I was in Canada when I watched Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez do what many, myself included, thought was the impossible: win the nomination as the Democratic Congressional candidate for New York’s District 14, beating incumbent party boss Joe Crowley, one of the most powerful machine Democrats in New York City, who hadn’t been challenged since he was essentially handed his congressional seat nearly two decades ago.
I watched it on Twitter, sensing the shock of my colleagues in the New York press corps. Those of us who were natives had grown up in, and continue to live in, a New York City that is ruled by money at every turn. Politics is no exception; if anything, it is the rule. Candidates in New York are typically taken seriously based on the weight of their “war chest,” how much money their campaign has accrued. In one campaign funding quarter, incumbent party boss Joe Crowley had out-raised her 30-to-1.
And yet. She had done the impossible. And in doing so, she had shown us — the press, and also voters — what is possible. It is hard to believe something is possible if you have never seen it happen before. Now we’ve seen it happen. Now we know.
I could not tear my eyes away from Twitter, from the impossible becoming real before my eyes. It felt too magical. I kept waiting for someone to say, no, we spoke too soon. No, we were wrong. Instead I saw video footage, filmed by NY1, the local news channel I grew up watching, depicting Ocasio-Cortez at the moment she realized it, too: That she had made the impossible a reality.
I watched it over and over. Ocasio-Cortez’s eyes widen, her hands flutter in agitation, then go to cover her mouth. She is overwhelmed. She reaches out one hand and grips the shoulder of the NY1 reporter, unconsciously, the way one reaches out blindly for any stability in a moment of reeling. Her other hand is still covering her mouth. She is still in shock, her eyes still so wide. She looks a little terrified, and who can blame her? How completely terrifying must it be to commit such magic, to make the impossible real for a generation who’d never seen it? A woman near her is crying now. It’s been only a matter of seconds so far. The NY1 reporter says something to her, and Ocasio-Cortez takes her hand from her mouth, looks at the reporter as if seeing her all of a sudden, and then she is back, and she is on, and she shakes her head with a little dip of conviction, a little dip that said, to me, I’m ready.
I wondered, what that must be like, to do something so tremendous, and then to have barely seconds to recover from it? I was awed by her grace and temerity. And I wasn’t scared for her, not even a little bit. She was ready.
That moment made me wonder, though, if some part of her had braced herself for the outcome so many people had said was inevitable: a stinging loss. All that effort for nothing — though it wouldn’t have been nothing, for she had activated voters, and pushed Crowley to the left, enough that he backed a Medicare for All bill that he’d previously scoffed at.
But still, how could she not have anticipated the possibility of losing? She had been ignored by television media, and by much of the mainstream political media. When they did write about her, her defeat seemed preordained. “It’s an understatement to say the underfunded Ocasio-Cortez has an uphill battle,” POLITICO wrote in February, near the end of a long piece about progressive candidates nationwide. Crowley was “heading into an all-but-certain victory,” POLITICO New York wrote in June, just before the primary.
But even those stories contained tacit hints about the potential for an Ocasio-Cortez victory. The June story reported:
“The No. 4 House Democrat’s longtime colleagues in the New York delegation say they’re not worried about his primary — and brushed aside any idea that the race could hurt Crowley’s ambitions to become Speaker one day.
‘Everybody is supportive of Joe and how he’s running the race,’ said Rep. Gregory Meeks, who represents parts of Queens and Nassau County. ‘The fact that Joe is the chair of the Queens Democratic Party and how he’s held that organization together — he’s got Democrats working together — works in his favor of his leadership as chair of the Democratic Caucus.’”
Perhaps voters finally asked: Working together for what? A sharply divided nation in which racists no longer feel the need to wear masks when they rally, safe with their hatred out fully in the open? A city in which economic disparity seems to widen year after year? Apartments that are affordable for few, if any, and healthcare out of reach for most, while this party boss takes cash from real estate and pharmaceutical companies?
Or, as Ocasio-Cortez herself told POLITICO in February:
“What this is about is that if we reelect the same Democratic Party that we had going into this mess, then we’re going to have the same exact result,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “In order for the country to move forward, the Democratic Party has to transform.”
