Part I: Introduction
On the night of June 26th, 2018 the Democratic Party experienced an earthquake of epic proportions, with tremors extending from the pavement of Queens Boulevard to the halls of Congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28 year-old Democratic Socialist from the Bronx ousted 10-term Representative Joe Crowley, the fourth ranking Democrat in the House, and Chair of the Queens County Democratic Party in New York’s 14th congressional district(North Queens/South Bronx). Ocasio-Cortez, a former organizer for Senator Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign, created a winning coalition through her unapologetic commitment to progressive policy, and her acute understanding of the intersections between race and class. Crowley, a creature of machine politics and an establishment politician to his core, saw his many institutional advantages neutralized, and in some instances, weaponized against him. In a matchup that would come to define intra-party politics, Crowley came to represent the entrenched party establishment, propping up a corporate friendly agenda while content to merely “resist” President Trump. Concurrently, Ocasio-Cortez championed movement politics spearheaded by activists and organizers, centered on bold, New Deal style government initiatives, aimed at addressing some of the systemic factors and anxieties of working people that led to Trump’s rise. Nowhere was this contrast more evident than in the candidates’ attitudes towards fundraising, as Crowley was content to raise money from Corporate PACs, the Real Estate Industry, private equity firms, and K-street lobbyists, often in the form of large individual contributions in the thousands. Ocasio-Cortez, weary of the influences of big money in politics, swore off corporate PAC money, relying instead on a groundswell of grassroots small dollar donations. Where the incumbent relied on traditional paid consultants for voter outreach and messaging, depending solely on mailers and a limited canvassing operation, the insurgent channeled the efforts of local progressive and electoral organizations with support from Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress into a massive volunteer army to make calls, knock doors, and organize digitally. This story will examine how Ocasio-Cortez was the perfect lightning rod to galvanize a leftist movement hoping to achieve a generational upset, while simultaneously being the ideal candidate to exploit Crowley’s weaknesses and capitalize upon the changing demographics of the district. Ultimately, I will evaluate the future of insurgent leftism in America and what that means for politicians like Joe Crowley, while focusing on how AOC’s success can be replicated but she cannot be.
Part II: Joe Crowley, the “King of Queens”
To appreciate the gravity of that night’s victory while understanding why it was such a monumental upset, it is essential to rewind and examine the context of Joe Crowley’s immense power, both locally and nationally. In 1999, Crowley was handpicked by his predecessor and mentor, Tom Manton, then-Queens party boss, to fill his Congressional seat upon his sudden retirement: “On the last legal day to find a replacement, Mr. Manton convened a small meeting and telephoned Joseph Crowley, then an Assemblyman, to tell him he would be on the ballot in November  as a congressional candidate”. Crowley benefitted from the type of “king making” common in machine politics, an integral part of the Queens Democratic Party for the last half a century. In 2006, Crowley inherited the role of Queens County Party Chairman, earning a reputation akin to a “modern day Boss Tweed”. As county boss, Crowley could make “judicial appointments and decide how to fill vacancies in special elections (in New York State, about one-third of all state legislature seats are handpicked in this way)” ensuring that almost all seats(district leaders, committee members, state assembly, state senate, borough president, congress) were wise to seek county’s blessing, which lead to conformity amongst the candidates. Furthermore, having tight control over a large voting block(Queens) gave Crowley a tremendous influence over city politics, which he expertly wielded in the 2017 City Council Speaker’s race to help elect Corey Johnson, who’s pro-real estate development and friendly rezoning instincts were favorable to Crowley and his donors. The County Party enjoys strong relationships with the traditional political power brokers throughout the area, specifically the many Democratic Clubs(where older triple prime voters often congregate to discuss issues), local labor unions(capable of mass mailers to their thousands of members coupled with strong get out the vote operations) and many surrounding elected officials(who are willing to do the machine’s bidding). Anyone seeking to advance was forced to “demonstrate their loyalty to Crowley and the machine”, and even dissenters could not risk going public for fear of retaliation. Ryan Grim of The Intercept summarizes this malfeasance:
“For years, party leaders have been able to keep challengers off the ballot by enforcing arcane election laws, which are then adjudicated by judges who themselves came up through the machine. By acting as the gatekeeper for making it onto the ballot, the machine effectively ensures that its chosen judicial or political candidates will be elected in the heavily Democratic county”.
