In the Democratic primary on June 26, voters in New York’s 14th Congressional District will choose between two candidates: insurgent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and incumbent Joseph Crowley. Though they nominally belong to the same party, Ocasio-Cortez represents an ascendant enthusiasm for economic justice that has helped make Senator Bernie Sanders the most popular politician in America. Crowley represents a status quo that seems to believe America’s already pretty great, except for that one guy, Donald Trump.
The primary will double as a referendum on the Democratic Party’s future: Will voters, and the party, stand for fighting Trump or fixing America?
The 14th district, which encompasses parts of Queens and the Bronx, is a fitting place for such a reckoning: Around 70 percent of its inhabitants are people of color, and the median household income is $53,500, according to the 2016 American Community Survey. Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old woman of Puerto Rican descent, is a first-time candidate backed by MoveOn, Black Lives Matter, Justice Democrats, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) (disclosure: I am a member). Crowley, a 56-year-old white man, has served in Congress since 1999, is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, and is heavily favored to win.
Despite never having run a campaign, Ocasio-Cortez has put out a number of slick campaign videos, the most popular of which is titled “The Courage to Change.” It was produced by her DSA comrades in Detroit, but she wrote the script herself. Ocasio-Cortez has no social-media director, and her posts on Twitter, which range from earnest denunciations of ICE to substantive (and seldom snarky) critiques of her opponent, are her own. “I’m very hands-on about social media,” she says. “That’s my voice. I want to speak to people directly as much as possible.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s Bronx campaign office is chaotic and unglamorous: It looks like (and possibly doubles as) a car service, with random piles of paper and boxes you need to step over or move around. Inside, it is small and cramped, with a tiny inner office where Ocasio-Cortez conducts media interviews and a barely navigable outer area in which several volunteers—all young men of color—are hard at work. On a recent Tuesday, one of them, Shan Chowdhury, steps forward to greet me. He is Ocasio-Cortez’s designated “body man” for the day, meaning he’ll coordinate her interviews and keep her on track. Ocasio-Cortez is the only woman present when I arrive.
Defying the 90-degree heat in a trim knit black dress with leather cap sleeves and short, stylish boots, Ocasio-Cortez is unnervingly poised, as though she has spent her whole life in the spotlight. But up until now, she was an activist, an organizer for Senator Sanders’s 2016 campaign in the Bronx, and an educational director working with high-school-age kids. Answering each question carefully and thoroughly while maintaining eye contact, she comes across as serious and prepared without sounding too calculating. She automatically structures her answers in a logical, easy-to-follow “a, b, c” format; you can tell she’s spent time talking to teens.