It was nearly 2 a.m., a few hours after she felled the 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was tweeting.
She thanked the district that backed her, and Crowley, too, for his “service.” Her win, she said, marked “the start of a movement” – one the 28-year-old was in a rush to heat up.
“There are more of us,” she wrote, naming Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, Cori Bush in Missouri and Florida’s Chardo Richardson. Like Ocasio-Cortez, each set out to defeat and replace a sitting Democratic House member.
The rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez happened slowly and then, on the night of June 26, all at once. In less than a month since, she has ridden a wave of support, put her foot in her mouth, been celebrated by fellow democratic socialists, scorned by Republicans and centrist Democrats, questioned – in good faith and bad – by pundits of all stripes and touted by admirers as a future party leader.
Now she’s out on the campaign trail, with a trip to Michigan next on her itinerary, boosting her allies and trying to put a leftist stamp on the Democratic class of 2018.
The road here was long. It traces back to the spring of 2017, when she entered New York’s 14th Congressional District primary as an almost complete unknown. But also to the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, when a pair of new progressive groups, Brand New Congress and the Justice Democrats, began to recruit her as a potential candidate. Before all that, she worked on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. During college, she spent time in the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office.
It began when her father, a South Bronx native, died while she was studying at Boston University, leaving the family hard up – this was during the financial crisis – to keep their suburban home. They eventually sold it. Ocasio-Cortez moved back to New York, to the Bronx, after graduation. Her mother, who was born in Puerto Rico, went to Florida, where she could better afford to live. Before becoming a candidate, Ocasio-Cortez was working as a waitress.
But for most everyone else – those who doubted her chances of upsetting Crowley, a rumored successor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, or simply didn’t know her name until a little after 9 p.m. ET on June 26 – the story is much shorter. Only about a month old.
On the morning after the primary, a reporter asked Pelosi at a news conference on Capitol Hill if Crowley’s loss was a sign, as some Republicans suggested, that democratic socialism was “ascendant” in the party.
“It’s ascendent in that district perhaps,” she said of New York’s 14th. “But I don’t accept any characterization of our party presented by the Republicans. So let me reject that right now. … Our party is a big tent. Our districts are very different, one from the other.”
Of the previous night’s results, Pelosi said (again), “They made a choice in one district.” Less diplomatic voices noted that in a district of more than 230,000 registered Democrats, only about 28,000 had turned out. The upset of the year had been won, decidedly, but with something like 16,000 votes.
While Washington scrambled, debated and rationalized, Ocasio-Cortez was already back at work, making her case. This time, though, the audience was a touch bigger. Over the next few days, she would appear on CNN and a handful of other major mainstream television news outlets.
One district’s choice was speaking to a national audience and the initial stir began to feel more like a craze, bringing in previously unthinkable sums of donor dollars – more than $800,000 now, Ocasio-Cortez communications director Corbin Trent told CNN, since the primary.
There she was, on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” just a couple of days after the vote, explaining to the host, to a country, what democratic socialism – “not an easy term for a lot of Americans,” he noted — meant to her.
“I believe,” she said, “that in a modern, moral and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.”
For the American left, which has for so long twisted itself in knots trying to spell out its most basic values, it felt like a watershed moment. A pair of organizers from the Democratic Socialists of America writing in Jacobin, the socialist magazine, a few days later cited the line and lauded her “transformational vision.”
The group had seen a massive surge in dues-paying membership – its ranks now exceed 45,000, organizers said – following the primary. But now it was getting a different sort of attention. The decades-old organization, which has enjoyed a steady rise during the Trump era, has become increasingly apt at exercising its electoral muscles. Its chapters have backed primary winners, some of them members, from Virginia (in 2017) to Pennsylvania and, of course, in New York, where Julia Salazar, at 27, is vying to unseat a Democrat in September’s 18th state Senate district primary.
Juggling hype and hustle
By July, Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo from the left and exchanged endorsements with Ocasio-Cortez the day before the federal primary, described herself – for the first time – to Politico as a “democratic socialist.”
In an interview with Jacobin Radio’s “The Dig” podcast, Nixon was asked by host Daniel Denvir what she made of Pelosi’s assessment, from the day after Ocasio-Cortez’s win, that socialism was not “ascendent” among Democrats.
“Nancy Pelosi is dead wrong,” said Nixon, who has actively sought backing from the Democratic Socialists of America. “That is exactly what’s happening.”
Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, had kept up a busy schedule in her district while attending to the media crush. Her support helped shove the movement to “Abolish ICE,” which had for so long been relegated to the progressive fringes, into the national headlines. On June 28, New York’s Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called for the agency to be eliminated. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio followed suit the next morning, telling WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, “ICE’s time has come and gone.”
“I think ‘Abolish ICE’ is where it is today because of her leadership,” activist Sean McElwee told CNN earlier this month, as progressive Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, along with Reps. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and New York’s Adriano Espaillat, were working on legislation to end it.
The final product, introduced two weeks ago with six cosponsors, is at once a dead-ender in the Republican-controlled House – a political gift to endangered conservatives, some pundits have argued – and another signal moment in the rise of the progressive left.
At the same time, there was a backlash brewing in the Democratic ranks. Illinois’ Sen. Tammy Duckworth, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on July 1, warned that Ocasio-Cortez’s politics wouldn’t play in her region.