Additionally, Crowley was focused on advancing in House leadership, having already been the fourth ranking Democrat, he was determined to secede Nancy Pelosi. He developed into a prolific fundraiser, able to amass a warchest not only for himself, but for many House Democrat’s in swing districts, attempting to curry favor for an eventual run for Speaker. While most politicians enjoy numerous incumbency advantages, Crowley’s were unique and vast, making even the thought of a challenger to him appear incomprehensible. An insurgent risked drawing the ire of all the members of the political establishment, from the local courts and community boards to the DCCC in Washington. Since 2004, no one had even dared to try. One young woman from Parkchester said, “It’s literally political suicide for anyone with a semblance of a political career”.
Part III: Movement Politics
In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, many leftists wanted to redefine the Democratic Party. Instead of relying on large dollar donations, often from wealthy elites or large corporations, they believed that future Democratic candidates should reject corporate PAC money and finance themselves through small individual donations to ensure they are accountable to ordinary people. Thus, in January of 2017, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks and Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk, both influential YouTubers, along with Saikat Chakrabarti, Alexandra Rojas and 10 others founded Justice Democrats, an organization that would support leftist, working people, who represent the demographics of their districts, against “out-of-touch incumbents”, often moderates who embrace big money. Justice Democrats required their candidates to take a pledge to refuse financial contributions from corporations and billionaires, while supporting a policy agenda resembling a blend of Democratic Socialism and New Deal style economics, such as: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a federal jobs guarantee/living wage, ending the War on Drugs, tuition free public college, abolishing ICE, higher taxes on the rich, housing as a human right, ending unilateral war etc. Shortly after formation, JD partnered with Brand New Congress, a PAC started by former Bernie Sanders supporters, to help further their goals ahead of the 2018 midterms. Sitting progressive representatives Ro Khanna, Pramila Jayapal, and Raul Grijalva joined Justice Democrats, helping legitimize the organization. Justice Democrat candidates were given exposure and media coverage on the Youtube channels of both Uygur and Kulinski, in addition to articles from progressive outlets like The Intercept and Jacobin. Internally, the organization helped candidates with cutting edge digital organizing. While Justice Democrats had some volunteers in and around NYC, their efforts were bolstered by many local organizations. In order for a challenger to overcome long odds, national and local forces must work together while having their priorities and goals align.
Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign for President introduced millions, especially young people, to the ideas of democratic socialism. Democratic Socialism focuses on class politics, specifically workers rights and an alternative to capitalism. This ideology highlights intersectionality, tying the “fight against racial injustice and all forms of oppression to a working-class program and perspective”. The working class are at the core of Democratic Socialist politics because:
“not only are working people the vast majority of society, their exploitation keeps the capitalists’ profits flowing and society running. Workers are therefore the only group that has the interest, the social power, and the numbers to transform society…They can also form mass political parties and other working-class organizations to challenge the authority of the current political regime, and ultimately replace it.”
Thus, Democratic Socialists focus on “issues of inequality, corporate control of politics, equal rights for all” espoused in policies like Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and a federal jobs guarantee. Since 2016, DSA(Democratic Socialists of America) membership has exploded, as numerous local chapters have been founded in urban centers, including in the Bronx/Queens. Western Queens in particular, comprising the NY-14 neighborhoods of Astoria, Ditmars, and Jackson Heights, has seen a surge in DSA membership over the last few years, many of which were younger voters activated by the Sanders campaign. This has given local DSA chapters the ability to mobilize hundreds of highly motivated volunteers to organize and canvass for candidates the organization endorses. An operation that, when concentrated, proves devastating.
