Why you should care
Because Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is gunning for one of the top Democrats in Washington.
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It’s the middle of February, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can proudly report to about a dozen huddled volunteers that this is their first canvassing effort in a while with temperatures above freezing. She sends them off to knock on nearby doors in this patch of Astoria, Queens, with admonitions to be kind and respectful, and pointers on her Bernie Sanders-inspired platform. “Guess what?” Ocasio-Cortez says. “We’re out here, and he’s not.”
“He” is Joseph Crowley, the 10-term congressman for this slice of New York City and the potential next speaker of the House. Ocasio-Cortez’s chipper face fades slightly after she retreats into a nearby Greek restaurant for some mussels and paperwork. As a rainstorm gathers outside, the 28-year-old newbie politician shares the downside of challenging the powerful leader of the Queens Democratic Party machine. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she admits.
There were times when Ocasio-Cortez would wonder whether it was worth it, especially when she’d drag herself home to her Bronx apartment after midnight, her campaign materials crammed into a Trader Joe’s bag. But this is the mid-February moment when she passes the point of no return: She’s quitting her day job to campaign full-time through the June Democratic primary, living off her savings and her partner’s income. Her social media and volunteer following, as well as the community members she meets, won’t let her quit. “It is simultaneously so exciting and terrifying,” she says.
Ocasio-Cortez contends she is the better fit for a district where Latinos far outnumber whites, and for a year when women are on the march.
But Ocasio-Cortez has always been eager to explore uncharted terrain. The longtime Star Trek nut entered a global science competition in high school, and when her microbiology project won second place, MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory named a small asteroid after her, 23238 Ocasio-Cortez, which continues to hurtle through space. None of it would have happened, she suspects, in Bronx public schools facing striking inequities. Ocasio-Cortez credits her parents for scraping together enough to buy a house in Yorktown, an hour north of the city, as her father commuted to his small architecture firm in the Bronx.
Soon Ocasio-Cortez was off like a rocket to Boston University. But during her sophomore year, her father died of cancer, and she worked two jobs after graduation to help the family make ends meet — Bronx early-education nonprofit work by day, waitressing and bartending by night.
Come 2016, she was drawn to the unconventional democratic socialist, volunteering as an organizer for Sanders’ campaign. The liberal economic program suited her; the “Bernie bros” who discouraged talk of racial inequities as “identity politics” did not. She was shocked and disoriented by Donald Trump’s eventual victory, but a deeper sense of crisis emerged, for her, in a postelection visit to the Standing Rock pipeline protests in South Dakota. That was also when she got a call from a group of Sanders backers called Brand New Congress, and she decided it was time to put more skin in the game.
Executive Director Saikat Chakrabarti says the group, now evolved into the Justice Democrats, wanted to target Crowley, and hearing Ocasio-Cortez speak sealed the deal to make her the challenger. The organization helped get her campaign off the ground, build an email list and raise $30,000. Justice Democrats have backed liberal candidates against Democratic Party favorites in primaries across the country. If they can take out a few establishment picks, it will make leaders and presidential candidates pay more heed to the Sanders wing come 2020. New York’s 14th District is “especially important for us, because it’s the most emblematic of our faction of the party versus the corporate faction of the party,” Chakrabarti says.
For his part, Crowley opened a campaign office, and Ocasio-Cortez has caught wind of a poll and a few establishment elbows thrown her way — signs, she contends, that he’s taking her seriously. The Crowley camp projects a confidence that comes with a massive financial advantage ($1.6 million to $48,000 cash on hand at the end of March) and the notion that Crowley has long covered his progressive bases. “The people of Queens and the Bronx have elected Joe Crowley to represent them in Congress by an overwhelming majority each and every time his name has appeared on the ballot,” his campaign manager, Vijay Chaudhuri, says. “This year will be no different.”
But for Crowley, this is no ordinary year. He has spent considerable time campaigning and raising money around the country for House Democrats. It’s generating talk that Crowley — now No. 4 in House Democratic leadership — wants to rise, with resentment lurking within the caucus about Nancy Pelosi and other heretofore unmovable leaders.
This dynamic has Ocasio-Cortez comparing herself to Dave Brat, the Virginia tea partyer who shocked Eric Cantor — then seen as speaker-in-waiting — in a 2014 GOP primary. The flash point in that race was Cantor’s perceived softness on immigration. But Crowley has moved in the Berniecrats’ direction on such issues as Medicare for all and a $15 minimum wage. The contrast is strongest here in identity: a working-class millennial woman of Puerto Rican descent running a shoestring campaign against a well-funded 56-year-old white man. Ocasio-Cortez contends she is the better fit for a district where Latinos far outnumber whites, and for a year when women are on the march.
She acknowledges that finding and activating the voters she needs to win is frightfully difficult. And the work won’t end in June. “I’m building this infrastructure to advance a movement,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “This stuff is still going to be here after I’m gone.” In that sense, consider the frigid knocks on Astoria’s doors and the soggy sheets of paper recording each voter contact as fodder for a left-wing army in the war for the Democratic Party.