Asked if she thought the party was moving too far left ahead of the midterms and 2020 presidential campaign, Duckworth said: “Well, I think that you can’t win the White House without the Midwest. And I don’t think that you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest. Coming from a Midwestern state, I think you need to be able to talk to the industrial Midwest. You need to listen to the people there in order to win an election nationwide.”
Ocasio-Cortez responded to the headlines that followed in a tweet.
“With respect to the Senator, strong, clear advocacy for working class Americans isn’t just for the Bronx,” she wrote, listing states Sanders won in the 2016 primaries and asking: “We then lost several of those states in the general. What’s the plan to prevent a repeat?”
Even then, Ocasio-Cortez’s standing among even establishment party voices remained solid. On July 3, Valerie Jarrett, who was one of President Barack Obama’s top advisers, cheered the young democratic socialist on social media. But the grumbling in liberal circles was beginning to pick up.
The party establishment is pretty openly desperate for a new star, but at what cost – and what would it mean for its current leaders?
Backlash and bulling forward
Early on July 12, the pressure boiled over.
Ocasio-Cortez accused Crowley in a tweet of blowing her off three times ahead of “scheduled concession calls.” Within the hour, Crowley shot back, pinning the missed connections on her staff and declaring, again, that “the race is over.”
Many Democrats were left asking why – why reignite a fight that seemed done and dusted?
“When … you know that you’ve got a candidate (in Crowley) that didn’t really see this coming and this totally changes the trajectory of his future, you worry,” Trent, who also serves as the executive director of Justice Democrats, said at the time.
Those concerns were fuled by Crowley’s refusal to give up his place on the Working Families Party ballot line, which he had secured before the primary. (Getting off the ticket is a complicated, convoluted process that a spokesperson said Crowley believed was unethical to take part in, an explanation that roiled Working Families Party leaders, who denied there was anything unusual about it – something that Crowley would surely know, they said, given his place as the chair of the Queens County Democrats.)
Alas, Crowley figures to be on the ballot in November, even as he insists – as he did again during his first post-primary news conference on Capitol Hill – that there is no zombie campaign afoot. Still, the lingering dust-up has compounded the resentment and frustration among establishment Democrats, particularly some in Washington, who think Ocasio-Cortez should tap the brakes.
“Meteors fizz out,” said Florida’s Rep. Alcee Hastings, who entered Congress around the time Ocasio-Cortez might’ve started preschool. That jab, along with a series of testy reviews from Capitol Hill Democrats featured in a report by The Hill, cast a clear eye on the realities likely to face Ocasio-Cortez next year. Especially if she arrives and continues to push for a House Democratic “sub-caucus.”
“Even if you can carve out a sub-portion, a sub-caucus of the progressive caucus, even if you could carve out that, even a smaller bloc, but one that operates as a bloc,” she told Denvir on “The Dig,” “then you can generate real power.”
Then there was the question of her appearance on PBS’s “Firing Line.”
During an interview there, Ocasio-Cortez backed a two-state solution in the region and affirmed her support for Israel’s right to exist but also used the term “occupation of Palestine” to describe Israel’s presence in parts of the region.
The host, Margaret Hoover, a conservative CNN contributor, hit pause there and asked Ocasio-Cortez to explain her position: Why, exactly, did she call it an “occupation”?
“What I meant,” Ocasio-Cortez offered haltingly, “is like the settlements that are increasing in some of these areas and places where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes.”
Pressed again, she added: “I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue. For me, I am a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these. … For me, I just look at things through a human rights lens, and I may not use the right words. I know this is a very intense issue.”
No doubt there. The hits came hard and fast. “Ocasio-Cortez Embarrasses Herself on Firing Line,” the National Review announced, while other outlets trumpeted both outrage over the comment and some glee, veiled or not, at her being found wanting. After weeks of mostly gauzy coverage, the backlash felt inevitable.
A week ago Monday, Ocasio-Cortez visited the more friendly environs of Democracy Now!, hosted by investigative journalist Amy Goodman. There she began – or tried – to contain the fallout, noting that “one of the things I’m pursuing (as she hashes out a clearer position on Israel) is sitting down with lots of activists and sitting down with lots of leaders and figuring out exactly what this position looks like in the progressive movement.”
The left has mostly forgiven Ocasio-Cortez her stumble, even as it’s promised to keep a close eye on her position. The trust is there. Conservatives, though, are already using the remarks and her criticism as a wedge between her and Democratic leadership, which tends to be fiercely pro-Israel and, with a few exceptions, loath to condemn its actions in all but the most extreme circumstances.
If the tempest seems to have passed, it’s due at least in part to Democrats’ dire position in Washington. The party is far from power, and figures to remain so even if the midterms break its way, effectively allowing officials to kick these political and policy clashes down the road.
Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, is settling in to a remarkable new normal. Apart from Sanders, with whom she campaigned in Kansas on Friday for primary hopefuls James Thompson and Brent Welder ahead of the state’s August 7 vote, there might not be a more in-demand ally for this year’s slate of insurgent progressive Democrats.
After Kansas, she hit Missouri to stump for Cori Bush. On Saturday, she will travel across Michigan with Abdul El-Sayed, the young Democratic primary candidate, endorsed on Wednesday by Sen. Bernie Sanders, vying to become the country’s first Muslim governor. Chardo Richardson, down in Florida, figures to get a visit before his late August House primary, as does Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts. There are more.
It makes sense, too. If Ocasio-Cortez wants to make waves in Washington, a city that even in the Trump era obsesses over process and order, she’ll need to show up with some equally impatient friends.