Unlike Justice Democrats, who are primarily focused on Congress, DSA organizes throughout the state and local level. And, while JD is actively trying to remake the Democratic Party in their image, the DSA does not view the Democratic Party as their home, in neither the present nor the future. However, their ideologies aligned with their desire to center electoral politics around working class issues through leftist policy. For both Justice Democrats and the DSA, Joe Crowley represented the antithesis of their values. Thus, there was potential for a strong coalition, as both organizations had a vested interest in Crowley’s defeat. Challenging the machine boss was daunting, and neither organization could afford to risk their credibility by backing a mediocre candidate. Both organizations have separate endorsement criteria and do not actively coordinate their efforts. An ideal candidate would have to be young, working class, authentic, and a fierce advocate for bold structural change throughout American society.
Part IV: Paper Tiger
Joe Crowley was formidable, but he was not invincible, and the closer one looked, a hopeful set of eyes could faintly see the markings of a monumental opportunity. A 2012 redistricting shifted the demographic makeup of his district, increasing the white(21% → 25%) and hispanic populations(44% → 48%), while decreasing the black population(16% → 9%). White candidates, even incumbents, are particularly vulnerable in majority minority districts when their challenger is non-white. With approximately 3/4th of the district people of color, and nearly half Spanish speakers, Crowley was an identity mismatch, a 56 year old Irishman who never picked up Spanish in his 20 years in office. While one cannot build a successful challenge solely around identity, when combined with issues of class, economics, and public policy, the intersections between each issue can create a winning narrative that the incumbent is “out of touch”. Both JD and DSA focus their electoral strategy on supporting candidates who can seize upon this narrative, seeking to activate voters not traditionally engaged in politics, by accentuating the incumbents weaknesses with their candidates strengths. Ross Barkan outlined these weaknesses in 2017, “it’s hard to find a congressman more representative of the establishment than Crowley. The Blackstone Group is his second most prolific donor. Bank of America, Verizon, and Tishman Speyer, the powerful New York real estate developer, round out the top twenty. He was an unflinching Hillary Clinton ally. Like many in his party, he supported the Iraq War and the Patriot Act”. Having also had his fundraising investigated by the House Ethics committee in 2009, Crowley was particularly vulnerable to a key component of both Justice Democrat and DSA messaging: campaign finance reform. Additionally, inside the Queens County Democratic Party, of which he was chair, corruption metastasized, as his powerful election attorneys, and their law firm, were given monopolistic deals to enrich themselves in Surrogate’s court and profit off of home foreclosures, in exchange for doing the party’s bidding, all with Crowley’s blessing. Furthermore, there was a correlation between campaign contributions from real estate developers and Crowley’s support for luxury development and rezonings, which accelerated gentrification and displaced many NY-14 residents. Lastly, Crowley was focused on Washington D.C. and becoming the next Speaker of the House, and to be seen seriously engaging with a primary challenger would be beneath him. It was an open secret at the time that Crowley effectively lived in D.C. full time, an accusation bolstered by his children’s enrollment in D.C. schools. The seeds of vulnerability were there, yet the right candidate would not only need to thread these negative themes together, but also project an affirmative vision for the future while centering the local community in their representation.
Part V: “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office”
Long before she was known as “AOC”, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was “Alex” by day, an Educational Director and organizer for the National Hispanic Institute, a non-profit serving hispanic youth in the Bronx, and “Sandy” by night, a bartender at the Union Square Taqueria, Flats Fix, a job she had taken up to supplement her income. Money had been tight after her father’s death from cancer, as her and her mother fought off foreclosure on their home multiple times. Originally pre-med at Boston University with her sights set on a career in Science or Medicine, her study abroad experience in Niger changed her, as she recalled witnessing children die from preventable causes during childbirth: “This child’s life was literally decided because of where it was born”. After, she switched her major to Economics and International Relations, going from a desire to lead a “normal life” to helping her community back home. Having moved between the South Bronx and Westchester County as a child, she was acutely aware of how one’s zip code could shape their future, affecting things from the quality of schools to the pollution in the air. These experiences: cleaning houses with her immigrant mother, working in the service industry to pay off her student debt, fighting off foreclosure, and helping children suffering from lead poisoning in public housing, combined with her strong morals informed the policy she advocated for. At first, she stuck to community organizing because of lingering doubts about electoralism, saying “We’re not going to get any substantive change through electoral politics. It’s just not going to happen”. Growing up, Ocasio-Cortez had experienced Bronx machine politics which drove her cynicism, reflecting, “there was a lot of cynical use and weaponization of identity under the guise of lobbyist-driven policies and corporate policy”. This all changed upon attending a DSA meeting in Washington Heights, where undocumented warehouse workers gave translated testimony about their experiences. DSA offered free childcare during the meeting so anyone could participate, which moved Ocasio-Cortez. Soon after, she became a local organizer for Bernie Sanders Presidential campaign and worked to elect Socialist Jabari Brisport to the City Council: “It felt like something fundamentally different to me, even in the context of electoralism”. In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, she drove to North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline. Shortly after she returned home, she was contacted by both Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress about potentially running for office. Ocasio-Cortez, who was submitted for consideration by her brother, Gabriel, without her knowledge, was eventually convinced.
