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.
Mainstream Democrats have been quiet about her candidacy, perhaps because Ocasio-Cortez is appealing to a younger, more radical demographic that’s centered around groups like the New York City DSA and the Black Lives Caucus. She says centrism isn’t cutting it anymore; representing the 14th district as a Democratic socialist “means that we should guarantee basic elements of dignity and human life: education, health care, housing, food. It’s about guaranteeing a minimum level of dignity in the United States.”
She tells me she was moved to enter the race thanks to her background as an organizer and her passion for economic and social justice. Her own family’s struggles also seem to have played a role. Her father died of cancer at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, and her family, like millions of Americans, found themselves in danger of home foreclosure. Ocasio-Cortez returned to the Bronx after college to help her family stay afloat; as she recently told Elite Daily, “My mom had to move to Florida because she couldn’t afford [to stay in NYC]. Our family is largely separated because of the cost of living in New York.”
So far, Ocasio-Cortez has followed many of Senator Sanders’s cues, first by refusing corporate money (in fairness, she’s not the kind of candidate big business would seek out, either). Ocasio-Cortez’s average campaign contribution is around $18. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, she has raised $207,827 of $300,709 from small individual contributions of $200 or less.
By contrast, Crowley has raised only $26,496 of $3,354,370, or less than 1 percent, from small individual donors. As Ocasio-Cortez puts it in her campaign video, “We’ve got people. They’ve got money.”
When it comes to policy, she has called repeatedly for a federal jobs guarantee, a national $15 minimum wage, expanded Medicare for All, tuition-free public college and trade school, 100 percent renewable energy by 2035, immigration reform, and the abolition of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She will spend the final days of her campaign at an ICE detention center on the border, protesting the forced separation of young children from their parents and forgoing important last-minute canvassing.
In spite of her obvious political talents and her outsize presence on Twitter, where she attracts glowing praise from fellow Democratic socialists and supporters—“Benefits of working for a female candidate: the campaign office bathroom is well-stocked with extra ponytail holders,” one volunteer gushed—Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t seem to relish the “game” of politics very much in person. She seems less interested in gossip, rumors, and personalities than she is in advancing her agenda; she didn’t mention Donald Trump or the 2016 election once during our interview.
Crowley, by contrast, has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in corporate money and talks a big game about standing up to the president. Although he has characterized the agency as “fascist,” he does not support the abolition of ICE because it would do little to reduce the power of US Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions. He does support Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, and increased funding for student aid. It’s hard to say if he’s changed his positions directly because of his opponent’s overt leftism—Ocasio-Cortez has characterized some of the overlap as “adaptations” on Crowley’s part—but she has certainly succeeded in putting him on the defensive, most visibly in their spirited June 15 debate.
Ocasio-Cortez sees a direct connection between Crowley’s advocacy on behalf of the real-estate industry, which has donated to his campaigns, and rising housing costs in the 14th district: “He can say whatever he wants to say,” she says. “What he does is damage the ability of working families to make ends meet in the Bronx and Queens.”
“[Crowley’s] been there for 20 years,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “What has this power been used for? It’s not being used for us.”
It doesn’t take much to notice Crowley’s blasé attitude towards his constituents. In a move the New York Times editorial board described as reeking of “entitlement,” Crowley recently sent former NYC Councilwoman Annabel Palma, who is Latina, to debate Ocasio-Cortez in his place. It’s an odd move, not least given that Crowley has complained that his opponent is making her campaign “about race.”
Ocasio-Cortez characterizes narratives that pit race against class as a “fundamental misunderstanding” of how our country works: “I can’t name a single issue with roots in race that doesn’t have economic implications, and I cannot think of a single economic issue that doesn’t have racial implications. The idea that we have to separate them out and choose one is a con.”
Still, what Crowley has over Ocasio-Cortez is the support of his colleagues in the Democratic party. That counts for a lot: Earlier this year, House minority whip Steny Hoyer baldly pressured Colorado House candidate Levi Tillemann to drop out of a race, and in doing so, acknowledged that it’s common for the party to undermine the “weaker” (or more politically threatening) candidate in primaries. Has anyone ever pressured Ocasio-Cortez to stay (or drop) out of this race? No, she says—primarily because they didn’t expect her to top the 1250 signatures required to qualify for the ballot in the first place: “Why dissuade a problem that’s going to take care of itself?,” as she puts it.
