How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Broke All of the Guidelines of New York Politics
David Freedlander writes about politics and culture. He lives in New York.
NEW YORK — Hundreds of parents and students were sitting on folding chairs or standing against the wall in a dimly lit linoleum floored party hall underneath the elevated train on a gray day in Queens. They were there, they said, to rally on behalf of public schools and against charter schools, to learn about how to opt out of high-stakes testing and how to make more schools less segregated and more equitable.
These kinds of civic meetings occur every day in New York, but they don’t attract the kind of attention this one has: half a dozen television cameras, a line around the block to get in, reporters from the local press and from national magazines.
“I know you are not here to see me,” said Diane Ravitch, the author of more than a dozen books and one of the leading thinkers on education policy over the past 40 years. “But to see AOC.”
And sitting off in the corner, wearing a black blazer pinned with the official congressional seal, is what makes this town hall different from every other town hall. It explains the cameras and the crowds, and why there is a dedicated time for selfies afterward and why a photographer from Time magazine is crouched down before the front row, perma-clicking her way through the two-hour event.
AOC of course is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first-term congresswoman who has exploded like a supernova across the political sky since last summer, when she defeated Joe Crowley, the boss of the Queens County Democratic Party and someone widely thought to be the next speaker of the House. And when she lands back in her district, her reception is no different.
“It’s like if Camelot came to Queens,” said one onlooker. On this day, Ocasio-Cortez is the star upon which the whole room seems to revolve. Politicians who have been working in the trenches since before she was born come by to pay tribute (and of course to grab the quick selfie).
It is hard to not pick up a faint air of resentment in some corners.
“I send a tweet when I see something I think is cool, and it gets, like, six likes,” John Liu, a state senator, former city comptroller, former city councilman and one-time candidate for mayor told the crowd. “AOC sneezes and it gets a half-million retweets!”
The congresswoman smiled tightly.
“I say that only half-jokingly,” said Liu, only half-recovering.
In the world of New York politics, beating Crowley was something that was: Just. Not. Done. “It’s unfortunate that he had a primary,” Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz said on election night. It has now been 10 months. And although in Washington Crowley was seen as a future Democratic leader, in New York, he was an old-school power broker, someone who commanded a party organization that could make loyal soldiers into elected officeholders. He was someone who anyone who wanted to be governor, senator, mayor or speaker of the City Council had to pay tribute to, and now that he has left the scene, he has left behind a cadre of devoted party regulars and political establishment not quite sure how to handle the young phenom who ousted him.
And she, in turn, hasn’t been quite sure how to handle the permanent political class she repudiated by beating Crowley. For now, the insular New York establishment is eyeing AOC warily. They want to emulate her—even Gov. Andrew Cuomo, her sworn enemy, has been hitting social media harder, something Albany legislators attribute to Ocasio-Cortez—but they also fear her ability to bring out an army of supporters if they cross her. They are wondering how well she will play with them if, after having achieved office without them, if she can be brought into their tent.
Power in New York has not traditionally been achieved through social media stardom; it has been achieved through the slow and painful courting of various constituency groups. It is achieved block association by block association, community board by community board, labor union by labor union. Now that she is a star, city insiders wonder, is AOC willing to labor in those trenches? Does she even need to? What happens if she doesn’t?
Ocasio-Cortez got a slow start in New York. The New York Times called her out for failing to open a district office for her first several months on the job, relying on local elected officials for constituent service work. She has kept up a steady pace since, however marching in the St. Pat’s for All Parade, where—until she ducked out a few blocks in to climb in a black SUV for a Vanity Fair interview—she, for a moment, just seemed like just another pol among pols; taking questions at a community board meeting over Amazon’s decision to pull out of a proposed headquarters in New York and on the closure of the Rikers Island jail; meeting with tenant activists in the Bronx and with fellow women-elected officials in Queens for a Women’s History Month event. She has sat for a series of long interviews with NY1, the local all-news cable station, and sparred with the New York Post, which has waged a crusade on the alleged hypocrisy of a self-described environmentalist using a car to get around the city.