Lived experience, “personal knowledge about the world gained through direct, first-hand involvement in everyday events rather than through representations constructed by other people”, and its importance in representative politics, became a motif throughout the NY-14 primary. To win, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would have to channel her lived experience into understanding and empathizing with people Joe Crowley could not: working class families, service workers, immigrants(documented and undocumented), and college graduates hampered by debt, and anyone feeling like they deserve a seat at the table. To do so, she would champion progressive policies like Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, tuition free public college, and abolishing ICE, and articulate how they addressed the plights of her community.
Part VI: “Not all Democrats are the same”
Ocasio-Cortez launched her campaign in May 2017 to little fanfare. Ignored by the local press, she quickly took to Twitter to engage voters, growing her platform steadily by the thousands as the months went by. Social media outreach and digital organizing was a crucial tool that JD and BNC looked to capitalize on, as Ocasio-Cortez could deliver her message in a clear, concise way directly to the voters. While other candidates choose to outsource social media to consultants, she personally wrote every tweet. The presence of a challenger to Crowley for the first time in 14 years led many smaller progressive organizations in the district to reach out to the campaign, which helped build valuable infrastructure and conserve money. Around February, Ocasio-Cortez quit her job bartending to campaign full time, and many of Justice Democrats senior leadership relocated to New York to help run the operation. The campaign passed its first challenge, getting on the ballot, resoundingly — totalling 5,480 valid petition signatures, after only needing 1,250. This overachievement stymied any of Crowley’s attempts to disqualify her signatures so he could run unopposed, while having her gain name ID with the district’s voters in the process. In April, Ocasio-Cortez was endorsed by NYC-DSA, which rarely endorses, in order to better concentrate their efforts, which unlocked hundreds more potential volunteers. In contrast, Crowley employed the Parkside Group, a prominent consulting firm, to manage his re-election campaign. Parkside is well respected, having been employed by the likes of Michael Bloomberg, Elliot Engel, and Thomas Suozzi. However, their suite on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan is a world away from the street vendors on Junction Boulevard in Jackson Heights. It was here Ocasio-Cortez had her biggest advantage: “we’ve got people, they’ve got money”. Since Crowley lacked volunteers to knock on doors, Parkside had to rely heavily on expensive mailers, which are effective supplements, but not substitutes, to canvassing. Ocasio-Cortez, in addition to her Twitter outreach(her follower count exceeded his by May), had an impressive digital organizing infrastructure that micro-targeted the district’s voters on social media, something lacking from her counterpart.
Many services Crowley had to pay for, Ocasio-Cortez received for free due to her volunteer network. Despite this, there was still a significant financial deficit between the candidates. To ensure viability she would need money to pay staff, rent office space, and buy campaign literature. While there is evidence of the diminishing utility of campaign money, “your first $100,000 gets you the absolute essentials, your thirtieth $100,000 just buys you another couple of TV spots”, raising that first $100K represented a lifeline. Through May, Ocasio-Cortez had raised tens of thousands of small dollar donations, averaging $18, largely off word of mouth and exposure from non-mainstream progressive news outlets. However on May 30th, that all changed. She uploaded a two minute campaign video to Twitter and Youtube, titled “The Courage to Change”. In the ad, which Ocasio-Cortez wrote herself, she intersects her identity: “Mother from Puerto Rico, Dad from the South Bronx — Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office” with a class conscious message: “this race is people versus money” while acknowledging that “not all Democrats are the same” and the way forward for the Bronx and Queens begins with “Medicare-for-all, tuition-free public college, a federal jobs guarantee, and criminal justice reform” coupled with “political courage” from their representative. It quickly went viral, being viewed millions of times on both platforms, leading to a surge in fundraising heading into the June 26th primary.
