In mid-October, Wesley Bell, St. Louis County’s first-ever Black prosecuting attorney, appeared at a virtual event for Missouri Democratic voters eager to discuss the race he was running against Sen. Josh Hawley. “We’re in a place to get this guy,” Bell boasted. Come Election Day, he said, “I’m going to wake up either as the St. Louis County prosecutor or the US senator-elect.”
But less than three weeks later, Bell abruptly called a press conference. Standing in front of a wall of posters bearing his name—and with the words “U.S. Senate” covered by white masking tape—Bell announced he’d instead decided to primary Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), one of the most progressive members of the House.
Bush had been making national headlines as a leading voice for a ceasefire in Gaza, where more than 6,000 Palestinians had already been killed in the Israeli bombardment launched after Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack. (As of this writing, the death toll has risen to over 26,000.) In a tweet a day prior to Bell’s announcement, Bush had decried Israel’s military operations as an “ethnic cleansing campaign.”
Bell insisted there was “nothing personal” about his decision, but he called Bush’s statements “offensive” and contrasted himself with her—on the war and more generally—by pledging to “stand with the president.” Asked by a reporter whether US aid to Israel should be conditioned on adherence to international law, he responded, “I think we have to stand with our allies.” And, drawing a clear contrast with his new opponent on criminal justice issues, Bell called Bush’s support for defunding the police “misguided,” claiming it hurt Democrats electorally. The following day, he released a list of endorsements that included a number of prominent Jewish members of the St. Louis community, as well as a handful of police chiefs in the district.
On Tuesday, another possible line of attack emerged for Bell, as news broke that Bush was under federal investigation for allegedly misspending security money. (In late 2023, a congressional ethics board recommended a complaint regarding campaign funds being used to pay her husband for “security” be dismissed.)
Bell’s decision makes Bush one of several members of the House’s so-called squad to face primary challengers in the wake of October 7, as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) reportedly plans to spend $100 million to sideline Democrats it views as insufficiently supportive of Israel. “I don’t think we can talk about a Wesley Bell without talking about a George Latimer challenging Jamaal Bowman [in New York]; or without talking about a Bhavini Patel, who’s challenging Summer Lee in Pennsylvania; or Don Samuels and Sarah Gad, who are still auditioning for who will get the AIPAC endorsement” against Rep. Ilhan Omar in Minnesota, says Usamah Andrabi of Justice Democrats, a left-wing political action committee that first helped elect Bush in 2020. “It is one big fight.”
But the race also has a resonant local dimension: The primary is scheduled for August 6, 2024, just three days before the ten-year anniversary of the police killing of Michael Brown. The uprising that followed remade the politics of the region, and, in many ways, the entire country. For Bush and Bell the Ferguson protests also helped launch their political careers. The race will test which version of post-Ferguson politics still has a place in the Democratic Party.
On August 7, 2018, Mike Milton cried tears of joy. Bell’s reform-minded campaign for prosecutor had just unseated Bob McCulloch, the 27-year incumbent who had declined to charge the police officer who shot Michael Brown in 2014, igniting months of protests in Ferguson, Missouri. During the campaign, Milton and Rodney Brown, a local community organizer, had helped knock on thousands of doors as part of Action St. Louis, a grassroots organization that emerged after the killing. Bell’s upset victory reopened the possibility of a prosecution in the case. As the two activists shared a ride to Bell’s victory party, Rodney Brown remembers thinking about how “the protesting, the tear gas and the arrests, getting beat up by the cops, all of that came to this moment.”
“It was a lot of joy,” Milton recalls. “I remember screaming to the top of our lungs.” The St. Louis American, a venerable African American newspaper, would later name the entire “Wesley Bell coalition” as its “person of the year.”
But while Bell made strides in ending cash bail, his five-year tenure has largely disappointed the organizers who powered that coalition. Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights firm in St. Louis, described Bell’s prosecutorial record as “very mixed.” In a number of areas—including pretrial detention, police accountability, and the county’s notorious practice of issuing “wanteds,” which allow police to make arrests without warrants—Strode argues that Bell’s office has come up short. “We thought we were getting a bold stand against the machine of mass incarceration,” Milton says. “And we just did not receive that.”
Thomas Harvey, Strode’s predecessor as executive director of ArchCity Defenders told me that Bell’s tenure as prosecutor is evidence of how he “never actually went to the place that [the] people in the streets he claims to have been working with” wanted him to. “He always very much—I would say consciously, because he’s a smart guy—manipulated that middle ground,” Harvey says. “So he could represent to people in power that he was this person in the middle, and represent to the people who were in the streets, and finding their power, that he was on their side.”
Few moves stung more than when Bell announced, two months into the 2020 protests following George Floyd’s murder, that he had decided not to seek charges over Michael Brown’s death. “I was shocked, sad, dismayed,” Milton remembers. “But at that point we already kind of knew how Wesley got down.”