Her staff, highly conscious of the crowds she can attract, and the fact that she commands an audience whether she wants to or not, doesn’t publicize her events or put out a public schedule, instead relying on others to tweet or Instagram them after the fact. When her district office opened in early March, dozens of reporters turned out even though it was not publicized, and AOC fended off questions about the subways and Amazon alongside her thoughts on the unfolding crisis in Venezuela.
In New York, the streets may be dynamic, but the politics remain sclerotic. Even the most ambitious strivers have to suffer a long and slow climb up the ladder, starting out on the community board, then to the City Council, then the state Legislature, then borough-wide office or beyond if they can slice it. Bill de Blasio, the current mayor, was elected to the school board in 1999 and has been in one office or another ever since. The three leading candidates to replace him have been in office a combined 61 years. The governor’s father was a governor, and the father of the governor before him was secretary of state. Members of the U.S. Congress tend to operate in relative anonymity, layered over by elected officials closer to the ground. Incumbents face primary challenges fairly regularly, but with their ability to marshal labor unions, political clubs and senior centers they tend to dispatch the upstarts with ease.
Ocasio-Cortez upended that calculus. Running against Crowley, she railed against the entire political establishment, from the county party he led to the clubs that were in hock to him to the unions and civic organizations that dutifully endorsed the all-but-certain victor. And now that she has ascended to a level of fame beyond the neighborhood, beyond the district, beyond the city, the two sides—the entrenched political infrastructure and the thousand-kilowatt freshman—are eyeing one another warily and learning to live together.
“Anytime I talk to someone—companies, corporations looking to do business in New York, nonprofits rolling out an issue campaign, the first question they always ask me is, ‘Where is AOC on this?’” said one New York City lobbyist. “I have been doing this for years, and I have never once had a client say to me, ‘Can I get Kirsten Gillibrand to my event?’ Once or twice I guess people have asked about Chuck Schumer, but every single person wants to know about AOC.”
“Every call I am on, people want to know: What is our AOC strategy?” added another lobbyist, who, like others interviewed for this story, asked for anonymity to avoid crossing someone with a loyal Twitter following of 3.7 million fans. “The only other person I can compare it to is Al Sharpton, where people want to know where he is on the playing field or if she is even on it at all.”
The two couldn’t be more different. Although both prod the Democratic Party to the left, especially on civil rights, AOC is the 29-year-old upstart who lacks clear allegiances to the political infrastructure of the city. Sharpton is a 64-year-old pillar of the New York political establishment, one aspiring pols need to court, or at least figure out a way to neutralize. Michael Bloomberg called him the night he was elected mayor of New York and they met the next morning. Every year on Martin Luther King Day, Sharpton hosts a celebration at his headquarters in Harlem. Pols of all stripes, from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Mayor de Blasio to first-term members of the City Council crowd the tiny stage waiting their turn to pay homage. This year, Ocasio-Cortez was blocks away, engaged in a “public conversation” with Ta-Nehisi Coates at Riverside Church near Columbia University.
In an interview, Sharpton sounded as if he were fine with the oversight—for now.
“She told me on King Day she had already committed to the church but that she would do the [annual National Action Network] convention,” Sharpton said in an interview. “I don’t know where it will go down the road but so far I am willing to keep an open mind and an open door.”
Sharpton met with Ocasio-Cortez in her D.C. office soon after she was sworn in, a meeting set up by his staff. He showed her how to dance James Brown-style after a video of her own dancing went viral.
“She is going to have to navigate and understand the differences and the various segments of the nation and this city,” Sharpton said. “I have seen people blow up before. You have to make sure that you are firm in what you believe and that every exit ramp is leading to something and not a dead end.”
It was an open question after she defeated Crowley whether Ocasio-Cortez would be willing to do the often laborious work of local politics, since she won so far outside the traditional path.
“She isn’t really a politician. She is a rock star,” said one political operative closely aligned with the establishment. “I say this not to dismiss her, because I think she is really smart and capable, but it is like if Kim Kardashian were a member of Congress. Do you think she would be going to community boards? Why do the scut work of local politics if you can get glossy magazine covers? Believe me, Jerry Nadler would love to just be on the cover of Time, but it’s not something that is available to him.”