In their lone debate on NY1, Ocasio-Cortez charged Crowley with being beholden to real estate developers and special interests. Crowley kept focusing on President Trump, while Ocasio-Cortez focused on the district. Crowley chose to dismiss her, as he had endorsements from Governor Cuomo, Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Mayor Bill de Blasio, 11 U.S. Representatives, 31 local elected officials, 31 trade unions, the Working Families Party among others. This hubris proved catastrophic, as Crowley failed to attend the Parkchester Times debate with Ocasio-Cortez, instead sending a surrogate in his place. Not only did Ocasio-Cortez shred the surrogate, but the New York Times Editorial Board published a scathing op-ed a week before the primary, charging that Crowley was taking voters for granted. The Times piece bolstered charges that Crowley was an absentee congressman, a central theme of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. In the final month of the race, as Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign account approached $300K and her Twitter following increased to 60K, Crowley remained reluctant to negatively campaign, or even campaign at all, worried that the appearance of anxiety over a challenger would make him look weak to his peers in D.C. as he vied to become speaker. Crowley had reason to remain confident, as both campaign’s internal polling showed he had a 35 point lead. However, the fallacy in the polling rested in its methodology: live caller landline polls of likely voters, which skewed heavily towards older voters who spoke English. As a result, the strength of Ocasio-Cortez’s support was vastly underestimated. Her campaign chose to try and activate non-voters, those that did not speak English as a first language, and young people that recently moved into the district or registered to vote(unlikely to have landline phones), all of whom would be under-screened by traditional polling practices. She attracted these voting blocks with her status as an outsider along with her class politics, identity, and New Deal style economic message. In what promised to be a low turnout primary in an off year, even the smallest margins could make the difference. And, in spite of the difference in funds raised by a factor of 10 to 1, it became a pattern that voters received mail from Crowley’s campaign, but visits from Ocasio-Cortez’s.
To define an upset, there must be surprise, and the farther away one was, the more Crowley appeared bulletproof and Ocasio-Cortez in over her head. Yet, due to every factor and nuance discussed here, that assumption was inherently flawed. Ocasio-Cortez’s strengths were more covert, and the closer one looked at Crowley, the more he resembled a paper tiger.
On primary day, the results reflected this reality. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic Primary for New York’s 14th congressional district, beating rep. Joe Crowley by a margin of 15.897 votes(57.5%) to 11,761 votes(42.5%).
Part VII: A Winning Coalition
This primary featured contrasts between ideology, generation, identity, and campaign organizing. Ocasio-Cortez outmaneuvered Crowley with respect to each component. While Crowley had millions of dollars to spend, there is nothing more effective in a small election than a mass mobilization of volunteers. But, without unabashedly leftist policy, the volunteer army does not exist. Ocasio-Cortez, along with Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress and local DSA chapters expertly leveraged the popularity of their working class message into a strong digital and field organization. Crowley’s message, which revolved around experience and fighting Trump, never engendered the same degree of enthusiasm, allowing his campaign apparatus to be stuck in the 20th century. In terms of press, non-mainstream left wing outlets helped ensure a steady stream of donations that kept Ocasio-Cortez’s finances afloat. After her viral video, the mainstream media cast her as a Cinderella story, helping her with favorable coverage, and unwilling to tear down such a compelling story. Her ability to fundraise $300K ensured she could compete or even exceed Crowley on every medium except television. This helped enhance her credibility and increase her viability in the eyes of voters. With an average donation of $18, her narrative was reinforced that she was the people’s candidate.