Still, she notes: “Anybody who knew anything about politics in New York City told me not to do this…. [they said] (a) you’re wasting your time, (b) it’s pointless, and (c) you’ll never have a career in New York City politics ever again if you do this.”
That last point has little sway over a woman who’s not even sure she wants a future in politics. “This is hard,” she admits, appearing genuinely ambivalent. “Before I got into this, I kind of saw running for office as a self-centered type of endeavor.”
She pauses for a moment. “If it is effective and appropriate for me to run again and if that is what people want, if that’s what our movement wants, and it seems like there will be real support for it, I’ll do it again” she adds. But if it’s more appropriate for me to serve in some other capacity, I’m happy to do that, too.”
We leave the office to hit the streets for a bit of door-knocking. Apart from the demographics—white people are few and far between—the Bronx looks positively suburban: modest houses set close together in neat little rows, many with porches set back from the street by narrow staircases. It’s a hot summer day, and there are lots of stairs. Most people aren’t at home (or are ignoring the doorbell). Finally, an older Latina woman answers the door. Hesitant at first, then a little taken aback by the confident young woman at her door, she relaxes when Ocasio-Cortez smiles brightly and addresses her in fluent Spanish.
As we’re walking away, I ask what her constituent said.
“She said she never knows when the elections are and it’s good that I told her.” It means a lot to people, Ocasio-Cortez notes, to have someone knock on their door and address them in the language they’re most comfortable in. To that end, Ocasio-Cortez has volunteers campaigning in six languages that reflect her district’s diversity: English, Spanish, Bengali, Mandarin, Arabic, and Albanian.
After canvassing, Chowdhury asks Ocasio-Cortez if she wants him to bring her an iced coffee so she can prepare for her next interview in the office.
“I don’t like having people do little things for me,” she quietly replies.
“You’re going to have to get used to it!” he grins. She shakes her head and says she’ll go with him to get the coffee.
Whether this exchange reflected Ocasio-Cortez’s genuine discomfort with being a boss, or simply a canny awareness that a reporter was present, it was extremely on-brand. It also helps explain why Ocasio-Cortez’s staff and supporters seem enamored of her: This is not typical politician behavior, and that, her fans insist, is the whole point of her challenge to Crowley.
Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t (yet) have anything commonly recognized in our society as power: money, political clout, position, a platform, a penis. But she is a natural performer and a true believer, and it’s thrilling to observe. She dominated Crowley in a televised debate on June 15 just by being herself: full of righteous fury and matching political conviction, yet clear and controlled and unafraid of the camera. There was no “Dean scream,” Naderite arrogance, or Bernie-style gruffness, and none of the coltish uncertainty you’d expect from a 28-year-old newcomer, either. Watching her on TV, you can picture her getting a lot more out of people than iced coffee. You can imagine her changing the world.
Later in the day, I reach 27-year-old Karen Romero by phone. Romero says a supporter of Ocasio-Cortez urged her to get involved in the campaign back in November 2017. Unemployed at the time, Romero began volunteering once a week and eventually became the campaign’s Spanish Organizing Director. Born and raised in Astoria, Romero went to school in the 14th district and still attends church there. She is a first-generation Mexican-American and the first in her family to graduate from college.
“Alexandria looks like me, she sounds like me, she has a working-class background and is the daughter of immigrants, just like me” says Romero. “If Alexandria wins, she’ll be the first Latina congresswoman in District 14.”
If the Democratic Party has a future related by anything more than lip service to social justice, that future is young people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. So far, only a small number of its members are taking notice. On June 13, Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman from California, issued a (largely meaningless) “dual endorsement” of Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley after enormous public pressure from progressives. She has also received support from former New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout.
That Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t seem to have a taste for blood, or a love of campaigning for campaigning’s sake might ultimately stand in her way, unless the Democratic Party changes their line significantly to embrace more left-leaning platforms. But whatever happens on June 26, Ocasio-Cortez hopes her supporters will take pride in the achievements of her run.
“I’m glad I didn’t listen to myself when things got really difficult and no one was paying attention and I was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’” she says.
“I just hope that more people will ignore the fatalism of the argument that we are beyond repair. We are not beyond repair. We are never beyond repair.”