ms. Bush and the House’s only Palestinian American, Rashida Tlaib, were the only opponents of a resolution barring Hamas members and those who participated in attacks on Israel from entering the United States. on October 7.
But unlike many primaries fueled by various groups – like the US-Israel Political Affairs Committee; its political affiliate, the United Democracy Project; and the independent Democratic majority for Israel – the Bush v. Bell battle in Missouri’s First District pits progressives against progressives, each with a considerable record to run on that has little to do with Israel.
And although driven by money from pro-Israel groups and staunch critics of Israel, the fight for Missouri’s deep-blue First District will likely barely mention the Middle East. Instead, it will be a battle over representation and what that should look like for struggling St. Louis.
“I am the target of AIPAC because not only do I believe that Palestinians deserve to live freely and in peace, just like Israelis, but also because I want to protect our democracy from Republican extremism,” Ms. Bush Monday. “I want to codify abortion rights, I want to pass meaningful gun violence prevention legislation, and I want to raise taxes on billionaires – all of which AIPAC, its Republican donors, and the insurrectionists they support support oppose.”
Mrs. Bush is an icon of the left, a street activist from the Ferguson protests who made her voice heard in the halls of Congress. But Mr. Bell was also a presence on those streets, mediating between protesters and police and then being elected to the Ferguson City Council.
He is a key figure in the progressive prosecutorial movement, having spent nearly a decade trying to steer juvenile offenders from incarceration into mental health and drug treatment programs, freeing those wrongly convicted of Saint-Louis prisons and to increase the control of the authorities. professional misconduct in the areas of law enforcement and prosecution.
The primary is expected to attract national attention because of the broader debate over Israel and the Democratic Party’s willingness to accept the Jewish state’s harshest critics, such as Mrs. Bush. But in the city of St. Louis and the surrounding county that shares its name, the race could revolve around the limits of activism and personality in a region that sorely needs concrete help.
Mrs. Bush enters the race like a lightning rod. Her pro-Palestinian activism has made her a favored target of pro-Israeli groups. She acknowledged the opening of a federal criminal investigation into the use of campaign funds to pay her husband for security work. And his outsized personality rubbed some Democratic leaders the wrong way.
But for Mr. Bell and his supporters, his offenses are more local. Above all, she voted against the bipartisan infrastructure bill, a slap in the face to the unions that had supported her. Worse, she never met with them to explain her vote, said Clinton McBride, director of government affairs for Workers’ International Local 110.
“Communication is nice,” he said. “It says a lot when there isn’t one.”
Bush denied leaving unions in the dark, saying her team was in contact before, during and after the vote.
There are plenty of voters in St. Louis who love Mrs. Bush’s brutal style of activism and lament having to choose between two progressives. Ken Hughes, a retired member of Labor Local 42, recalled how in 2021, Mrs. Bush camped on the steps of the Capitol in an orange sleeping bag and a lawn chair, a vigil that forced the extension of a moratorium during a pandemic. on evictions.
“She’s a fighter for the people, and I like that,” said Mr. Hughes, 60, who has not yet decided how he will vote in the Aug. 6 primary.
His friend Greg Lomax, 54, was undecided at the start of Thursday’s union meeting. But then he said: “I just found out today that she voted against the infrastructure bill. »
Mr. Lomax spoke approvingly of her beliefs, adding with a tone of frustration: “But she’s so, you know, resilient.”
Megan Green, president of the St. Louis City Board of Aldermen, said Ms. Bush was attentive to the needs of the city. Bush, she said, secured nearly $2 billion for St. Louis community health facilities, public schools and nonprofits.
“For those of us who live here, when Cori says your congresswoman loves you, our community feels it,” Ms. Green said.
Pro-Israel groups have not yet formally intervened in the primary race, but an AIPAC official said Monday that the group had endorsed Mr. Bell. Other organizations are expected to support Mr. Bell soon. At the same time, the fundraising by these groups since Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 and the resulting war in Gaza has been staggering.
