By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
On June 26, 2018, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district, defeating incumbent Joe Crowley, Democratic Caucus Chair.
The 14th district includes parts of the Bronx and parts of Queens. The Queens portion includes the neighborhoods of Astoria, College Point, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Woodside. The Bronx portion of the district includes the neighborhoods of Morris Park, Parkchester, Pelham Bay, Throgs Neck, and City Island.
Ocasio-Cortez’s win has been described in the press as the “biggest upset victory in the 2018 midterm-election season.” After all, she beat Crowley, the most powerful politician in all of Queens County. Rumor has it that Crowley had even higher political aspirations: he was gunning for Nancy Pelosi’s job. Pelosi is currently the Minority Leader of Congress’ House of Representatives, one branch of the bicameral system. Crowley’s close allies previously hinted that he would run to become the next House Democratic leader if Pelosi and other top Democrats fell short to get votes for the job.
Elected to Congress almost twenty years ago, Crowley grew to be one of the Democrats’ most liked members. Recently, he has been a vocal advocate for immigrant rights, pushing for reform at the federal level and even standing in solidarity with Ravi Ragbir, a Trinidadian activist and long-time permanent resident of NYC, who faces the threat of deportation. It’s not uncommon to see Crowley hosting fun-filled gatherings and singing while playing his guitar. The night he lost the primary, he graciously sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and conceded to Ocasio-Cortez.
Despite how many people pledged loyalty to Crowley, regardless of how much money he was able to raise towards his campaign, and no matter the amount of institutional knowledge his team had at their disposal to ensure he won the primaries, he lost to a rookie. How did this happen? And why?
I met Ocasio-Cortez last year in Forest Hills at a rally organized by the Queens Coalition for Solidarity where we both spoke out against Trump’s anti-Muslim policies. Before she spoke, Ocasio-Cortez approached me for my business card. We shook hands and she briefly explained her political platforms. When she said she was running against Crowley, I didn’t say a word. Truth is, I didn’t think she had a shot. After she delivered her remarks at that rally however, I realized how powerful of a leader she could be. She had a winning personality, spoke with unwavering confidence, and did so as a young Latina who thought outside of the box.
Less than a year before she won the primary against Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez was working as a bartender. Describing herself as working class, she was born in the Bronx and lived there in an apartment with her family until she was five. They then moved to a suburb in Westchester County so that Ocasio-Cortez could get a better education. She attended an all-white school and later cobbled together enough loans and scholarships to attend Boston University. She graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics and international relations in 2011. After college, Ocasio-Cortez moved back to the Bronx, bartending and waitressing while her mother cleaned houses and drove school buses. Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t born into politics. She earned her spot.
When she found out her name had been purged from the New York voter rolls and she could not vote in the 2016 primary, Ocasio-Cortez was moved to work on Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. After the general election, she traveled across America, and spoke to people affected by human rights violations related to the Flint water crisis and the Dakota Access Pipeline. In an interview, she recalled her visit to North Dakota as a tipping point: before that point she felt that the only way to effectively run for office was if you had access to wealth, social influence, and power. But when she saw others “putting their whole lives and everything that they had on the line for the protection of their community,” she was inspired to run.
Through grassroots organizing at its best, and the introduction of a vibrant freshness the Democratic Party was sorely lacking, Ocasio-Cortez won as an underdog. Some have tried to discount her victory because it happened the same week that heartbreaking news of family separations hit and a disempowering Supreme Court decision impacting the labor movement was issued. Truth is, Ocasio-Cortez won fair and square; not scantly but with a 16-point margin. Since the 14th District’s lines were redrawn, 50% of the district is Hispanic, while 18% is white. Perhaps immigrants in the district seized the chance to change the status quo with an exciting candidate whose progressive ideals are clearly uncompromising. Maybe they finally turned out to vote because they saw someone whose voice resonated with theirs. Young people also galvanized behind Ocasio-Cortez, much like they did behind Bernie Sanders. Perhaps this race is something Indo- Caribbeans should learn from, if we ever want to see an Indo-Caribbean represent us in elected office.
Conservative critics have called Ocasio-Cortez the Democratic Party’s Sarah Palin, unfairly objectifying her. Ben Shapiro, a right-wing pundit who isn’t running for anything, challenged her to a debate and offered her $10,000 if she accepted. Even Crowley only agreed to debate her once, on NY1, resting on his laurels to his detriment. Ocasio-Cortez showed the world that she deserves to be taken seriously.
Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Critics have also tried to ostracize her with decades old American fear of socialism. Yet, it may take firm candidates from the far-left to balance out the scale as those from the far-right reign over our country.
If Ocasio-Cortez wins the general election, she will be the youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She supports progressive policies such as Medicare for All, a job guarantee, tuition-free public college, ending the privatization of prisons, and enacting gun-control policies.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.