And she wasn’t universally ignored by media outlets. She was profiled by the Village Voice as early as last year, in June 2017, and WNYC later that year. Mic profiled her in February of this year, and Splinter News in March 2018. Ozy, Elite Daily, Refinery29, The Cut and Vogue all followed. The Intercept wrote about her repeatedly, and Politico Media’s Michael Calderone quoted Intercept reporter Ryan Grim at her election night party:
“She represented the perfect contrast to Crowley’s model of politics,” Grim said. “Our theory is that big money corrupts politics. The corollary to that is there is another way to do politics. Otherwise you’re just nihilists. People like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who are doing that kind of politics, are important to highlight, to show there is an alternative.”
I couldn’t help but recall here what an anonymous Democratic operative, fearful of offending Crowley, told POLITICO New York for their June article: “Once there is an initial threat, a challenge in his dominance, it changes people’s perception on the Hill about his power.”
Hopefully, others like Ocasio-Cortez will see this and feel emboldened to take on the political machines in their own communities. New York’s is powerful, with deep roots — but often lazy, a laziness that sometimes seems intentional, in light of the low voter turnout that results. (I wrote last year for The New York Times about efforts to counter this in Brooklyn.) Per POLITICO New York:
“Crowley’s dominance over the Queens machine — formally known as the Queens County Democratic Organization — remains unchallenged. He’s been in charge since 2006, shortly after former Rep. Tom Manton, who had molded Crowley as his political protege, died of cancer. Since then, both supporters and detractors say Crowley has run a well-oiled operation that controls everything from the Queens judicial system to who wins local city and state elections, who gets on the ballot and who can tap into the resources available at the disposal of the operation.
Still, interviews with several Democratic operatives, elected officials and political advisers show the Queens County operation’s bark may be worse than its bite. The county has power, but it has a nearly non-existent ground operation; it does not deliver votes or ensure that people hit the polls on election day. Rather, it offers candidates a friendly “how-to” map for running for office in Queens which includes everything from who to hire for consulting to ensuring a specific ballot line.”
It’s hard not to be hopeful that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory will extend to other candidates like her all over the country who are brave enough to challenge the antiquated machine politics around them.
After all, her victory was also one for “millennial” publications, according to HuffPost. POLITICO’s Calderone detailed how outrage at The New York Times’ dismissive characterization of Elite Daily, Mic and Refinery29 as “websites most often associated with millennial and female audiences” as opposed to “national” outlets provoked such outrage that “national” was changed to “traditional.”
Here is a reading list about Ocasio-Cortez, including González-Ramírez’s piece and others.
1. “The Most Powerful Democrat in Queens Must Finally Compete,” Ross Barkan, the Village Voice, June 19, 2017
The Voice article gives crucial background on how Crowley came to power — as, essentially, a prodigal son of New York City machine politics. Most gallingly, and personally for Ocasio-Cortez, it shows how that same machine politics has brought wealth to only a select few, due to the hardship of those who most need their elected officials’ assistance — as Ocasio-Cortez and her mother did when her father died of cancer.
The day-to-day operations of the Queens party have remained in the hands of a trio of Crowley- and Manton-aligned lawyers for three decades.
These men — Gerard Sweeney, Michael Reich, and Frank Bolz — have a law firm that has earned millions in Surrogate’s Court, where the estates of people who die without wills are processed, and from representing banks foreclosing on people’s homes. The judicial system in Queens is effectively under Crowley’s control, since no one becomes a judge or receives a court appointment without staying in the county organization’s good graces.
2. “Can Local Candidates Ever Defeat the Political Machine?” Brigid Bergin, WNYC and CityLab, November 7, 2017
Bergin’s story looked at Ocasio-Cortez and three other women in Queens hoping to destabilize the borough’s entrenched political machine. Perhaps most interesting in her story is context she provides for the responses she gets from Crowley, like the following (among others):
“The way the Queens Democratic Party machine has worked, they operate on a politics of exclusion,” said Ocasio.
I asked Crowley what he says to people who see how the local party operates and say, the system is rigged.
“I think ‘rigged’ is an interesting word to use when the judges in this county are elected by the people,” Crowley replied. That’s technically true, but slightly misleading: Judicial candidates are nominated by the party. In a one-party town, voters don’t have much choice at the polls.
3. “Meet the young progressive Latina trying to oust one of the most powerful Democrats in the House,” A.P. Joyce, Mic.com, Feb. 28, 2018
After Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory, a Twitter user posted a photo of the suburban house where she grew up, claiming that it proved the urban roots she claimed were a lie.