The fact of Ocasio-Cortez’s celebrity has made it more difficult for the political establishment and the congresswoman to get to know one another. Figuring out where she is on any given issue can be a guessing game, since with her small staff, local power brokers say she can be tough to reach. Case in point: It has been three months since she was sworn in, and Ocasio-Cortez has yet to meet one-on-one with either the governor, the mayor, the head of the state Democratic Party or the heads of the Queens and Bronx Democratic Parties.
“I wouldn’t even know how to reach her, and she certainly hasn’t reached out to me,” said Michael Reich, head of the Queens County Democratic Party, and a Crowley ally whom Ocasio-Cortez accused of running “a foreclosure mill” during the 2018 campaign. “She is on the national level, the international level, and I don’t think she has any interest in the local level, frankly.”
Grassroots organizers say otherwise—so perhaps it depends on who’s talking. Her allies that say even as her celebrity has grown, Ocasio-Cortez and her staff remain unusually responsive.
We work with a lot of legislative offices, but they are actually open to discussing ideas,” said Liat Olenick, a founder of Indivisible Nation BK. “It’s a one of the few places that really has a collaborative approach and really is just into discussing ideas. It took us three months just to get a reply form Senator Schumer. They have been super-responsive right from the bat and they seem supercommitted not just to their constituents but to the whole network of grassroots organizers in the city.”
Last month, Ocasio-Cortez skipped the annual New York Jewish Community Relations Council congressional breakfast, a requisite stop for members of a city that is 13 percent Jewish. But she did attend a Hanukkah celebration a few months before organized by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a small group of left-wing activists, where Ocasio-Cortez delighted the crowd by telling them that her family traced Sephardic Jewish roots in their heritage.
“She is very well-known and followed and very well-liked in activist circles and in the very progressive circles, and I think that is a good thing,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs. “My sense of it is that she is going to decide at a certain point whether she is going to want to continue to be featured as the anti-establishment person, or if she is going to work with the establishment. She can still maintain her progressive position, but it would be more beneficial to what she wants to accomplish.”
In New York, the political left can be taxonomized into four overlapping groups. There is the center-left, inhabited by Governor Andrew Cuomo, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the pro-business Partnership for New York City: pro-business, socially liberal and keenly aware of New York’s place on the international stage. There is the mainstream left of the political clubs, African-American and Latino voters, suburban regulars and Cuomo-aligned labor unions. There is the organized left, made up of groups like the Working Families Party, good government outfits like Common Cause and Citizens Union, and some of the more unskilled labor unions.
Then there is, for lack of a better term, the disorganized left—a hodgepodge of groups like the Democratic Socialists of America, Indivisible, the ACORN-aligned Black Institute and the immigrant rights organization Make The Road New York. The disorganized left prefers advocacy to electoral work, protest and purity to deal cutting and law-making. This is Ocasio-Cortez’s home.
The center-left, backed by the real estate industry and embodied by Cuomo, is at once wary of AOC and determined to dismiss her as a flash in the pan, someone who benefited from a very low-turnout primary to surprise a congressman who had made Washington, D.C. his home.
“How do you explain me winning that district by 36 percent?” Cuomo said at a press conference the day after he easily dispatched Cynthia Nixon in a primary three months after Ocasio-Cortez’s own, a victory he called “a fluke.” “I am not a socialist. I’m not 25 years old.”
That there was a new political order in town became apparent almost as soon as Cuomo uttered those words. A few weeks later, Amazon announced that a portion of Queens, near but not in AOC’s district, had been selected as the home of one of its new headquarters. The city had been courting the company for years, but after the announcement some of those same politicians who had been lobbying Amazon to come to New York abruptly switched sides. Faced with opposition from local pols, the company reversed course and pulled out of New York, a blow to the business community that allies and enemies of the congresswoman attributed to “The AOC Effect.”
