The headlines are right. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old grassroots activist, just pulled off the biggest upset so far in the 2018 election cycle. Her Democratic primary win Tuesday in a race with Congressman Joe Crowley, a veteran party operative and 10-term incumbent who is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, may well be the most remarkable New York City congressional election result since 31-year-old Elizabeth Holtzman beat House Judiciary Committee chairman Emanuel Celler in a 1972 primary.
The defeat of Crowley, who was widely seen as a potential successor to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, was described by a stunned New York Times as “the most significant loss for a Democratic incumbent in years and one that will reverberate across the party and the country.” Ocasio-Cortez won 57.5 to 42.5, despite the fact that Crowley overwhelmingly outspent her and enjoyed support from the same top-ranking Democrats who are lining up to back New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in his September Democratic primary contest with Cynthia Nixon.
Nixon backed Ocasio-Cortez and hailed Tuesday’s win as “what happens when you give people a choice. They show up, and they reject the status quo.”
Matt Blizek, the elections-mobilization director for MoveOn, extended on that theme, saying, “These results are also a shot across the bow of the Democratic establishment in Washington: a young, diverse, and boldly progressive Resistance Movement isn’t waiting to be anointed by the powers that be. Americans from all walks of life who demand change are taking reins of power and showing the Democratic Party what its future looks like.”
The success of a young working-class Latina who served as an organizer for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential race illustrates the volatility that exists within a Democratic Party in which most “leaders” are still too slow to recognize the intense yearning for economic and social change among its own base voters and among the millions of voters who could be rallied to the party line if it offered a dramatically bolder vision. “We were so clear about our values. We were always naming what we wanted to accomplish,” said Ocasio-Cortez, whose primary victory in an overwhelmingly Democratic district all but assures that she will secure the seat in November.
Ocasio-Cortez was warm and open as a candidate—she showed up for the debates that Crowley skipped in the Bronx and Queens neighborhoods that make up New York’s 14th district—yet she pulled no punches when it came to issues. A Bronx native who celebrated her own Puerto Rican heritage, Ocasio-Cortez promised to “fight for sweeping change in the way that the United States relates to Puerto Rico” on a host of economic and enfranchisement issues. In a multiracial, multiethnic district with a large immigrant population, she made the fight against Trump-administration policies central to her campaigning, which highlighted a call for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). Ocasio-Cortez championed a single-payer, Medicare-for-All health-care system, declared that housing is a right, and called for sweeping criminal-justice reform. And she identified as a proud member of Democratic Socialists of America.