Demographics wise, Ocasio-Cortez benefited from gentrification in the Western Queens neighborhoods of Astoria, Sunnyside and parts of Jackson Heights, as younger millennials, often favoring DSA and Sanders style policy, moved in. Not only did these residents not drop off their political involvement after 2016, they actively became further engaged in local politics, and formed a sizable portion of the Ocasio-Cortez volunteer network. Newer residents helped spread her progressive message to older voters. Additionally, it cannot be undersold that her identity as a Puerto Rican resonated in a district that is nearly half hispanic, especially in neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Pelham Parkway. Yet, Ocasio-Cortez actually drew greater margins in Queens than the Bronx(which has a larger Puerto Rican population), while Crowley’s strongest performances were with older voters in majority Latino neighborhoods like East Elmhurst/North Corona and older black voters in and around Lefrak City. Attributing her victory purely to the racial composition of the district is an assertion not borne out by the data, and fails to credit the nuance of her message, which resonated throughout.
Crowley’s own vanity contributed to his demise. He was too preoccupied with D.C. politics and skipping two debates epitomized that failure. His campaign consultants mismanaged his money and failed to comprehend the micro conditions of the race while drastically underestimating his opponent. His prolific fundraising was turned against him, as accusations of loyalties to special interests were effective. Lastly, Crowley’s stranglehold on local politics for decades made him vulnerable to anti-establishment sentiment, and in times of increasing polarization, the opportunity to metaphorically “rock the boat” is appealing to many. Ultimately, the biggest reason for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory lies in her strength as a candidate. Her ability to articulate a vision and inspire countless folks she comes into contact with is a gift few possess. For the purposes of writing, intangibles are hard to measure, much less describe, but she was an extremely dynamic candidate with a mosaic of lived experiences that informed her policy from start to finish.
Part VIII: Looking Ahead
As a result of rampant gerrymandering and neverending polarization, most congressional seats remain safe. Thus, the most compelling battleground in the immediate future lies in congressional primaries. The dynamic of primary challenges from more ideologically extreme positions is not a phenomena exclusive to the left. Longtime members of Congress are being challenged for the first time in years, and, while many still safely cruise to re-election, there is significant populist energy consuming both parties, as establishment politicians are increasingly coming under fire.
Since her election, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has emerged as a leader of the populist Left and an eventual heir to the Bernie Sanders movement. Fellow Justice Democrat freshman lawmakers Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib continue to lead the fight inside the Democratic Party for a disavowal of Corporate PAC money and a restructuring of American society through progressive policy to benefit working class people. While many more members of the Democratic caucus are ideologically aligned with Joe Crowley than with Ocasio-Cortez, she is still able to effectively use her platform to champion her causes, and is slowly helping build a coalition that, in a small Democratic majority in the House, could have substantial sway over close votes, similar to leveraging done by the Tea Party around 2011.
As a result of her stunning upset, most caucus members, aided by the DCCC, intensified their in-district involvement, raised money more aggressively, and gradually shifted leftward to ward off potential challengers. For example, Yvette Clark, a colleague and neighbor of Crowley’s in the NYC house delegation, redoubled her efforts and increased constituent visibility and engagement following a close 2018 primary, after having coasted for years. She resoundingly won a rematch in 2020. However, another NYC house delegation member, Elliot Engel(another Parkside client), was routed by another Justice Democrat/DSA member, Jamaal Bowman in his 2020 primary. Engel was just like Crowley: fueled by corporate PAC money, lacking a ground game or any digital organizing/social media presence, lived outside the district, and was white in a majority minority district. Bowman, a middle school principal, ran a campaign similar to Ocasio-Cortez, centering a populist left economic message through the intersectional lens of a being black and working class, coupled with robust small dollar fundraising and strong digital organizing. For much of the immediate future, these leftists organizations will target members of Congress that fit the criteria espoused by Engel and Crowley, while nominating candidates like Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman to uphold their message. ActBlue fundraising allows any dynamic progressive to attain instant fundraising viability, especially with Sanders, Warren or Ocasio-Cortez capable of sending a mass email asking for donations in an instant. Moderates not looking to shift ideologically left or amend their fundraising habits, will have to overhaul the way they digitally campaign while organizing more effectively within their community. The progressive left faces many obstacles in battling incumbency, but they can neutralize those disadvantages by selecting charismatic candidates that meet the criteria outlined throughout this story.
Part IX: Where are they now?