This year, when Bell announced his attempt to primary Bush, the response from many alums of the campaign to oust McCullough was swift. Just hours after Bell’s press conference, Kayla Reed, the founder of Action St. Louis, wrote on Twitter that “today is a great day to donate” to Bush’s campaign. It took Milton just four days to endorse the Congresswoman. “Wesley Bell couldn’t hold a flame,” he wrote on Twitter. In an interview, I asked Brown what he would say if he had the chance to speak to the candidate he once put in so many hours of work to help elect. “Drop out,” he says. “For the sake of the region, put your ego aside. Drop out of the race.”
If Bell has kept Ferguson’s protests at an arm’s length—his campaign bio tactfully boasts he worked “to calm tensions between residents and the police”—the opposite is true of Bush, who’s made her role in the uprising central to her political narrative and her stance on Gaza.
During a speech on the House floor in 2021, Bush recalled “sitting in a circle on the grass near where Michael Brown Jr. was murdered” during the 2014 demonstrations with Palestinian American activists. “I remember them describing to us what to do when militarized law enforcement shot us with rubber bullets or when they tear-gassed us,” Bush said. “I remember learning that the same equipment that they use to brutalize us is the same equipment that we send to the Israeli military to police and brutalize Palestinians.” Bush wrote later that night on Twitter that “the fight for Black lives and the fight for Palestinian liberation are interconnected.”
On the day of Hamas’ attack, she warned that “a military response will only exacerbate the suffering of Palestinians and Israelis alike” and called on the United States to end support for “Israeli military occupation and apartheid.” A little more than a week later, Bush and 13 other representatives introduced a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire; over the next few months, it would garner 64 supporters. “She’s just been very consistent,” says Sandra Tamari, who helped lead Palestinian American participation in the Ferguson protests.
Bush’s statements immediately drew the ire of AIPAC, which accused her of “giving a lifeline to a terrorist organization” and endangering the safety of St. Louis residents. It released an ad targeting Bush for voting against a resolution supporting Israel’s war. A political adviser for LinkedIn billionaire co-founder Reid Hoffman, a major funder of the Mainstream Democrats PAC, another pro-Israel PAC, told Jewish Insider in November that its donors were looking to fund attacks on Bush and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib. He described it as a party effort to “police their own extremists.”
Both Bell and AIPAC declined to discuss their plans for the race. But a number of people I spoke with said they felt that the timing and tenor of Bell’s entry pointed to the involvement of outside pro-Israel money. “I think it’s highly likely that AIPAC recruited him the way we have seen them recruiting other people to run against members of the squad,” says Megan Green, a Bush supporter and president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, which in January voted in favor of a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
While Bush said little publicly immediately upon Bell’s entry to the race, in a November appearance on a Jewish Currents podcast, she described his decision to challenge her as a “disheartening” attempt to “push a pro-war, pro-state-sanctioned-violence agenda.” She also implied he was motivated by the financial support of pro-Israel groups. “I don’t move because of money,” she said. “Some folks move because somebody flashed some dollar signs in front of them.”
The degree to which a debate over Israel’s war in Gaza will determine the outcome of a St. Louis congressional primary taking place in the late summer is still an open question. In past Democratic primaries, AIPAC ad campaigns have mostly stayed away from highlighting differences on Israel and Palestine to instead paint left-wing candidates as disloyal to party leadership. Bell previewed that attack against Bush at his campaign announcement, criticizing her votes against Biden’s infrastructure bill and his deal to raise the debt ceiling.
“He’s going to run as a Biden Democrat…as a Democratic team player,” predicts Missouri Independent columnist Jeff Smith, a former state senator who used to represent parts of Bush’s district. “There’s a constituency for that, in particular among older voters, white and Black.” Bell’s campaign rests not only on the polarizing war but on broader generational fissures that also play out in the debate over policing.
Smith predicts that a strong fundraising start by Bell will spur significant investments from national groups. “I would bet that he’s going to end this quarter with more cash on hand,” Smith says. “That’s pretty unusual in an incumbent primary. Sure enough, in late January, the Bell campaign reported raising $600,000. Bush, on the other hand, has about $215,000 cash on hand.
Donning a “Ceasefire Now” t-shirt in front of a standing room-only crowd at her campaign launch event in late January Bush said she expected millions of dollars to be spent against her. “What we’ve heard is anywhere between $2 million to $20 million right here in this race,” she said, accusing national groups like AIPAC of trying to “buy” her seat.
While her position on Israel may have created opportunities for her challenger, Bush’s history as an organizer and her ties to St. Louis’ activist community buoy her supporters. “It’s going to be a race of money versus people power,” says Tamari. “And I’m always going to bet on the people.”
Top art source photos by: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, Inc./Getty; Michael B. Thomas/Getty
Correction, February 2: In an earlier version of this article, a quote from Thomas Harvey was misattributed.