Allies of the governor have been quick to point out that Ocasio-Cortez’s opposition to Amazon left her with a 31 percent approval rating across the state, 11 points lower than Cuomo’s. And as much as AOC has been willing to torch opponents on social media, she has remained conspicuously quiet on Cuomo, who has long been Lord Voldemort to the left. When she does weigh in on some of the major issues facing the state and the city, such as drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants, school segregation and marijuana legalization, it tends to be after the battle lines have been clearly drawn, and it is clear who is lining up on which side. Nine members of the state’s congressional delegation recently released a public letter calling for the public financing of campaigns. Ocasio-Cortez was left off the letter.
Which is not to say that Ocasio-Cortez has ignored New York politics altogether. Not only was she nominally aligned with Cuomo’s challenger Nixon, she also helped and benefited from some major organizing work that went into defeating a handful of Democratic incumbents in the state Senate who were aligned with Cuomo and the GOP majority. That group helped weaken Cuomo’s stranglehold on the state.
For his part, the governor has mostly kept his distance. “He is very wary of her,” said one state lawmaker, who attributed the governor’s continued progressive evolution—and his newfound eagerness for social media—in part to her rise. “Everyone is on guard. They don’t want to come in her crosshairs.”
Ocasio-Cortez did endorse fusion voting, an arcane political practice that permits minor parties like the Working Families Party to appear on a general election ballot while cross-endorsing candidates who appear on other lines. Although he hasn’t said as much, progressives think Cuomo wants to eliminate it to further weaken the WFP and quiet his critics on the left. Ocasio-Cortex wasn’t endorsed by the WFP—like the rest of the organized left, the party thought Crowley was a shoo-in—but they quickly endorsed her after the primary and did battle on her behalf as Crowley flirted with a third-party run. And Ocasio-Cortez strategized with the group about how to handle Cuomo after Nixon lost.
“Mostly our relationship has been fantastic,” said Bill Lipton, the state head of the WFP. “She is the most authentic progressive politician in America, and she has breathed life and momentum into the campaigns that many of us have been working on for decades.”
But even as leaders of the institutional left praise how much Ocasio-Cortez has done for their issues, and are staggered at her ability to command the media’s attention—“It is like watching Michael Jordan play every day in his prime” said Neal Kwatra, a political operative who has advised both Cuomo and de Blasio—several said they are still working out the terms of their relationships with her. AOC has taken some community leaders aback by asking that when they do meet, they bring rank-and-file members of their organizations with them.
“I didn’t get the sense that she is interested in playing well with others,” said one labor leader. “People have ways of doing things and I don’t get the sense that she is interested in substantive questions if she doesn’t want to meet us as individuals.”
And the organized left wonders about her commitment to their cause, and how she is going to work with some of the infrastructure they have built through the years. Other left-leaning members of Congress such as Nydia Velazquez and Jerry Nadler have worked hand-in-glove with the WFP and labor unions to push favored candidates and causes. But the new liberal resistance that emerged post-Trump is unaffiliated with the institutional left and lacks the kind of organizational leader that AOC could be, if she wants to be.
“There is a vacuum of vision, and AOC is the natural person to fill that out, but they have to want to,” said Kwatra. “She is a genius at branding and policy explainers, at understanding the news cycle and social media, but the question is does she want to build a progressive movement and use her considerable leverage in order to bring those ideas to fruition here on the ground in New York?”
After her election, Ocasio-Cortez helped bring to life a new group, called Movement School, that was designed by some of her organizers to train the next generation of campaign workers. The group has held a few meetings, but it remains to be seen what will come of it. Much of the cohort that powered her victory has remained politically active, coming together to sink the Amazon deal and to push for further police reforms at City Hall.
This cohort—well-educated, young and upwardly mobile—could become a new force in city politics, one that operates outside of the traditional organizational lanes.
“It’s all about the gentrifiers who don’t want to be gentrified,” said one Bronx-based political operative. “Her supporters come from newly formed communities. They rally around issues, they don’t rally around neighborhoods and they don’t rally around neighborhood leaders.”