Since that warm June day, the political landscape has changed remarkably, both locally and nationally. The coronavirus pandemic has upended American life at every level, and further polarized the government.
Joe Biden is now President, riding to victory on compromise, moderation, stability and a return to normalcy. The Biden Administration, and their narrow majorities in both the House and Senate, have to navigate a nationwide vaccine rollout, direct cash relief, and a looming eviction crisis. The first 12–18 months of his presidency could largely define it. The pandemic fallout coupled with the surge in activism following the murders of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor, further radicalized a younger generation of Americans, akin to the Vietnam and Iraq Wars.
Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman and Marie Newman, the newest slate of Justice Democrats, joined Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashaida Tlaib in Congress. Former Bernie Sanders campaign co-chair, Nina Turner, will be looking to do the same by winning her special election primary in August. Sanders himself is now Senate budget chairman, and will attempt to leverage his new power to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour amongst other leftist policy pillars.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, once the most popular Democrat in America, is embroiled in scandal and appears destined for resignation, impeachment or a swift defeat at the ballot box in 2022. Letitia James, State Attorney General, who has already led high profile investigations/lawsuits against the Trump family and the NRA, is investigating Cuomo for covering up nursing home death totals AND accusations of sexual harassment and assault. James appears a frontrunner to secede Cuomo as Governor, as AG is typically a stepping stone to Governor. While she is not a leftist like Zephyr Teachout or Cynthia Nixon, past primary challengers to Cuomo, she is more progressive than Cuomo and does not hold his hostilities to the burgeoning left wing of the Democratic Party. Elsewhere in Albany, the Socialist presence is growing in both statehouses, as June 2020 saw DSA members Zohran Mamdani, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, Khaleel Anderson, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Emily Gallagher, and Marcela Mitaynes elected to the State Assembly. Additionally, Jabari Brisport, a public school teacher and DSA member, joined Julia Salazar in the State Senate, who’s own 2018 upset in Northern Brooklyn was part of the same earthquake that swept Ocasio-Cortez into office. All of these DSA members represent districts in Brooklyn and Queens and ousted moderate incumbents, showing the socialist outgrowth in many communities and DSA’s growing electoral power. These members, when combined with progressive WFP(Working Families Party) Democrats, have given the leftist movement more momentum in State Government.
The City of New York, reeling from the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, is enduring a chaotic Mayor’s race, currently headlined by frontrunner Andrew Yang, who rose to national recognition by championing direct cash payments during his presidential run. Once an outlier position, forms of UBI have now been embraced by many in the Democratic Party amidst the pandemic. Yang seems poised to win on his name recognition combined with anti-establishment sentiment and grassroots fundraising. His policy, means and messaging are non-traditional and populist, but are not in the mold of AOC or the DSA. Traditional politicians, like Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Comptroller Scott Stringer, are struggling to pierce Yang, despite clear vulnerabilities, leaving consultants, unions and pundits on their heels. DSA is not endorsing in the Mayor’s race, and neither is Ocasio-Cortez, instead turning their attention to the City Council, as 35 of the 51 seats will be open in 2021 due to term limits, including the speakership position, opening the possibility of transforming the council overnight.
Joe Crowley, after his loss, became a government lobbyist. Proving that the criticism’s of him expressed during the campaign held considerable merit. This is not considered an atypical move for a retired congress member, epitomizing the cyclical nature of corruption and establishment politics.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cruised to re-election in her 2020 primary, winning 74.6% of the vote.
Part X: Epilogue
Throughout the last few years, I have come across hundreds of stories and anecdotes about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While I cannot share everything, there are two in particular I will always remember, because they highlight her greatest strength: her character.
During the Presidential Primary, Bernie Sanders suffered a heart attack in October while campaigning in Nevada. He was hospitalized for several days during his recovering. During this period, his poll numbers tanked, as he fell to a distant third behind Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. There was tremendous pressure mounting on Sanders to drop out, and for his surrogates to shift their support to the surging Warren. The tide had turned on Sanders. A lot was at stake, not only a shot to land a progressive in the White House, but to shape the Democratic Party for a generation. Convenience or raw political calculus would dictate she stay silent, bide her time, and wait to see if Sanders recovered, or even defect to another candidate, like Warren or Julian Castro. Instead, Ocasio-Cortez promptly called Sanders from his hospital bed, and not only urged him to stay in the race and keep fighting, but said that she would endorse him early, to help him regain his momentum. This decision, to unequivocally support Sanders, at a time when he was most vulnerable, from all sides, represents the best of her moral character and values.