But she’d never denied that she grew up in a privileged zip code. As far back as February, she told Mic that her father moved her family to a neighborhood with better opportunities, but most of her extended family remained in the Bronx, where her father continued to commute for work.
The experience of living between the two worlds of New York’s poorest borough and its more affluent suburbs gave Ocasio-Cortez an early firsthand look at some of the inequities facing the country.
“I grew up with this reality and understanding of income inequality as, ‘When I’m in this zip code I have these opportunities, and when I’m in that zip code I don’t have these opportunities,’” she said.
“At a very young age I knew it was wrong. I knew that the fact that my cousins didn’t have adequate resources or adequate public services and good schools, and I did, was something that just didn’t strike me as right.”
4. “Talking With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Woman Challenging One of New York’s Political Kingmakers,” Clio Chang, Splinter, March 22, 2018
Chang’s Q&A with Ocasio-Cortez is thorough and well worth a read — particularly the context she provides on the call to abolish ICE, and the hopes she has for New York and national politics at large.
In order for our country to move forward both parties have to transform fundamentally. On the Democratic side, we need to be the party of working people again and no one has stepped up to the plate. People have been too scared in New York’s frankly very intimidating political environment.
5. “A Primary Against the Machine: A Bronx Activist Looks to Dethrone Joseph Crowley, The King of Queens,” Aida Chavez and Ryan Grim, The Intercept, May 22, 2018
The Intercept did multiple stories on Ocasio-Cortez, but its initial profile is a really compelling retelling of the story of Ocasio-Cortez’s call to activism — in part due to the chaos that ensued after her father’s death — and a good explanation of how the Queens political machine flexes its power, especially when it comes to the court system.
“Crowley’s allies in the machine, Ocasio-Cortez charged, ‘defend him in court and they bump his opponents off the ballot,’ referring to ballot challenges filed with the Board of Elections against candidates Crowley did not support or who oppose the machine. Last year, as DNAInfo reported, a candidate in a City Council primary was booted from the ballot for not having enough valid signatures; she said she was bullied for not ‘kissing the ring’ of the party boss, Crowley. In that race, Crowley supported Assemblyman Francisco Moya, who went on to defeat Hiram Monserrate, a former council member and state senator who was expelled from the legislature after a 2009 conviction for assaulting his girlfriend.
The machine has a tight relationship with developers. Ocasio-Cortez noted in a follow-up email that Crowley’s organization reaped large sums of real estate money before the Queens machine installed the new City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, who has since led the council in rezoning neighborhoods for luxury developments — pricing out local families and constructing high rises when the city already has 275k vacant units.’”
The update to this article states, “Ozy told you about her first,” which likely isn’t true — unless their readers don’t have access to the Village Voice, WNYC, CityLab, Mic, Splinter and The Intercept. But their profile is good nonetheless, opening with a glimpse into Ocasio-Cortez’s campaigning efforts and sweet details about her personality and background.
“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.”
7. “28-Year-Old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is Pushing For Millennials’ Future Through Politics,” Hannah Golden, Elite Daily, June 12, 2018
Elite Daily’s look at Ocasio-Cortez emphasizes her youth, with good reason: to show the importance of having legislators who by necessity need to take a long view on complicated issues. As Ocasio-Cortez tells the publication, most members of Congress “won’t have to deal with 20-foot storm surges, but we will.”
“If elected, Ocasio-Cortez could be the youngest woman ever elected to the House. According to the Congressional Research Service, the average age of a House member at the beginning of this session was 57.8 years, and 61.8 years for a senator. That’s one of the highest averages in the legislature’s history. Under the U.S. Constitution, House representatives must be at least 25 years old (and senators 30) when they take office. The youngest member of Congress currently is fellow New Yorker Elise Stefanik, who was 30 years old when she took office in 2015.
In fact, it’s out of a sense of responsibility as a young person that Ocasio-Cortez is daring to take on a high-profile member of her own party. ‘Congress is too old, they don’t have a stake in the game,’ she says. Issues like climate change and the rising costs of higher education and housing, she adds, aren’t being addressed by the current representation.
8. “Meet The Bronx-Born Puerto Rican Challenging One Of The Most Powerful House Democrats,” Andrea González-Ramírez, Refinery29, June 13, 2018
Andrea González-Ramírez’s story is full of important and notable statistics and data and great quotes from Ocasio-Cortez, but perhaps the one that struck me the most was that Ocasio-Cortez had at one point decided she would not like to run for office.