The United Democracy Project has announced revenues of more than $44 million by the end of 2023, with nearly $41 million still in its war chest. Its contributors included well-known pro-Trump Republicans, like Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, who gave $1 million to the political action committee.
The Democratic Majority for Israel has an additional $1.7 million to spend between now and the end of the year.
These groups are targeting a number of Democratic incumbents this cycle, including Reps. Summer Lee in Pittsburgh, Ilhan Omar in Minneapolis, Jamaal Bowman in New York and Ms. Tlaib in Detroit.
“Defeating an incumbent member of Congress is the hardest thing in politics; it’s just a statistical fact, and she’s not an unpopular politician,” said Mark Mellman, a former Democratic activist and founder of the Democratic Majority PAC for Israel.
But, he added, “she can be beaten.”
Marcy and Richard Cornfeld, the co-chairs of the St. Louis AIPAC Council, have already given Mr. Bell their all, as has financier Tony Davis. Timothy Drury, scion of a Republican hotelier family, maximized his contributions to Mr. Bell. So is Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn founder and Democratic megadonor.
It’s telling that Mr. Bell considered running for Senate against Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, before reconsidering his decision, said Usamah Andrabi, a spokeswoman for Justice Democrats, the left-leaning political action committee that backed the election of Mrs. Bush. and I will support her again this year.
“Wesley Bell went from running against Josh Hawley, a true right-wing insurgent, to taking thousands of dollars from donors to Josh Hawley, Donald Trump and almost the entire Missouri Republican delegation to run against the first black congresswoman of Missouri,” he said.
For Ms. Bush and liberal activists locally and nationally, such contributors disqualify a candidate who insists he is the progressive champion of local issues.
“I don’t consider Wesley Bell a progressive,” said Hannah Rosenthal, co-founder of Progressive Jews of St. Louis and a Bush ally. “His allegiance to AIPAC supporters is a prime example.”
Ohun Ashe, an activist who met Ms. Bush during street protests in Ferguson in 2014 after the killing of Michael Brown, said the imminent intervention of domestic pro-Israel groups was part of a strategy by Mr. Bell.
Mr. Bell helped mediate between protesters and Ferguson police during the unrest, then in 2018 he defeated longtime county attorney Robert McCulloch on a promise to reopen the case against the police officer who shot Mr. Brown, Darren Wilson.
He kept that pledge, then said in 2020 that he couldn’t build a sufficient case against the officer, the same conclusion his predecessor and the Justice Department reached.
Even Mr. Bell’s supporters say the problem persists.
“Some of the people who nominated him for district attorney might not support him against Cori Bush,” said Ferguson’s current and first black mayor, Ella Jones, who supports him. “They’re still upset.”
Mr. Bell, in an interview, said it was rich enough for Mrs. Bush and her supporters to challenge a primary challenge backed by outside money, since that is exactly what Mrs. Bush did in 2020 , defeating a 10-term incumbent, William Lacy Clay Jr., whose last name was virtually synonymous with Missouri’s First District.
Mr. Bell readily presents views appealing to pro-Israel donors, arguing that Israel has the right to defend itself and lambasting Ms. Bush for some of her votes, particularly her opposition to U.S. investment in the missile defense system Israeli Iron Dome, which it considers essential to ending a wider war in the Middle East.
But his campaign focuses on his record: 2,200 low-level nonviolent defendants referred to health care, job training and mentoring programs, with a recidivism rate of 5.9 percent; the creation of a unit to investigate credible allegations of wrongful imprisonment and official misconduct; and an end to death penalty prosecutions in the county — all amid a national backlash against such efforts.
“It’s a big problem in Missouri,” said Jessica Brand, founder of the Wren Collective, which advocates for a less punitive approach to prosecution. “Committing to this movement long term is difficult because they are coming for you. »
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