January 20th, 2021 was a joyous day for Democratic Party. Inauguration Day. A Blue celebration began in Washington, with Democratic congress members descending on the Capital eager for Joe Biden to take the Oath of Office. Many took countless pictures and spoke of a new day for America. Yet, there was one notable absence. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was back home in the Bronx. She had joined the picket line, striking with 1,400 Local Teamsters 202 members, who staff the Hunts Point Produce Market, which supplies 60% of the region’s produce. These essential workers were asking for a $1 increase in hourly wages, amidst a hike in their employer health care costs, which was thrust on them during a recent contract negotiation breakdown. Ocasio-Cortez, in a video viewed 1.1 million times, surrounded by union workers in the dead of New York City’s winter, loudly echoed through a bullhorn “Something’s upside down”. Her tweets about the strike gained tens of millions of impressions and hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets. Quickly, the New York Times, Daily News, and NY Post picked up the story, along with CNN, MSNBC, in addition to much third party media. In a matter of hours, legislators across the city, rushed to Hunts Point Market, feeling the pressure from Ocasio-Cortez to support the market workers. Furthermore, many of New York City’s congressional delegation, who attended the inauguration, cut short their D.C. trips in order to make appearances at Hunts Point the next two days. Everyday New Yorkers showed up as well, bringing coffee and hand warmers to show solidarity to the union members.
Days later, the union members gained a new contract: a $1.85 hourly wage increase AND no additional healthcare costs.
While this was by no means a solo effort, but Ocasio-Cortez was able to use her platform to bring much needed attention to the plight of striking essential workers. Her background as an organizer was evident in her efforts to mobilize support behind the workers.
Ocasio-Cortez is not immune to criticism. She has been a frequent target of Republicans even before she entered office. Deemed a figurehead of the “Radical Left”, she is often referenced in the stump speeches and campaign ads of the Right. Infamously, Florida representative Ted Yoho called her a “fucking bitch” while walking past her on the Capital steps. This vitriol, while shocking, has been a symptom of her polarizing nature. She routinely comes under fire from members of her own party as well, mostly moderates in swing districts and leadership figures like Nancy Pelosi and Hakeem Jeffries who are fervently skeptical of Democratic Socialism. Even amongst the leftist movement, where she is regarded as a working class champion by many, she is the target of cannibalization. The left in America remains fractured, and Ocasio-Cortez is frequently caught in the crossfire.
In spite of this, AOC, and the lightning rod nature of her presence, continue to deliver results for both the people of NY-14 and the Nation. She helped repeal the Faircloth amendment, authored the Green New Deal/GND for public housing, worked to cap credit card interest at 15%, introduced and passed COVID-19 funeral relief costs(5–10K per family), co-chaired the Climate Unity task force for Joe Biden, raised millions for Senate Democrats in Georgia and progressives + swing district Democrats across the country, while hosting 25 town halls in district. During the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, which devastated many Queens neighborhoods in NY-14, her team led 200K community check in calls, distributed 100K masks/PPE equipment to essential workers, provided 80K meals to families in need, while raising $1.25 million for local organizations doing COVID relief and hosted training sessions where over 10K people learned how to unionize their workplace, and form mutual aid networks and childcare collectives. Her district office launched a Homework Helpers Program which recruited 11,000 volunteers to provide free 1on1 tutoring to NY-14 families. All of this was accomplished solely through grassroots fundraising without a cent from corporate PAC’s, lobbyists or fossil fuel executives.
You do not have to like her, but her story deserves respect. One of the many purposes behind telling this story, is to properly contextualize her positions, accomplishments, and unique rise to Congress.
No one is perfect, but there is no one quite like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
So whatever you do, do not take her for granted.
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Medium: Michael Lange @mjlange4nyc