AOC resisted the notion that she killed Amazon “with two tweets,” as she put it, but in the first citywide election since she was sworn in, for the job of Public Advocate, the second-highest ranking post in the city, it was clear that AOC had bent the politics of the city. Throughout the campaign, the candidates railed against the online retailer, and at debates all but one pledged to cease shopping from the website even though many of them too had previously signed a letter of support welcoming the company to the city.
And partly in order to stave off another AOC-like surprise, the state finally changed the date of its other primary elections to that of the congressional midterm. Incumbent members of Congress from across the city are facing left-wing primary challengers, as these upstarts believe they can capture some of AOC’s magic. In response, the city’s political leaders are holding the reins even tighter.
“There are labor leaders who I could barely get a meeting with in 2018 who are now sitting down with me and trying to dissuade me from running again,” said Suraj Patel, an attorney who got more votes than AOC in his ultimately failed bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney in the 12th District and who is considering running again. “2020 is going to be like Star Wars 2: The Empire Strikes Back.”
Crowley was determined to hold his post as Queens County boss after he lost, but it became untenable once he got a job as a lobbyist in D.C. for Squire Patton Boggs. Local leaders feared AOC would make a play to install an ally in his place, and some privately told me that they were willing to engage in all-out war should she try to do so. In the end, she showed no interest in the position, which ultimately went to Queens Rep. Gregory Meeks, a longtime party stalwart.
“She isn’t a Queens person, but she isn’t a Bronx person either,” said Reich, the executive director of the Queens Democratic Party. “She grew up in Westchester. The family owns two homes. She has this thing that, ‘My mother scrubbed floors.’ Well, her father was an architect. It’s unfortunate he passed away early but they had a home in Yorktown Heights and a condo in the Bronx. She has no connection to Queens at all.”
As easy as it would be to tell the story that Ocasio-Cortez has forgotten her district in light of her Vogue shoots, “60 Minutes” interviews and Time magazine covers, it isn’t true. Although her fellow elected officials have complained that she hasn’t used the media spotlight to focus on the district much, no one could reasonably accuse her of not being around. “I have seen her more in the past six months than I saw Joe Crowley in the past 10 years,” said one neighborhood activist.
After Ocasio-Cortez won, there were rumblings that someone from the Crowley camp, or another local elected official would challenge her in 2020. That seems unlikely now, as Ocasio-Cortez’s stature in the district has risen as she has become a national figure. “It’s like if a Kennedy lived in Queens,” said one local. But after the latest round of redistricting is another matter, and local members of Congress have already begun holding conversations with state legislators about what the lines will look like after the next election. Ocasio-Cortez floated to The Intercept that she could be “redistricted out,” but it would hard to just make her disappear without sparking a progressive revolt. At this point, political insiders say that the lines would have to be drawn awfully fine to even imagine a district that she wouldn’t end up winning.
“No incumbent congressmember would want her drawn into their district,” said Bill Lipton, head of New York’s Working Families Party. “She’s too popular and too good a campaigner. And the WFP and every progressive activist in the state will knock on doors day and night to ensure she’s reelected.”
People close to AOC’s brain trust say there has been no talk of whether her ambitions lie beyond her congressional district. She has become such a star in such a short period of time, achieving national recognition before she was even elected, that she is content to enjoy the ride for as long as she can. There has been consistent chatter that Ocasio-Cortez will join a thin field and run for mayor in 2021, but that seems unlikely considering she would have to give up her perch and the lofty left vs. right battles she is facing now to deal with municipal concerns. A run for the Senate down the road seems far more likely, but who knows. The past several months have been such a whirlwind, such a no-one-could-have-seen-it-coming surprise, that even Ocasio-Cortez has admitted that she doesn’t know when the show will end. And her detractors say much the same thing.
“She is today’s news. Will she be tomorrow’s?” asked Reich. “I guess we will see.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated that New York changed the date of its congressional midterm to align with the rest of the state’s elections when, in fact, the date of the midterm primary is to remain unchanged while the rest of the state’s primary elections will be moved to that same date. It has also been updated to reflect that the merging was long in the making.