Editor’s Note: Sayu Bhojwani served as New York’s first commissioner of immigrant affairs and is the founder and president of New American Leaders, which is based in New York. She is the author of “People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Amidst a month of demoralizing images of children torn from their parents and stories of borders closed to Muslims from certain countries, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election in New York’s 14th congressional district provided a timely source of inspiration.
What matters most in her win is not that it toppled the fourth-most senior Democratic leader, or that it could mean a wave of change is coming in the midterms, or even that it signals that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ideas still have a receptive audience for 2020.
No, what matters most from this victory is Alexandria herself, and the takeaway is what she brings to the new American campaign playbook. She told it like it is, in a campaign ad that went viral; she grew up in the district, and as an organizer and bartender, she understood her constituents’ needs.
Her authenticity, her connection to her community, and her desire to serve the residents of her district are at the core of her campaign’s success. Remarkably, each of these three things, as central as they might seem to public service, are rare among political candidates.
In recent decades, money, endorsements and party support have become the trifecta for success. Often interconnected, it’s hard to have one without the other two. Many everyday Americans who are not wealthy and well-connected – teachers, community organizers, hotel and restaurant workers – have been reluctant to run for office, worried that they didn’t have one or more of these qualities.
But if their interests in public service could be harnessed, our government would not only look more like today’s America but also be more responsive to people of color, immigrants, low-income and poor folks, refugees and the LGBTQ community.
We should be less concerned about the message that Alexandria’s success is sending the leaders of the Democratic Party – since they continue to be tone deaf to the needs of their base – and more focused on what her win means for a new multiracial democracy.
Lest her win be dismissed as an anomaly, which has already begun to happen, let’s look at 2016, when political newcomer Ro Khanna, the son of Indian immigrants, defeated fellow Democrat Mike Honda (who had served for eight terms) for California’s 17th district.
And that year, long-term incumbents lost in state races as well. Most notably, Ilhan Omar, a 34-year-old Somali-American, defeated the 44-year Democratic incumbent Phyllis Kahn for Minnesota’s House District 60B. Ilhan is now running for Minnesota’s fifth congressional district, to replace Keith Ellison, who is stepping down to run for attorney general of the state.
The winners in each of these races understood three things.
First, they knew they shared more in common with their constituents than the incumbents. Second, they knew their incumbent representatives had become complacent, relying on winning cycle after cycle without credible opponents. Finally, they understood that their constituents included voters and potential voters who rarely or never vote in primaries, many of whom are voters of color. These essential insights made these candidates better suited to serve and to benefit from bringing together a broad range of voters.
It’s still too easy to dismiss winning candidates of color as playing identity politics, but the only way to win elections, especially as an insurgent, is through coalition politics. At its core, coalition politics requires being aware and respectful of different communities and their needs, rather than relying on a simplistic formula based on identity – white, LGBT, or Latinx, for example.
A candidate’s ethnicity is only one element of their identity and thus only one element of how a successful campaign is built. Gender, class and sexual orientation all contribute to who they are, how they relate to voters, and perhaps most singularly significant – how they approach policymaking.
Alexandria’s policy platform is being referred to as lefty, but is also a reflection of the needs of a diverse America with increasing income inequality and a dysfunctional democracy.
Like Alexandria, other low-wage workers understand the appeal of tuition-free college as a step up the economic ladder. For her immigrant constituents, who live in fear of deportation, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is not a socialist agenda, but a matter of survival.
If other candidates like her can run and win in greater numbers, overturning Citizens United is not radical, but essential to democracy because it eliminates the role that corporations and large unions play in shaping the outcomes of elections, often in favor of incumbents.
Populating our legislatures with these perspectives is not as hard as it might seem. Nearly 24 million Americans hold low-wage jobs, and 19 million of them are women. They are caring for our families and supporting our businesses, while unable to care for their own families or strengthen their own financial position.
It might seem unrealistic to imagine them in office. But Carmen Castillo, a hotel worker who immigrated from the Dominican Republic, won a seat on the Providence (Rhode Island) City Council in 2011. She makes beds by day and attends council meetings at night. Teachers, caregivers, restaurant workers, and community organizers could also be the leaders we have been waiting for.
Alexandria’s win underlines the importance of primaries and the need to engage the Democratic base. But it indicates something much bigger and longer term – that our leaders must change to reflect their districts and today’s America.
Just as much as party backing can help a candidate, so, too, can it hurt them. Just as a white man can represent any district in America, so can a young Latina. Just as big money can win elections, so can a big vision.