“But Ocasio-Cortez argued that for all the power Crowley wields in Congress, he has failed to serve the people of Queens and the Bronx. Though she never planned to run for office because she didn’t like the culture behind it, she decided she couldn’t continue to stand-by.
‘While it’s not that nothing has happened in the Bronx, it feels that we are dealing with the same problems 20 years later,’ she said. ‘I’m an organizer here and I know no one ever sees him, he doesn’t have a presence in this community. It would be different if he was around.’
(In 2011, the New York Post reported that Crowley lived in Virginia and was raising his family there, though he maintains a house in Queens.)”
9. “The 28-Year-Old at the Center of One of This Year’s Most Exciting Primaries,” Gabriella Paiella, The Cut, June 25, 2018
The Cut’s profile gives further context to Ocasio-Cortez’s previous stance against running for office.
“Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy has made the race one of this year’s most buzzed-about primaries, even if she didn’t have political ambitions until recently. ‘I counted out that possibility because I felt that possibility had counted out me,’ she told the Cut. ‘I felt like the only way to effectively run for office is if you had access to a lot of wealth, high social influence, a lot of high dynastic power, and I knew that I didn’t have any of those things.’
And while she may be running a long-shot progressive campaign against a powerful old-guard opponent, she’s determined to run on her own terms. The weekend before the Democratic primary, for instance, Ocasio-Cortez opted to fly down to the U.S.-Mexico border to address the Trump administration’s child-separation policy instead of doing last-minute campaigning.”
10. “28-Year-Old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Might Just Be the Future of the Democratic Party,” Bridget Read, Vogue, June 25, 2018
Vogue’s Q&A with Ocasio-Cortez, a week before her victory and right before she left the city to visit a detention center in Texas, contains great answers about her background and political positions, including this on how abolishing ICE should not be a “fringe” position.
“One of the biggest dangers of this administration is the erosion of norms, which is pretty typical for authoritarian regimes. This is one of the problems when it comes to immigration. My opponent has literally called ICE “fascist”, yet he refuses to take the stance of abolishing it, which, to me, is morally incomprehensible. Words mean something, and the moment you have identified something as fascist, that with it carries a moral responsibility to abolish it. That’s what I’m talking about when we say that norms have been eroded: that we literally have elected officials arguing to basically retain fascist agencies.”
11. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Victory Has Striking Similarities to a 1972 Trailblazing Win,” Amanda Farinacci, NY1, June 27, 2018
My love for this little story is certainly related to being a local news nerd and native New Yorker, but I think it also proves my earlier point about how an entire generation of New Yorkers had never seen a win like Ocasio-Cortez’s in their lives: The last time anything like this happened was with Elizabeth Holtzman in 1972.
“There were no news cameras present when Elizabeth Holtzman did the unthinkable 46 years ago, beating Emanuel Celler in the Democratic primary for the congressional seat he held for a remarkable 50 years.
Tuesday night, Holtzman couldn’t help but think of that moment as she watched Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pull off an equally implausible victory.
‘I was excited for her and I felt obviously a real bond there,’ Holtzman said. ‘I said, “Oh my goodness, nobody gave her a chance.”‘”
12. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Driving New Energy and Money to Progressive Candidates,” Daniel Marans and Kevin Robillard, HuffPost, July 4, 2018
And now for a post-victory story, because of course Ocasio-Cortez’s work has only just begun. This HuffPost story opens with a candidate forum in Michigan, 600 miles from New York, where the mere mention of Ocasio-Cortez’s name elicits excited cheers from the crowd. Since her victory, established politicians who couldn’t be bothered to take the risk of endorsing her are now rushing to curry favor with her, while she is using her platform to endorse young, progressive candidates all over the country.
“Earlier in the day, Ocasio-Cortez had used her massive Twitter platform to endorse El-Sayed. He has since picked up an additional 2,500 Twitter followers and is awash in national press inquiries.
Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old former Bernie Sanders organizer who just a few short weeks ago was scolding establishment Democrats on Twitter for ignoring her campaign, now has 600,000 followers hanging on every 280-character missive ― far more than the typical rank-and-file member of Congress.
And those same establishment Democrats are now knocking on her door. A little over a week since her upset of Joe Crowley, the Democratic Party boss of Queens County, Ocasio-Cortez finds herself as an unlikely kingmaker.”