ST. LOUIS – Representatives in the General Assembly come from all walks of life. In the Democratic caucus alone, there are electricians, teachers, attorneys, union leaders and many other professions.
However, should Cora Faith Walker, a 31-year-old attorney from Ferguson, win her primary in August, as it’s widely believed she will, that side of the aisle may have its first true policy wonk – one who is already an expert on one of the hottest topics in the Capitol.
Walker specializes in public health law and policy after growing up with a profound respect for the capabilities of health care. Her father, Edward, served two tours in Vietnam after being drafted at the age of 18 and came back with physical and mental scars. His status as a disabled veteran allowed Walker to see the influence of health care on her own family’s well-being from a young age.
“Like a lot of servicemen and women that are coming back from wars today, he really had a lot of demons that he struggled with,” she said. “It wasn’t until he got access to health care that he became a productive citizen.”
Initially, that perspective inspired her to become a physician. She began courses at Washington University with a desire to practice medicine but quickly discovered via a difficult chemistry class that the scientific side of the occupation was not her forte. However, that allowed her to discover the policy side of health care. She graduated and earned her juris doctorate and health law certificate at Saint Louis University, which is consistently ranked as the best health law programs in the nation, and later earned her Master’s of Public Health, also at Washington.
From there, she has launched her own private law practice specializing in health law, and she currently serves on the board of Raise Your Hands for Kids. In the past, she has served in various teaching roles, as both a researcher and an instructor, at universities around St. Louis, as director of research at Health Capital Consultants, and as a health policy associate at the Missouri Foundation for Health.
In those roles, she has testified as an expert at the Capitol, giving her an opportunity to not just flex her policy muscles but to build connections that she believes will enable her to both hit the ground running and offer a new perspective that House Democrats currently lack.
“One of the things I really hope to bring is a certain level of expertise around health policy that has not necessarily existed in the state legislature on the Dems’ side,” she said.
As such, she is a fervent advocate of Medicaid expansion and is quick to note the economic benefits that have occurred in neighboring states like Kentucky who have elected to expand. She says some experts believe that expansion could create up to 40,000 jobs and that declining to expand means Missouri loses $2 billion a year in federal funds.
“It’s a lot of money that’s being left on the table,” she said.
While her health care expertise is a major part of what has inspired her to run for office, Walker says she is still sensitive to the needs of the district she hopes to represent,
Walker is not quite a lifelong Missourian, but she has significant ties to the St. Louis area. Although she grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, Walker was born in St. Louis and visited the city often to visit family in her youth. Her other tie to the city is one most St. Louisans know all too well. She, along with her husband Tim, is a diehard, lifelong Cardinals fan. The two had their first date at a Cardinals-Cubs game and got married two years later in Busch Stadium.
There are problems afflicting the 74th District, which encompasses parts of Ferguson, Florissant, Normandy and Jennings in North St. Louis County. She notes that Tuskegee and Ferguson share similarities, and both are sites of significant racial issues.
Walker is optimistic about the area’s future, but stresses it will take time.
“I know there are a lot of people who are very, very passionate and dedicated and committed to moving forward, but I think that it’s important that folks take the time to understand that there’s a lot of healing that has to happen before we can even talk about how to move forward.”
The lingering racial strife in Ferguson from the protests of nearly two years is not the only issue plaguing the community, but it does compound some of the other problems affecting the region like falling property values and the consent decree ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice to rectify discriminatory practices it discovered in Ferguson’s police department.
Still, she is receptive to people’s concerns in the area and optimistic that her knowledge of tools used to apply for grants and federal funds will give her an advantage in bringing focus on the area to the legislature.
Walker’s primary opponent, a concerned community member and pro-union machinist named Don Houston, only garnered 21 percent of the vote when he ran against incumbent Sharon Pace in 2014, but Walker’s not taking him for granted. She plans to diligently campaign until the August election even though she is heavily favored in the race.