It was a cool Sunday afternoon in mid-May when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez turned the corner onto Northern Boulevard and saw a storefront office with glass doors covered in dark blue-and-white posters.
A year had passed since the former Bernie Sanders organizer had launched her own longshot election campaign. Amid a light rain, she was doing on this afternoon what she had done on so many other days: pound the pavement canvassing the Queens and Bronx neighborhoods she hopes to represent in Congress beginning next January. Her opponent, one of New York’s most powerful Democrats, had studiously ignored her campaign and her demands for a debate in advance of their June 26 primary contest. But now she unexpectedly found herself standing in front of his well-furnished campaign office.
While supporters she was canvassing with joked about being so near “the belly of the beast,” Ocasio took a deep breath, calmed her fears and strolled through the glass doors and into the nerve center of Rep. Joe Crowley’s re-election campaign.
“One of the guys looked like he was going to fall out of his chair,” she later recalled with a laugh.
First seated in 1999, Joe Crowley now represents a district that is 70 percent people of color and 50 percent immigrant.
Crowley’s campaign manager, Vijay Chaudhuri, bolted out from the back of the office and glared at her as they stood toe-to-toe in the middle of the office. When Ocasio-Cortez told him who she was, he snapped, “I know who you are!”
Chaudhuri’s outburst was a revelation. Crowley’s campaign had not publicly acknowledged Ocasio-Cortez’s existence even when she had recently stunned some observers by submitting more than 5,400 petition signatures to win a place on the ballot — more than four times the required amount. But after months of wondering if she was too insignificant in her opponent’s eyes to even be noticed, she had her answer.
Ocasio-Cortez repeated her request for a debate and Chaudhuri promised to pass it along. Ocasio thanked him for his time and left feeling emboldened. “It was the first time I looked the opposition in the eye,” she told The Indypendent. “It made me feel this was more possible than I already thought it was. I saw not the certainty that I thought I was going to see.”
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Ocasio-Cortez grew up in the Bronx but spent most of her summers in Puerto Rico. The lack of opportunities in the Bronx’s underfunded public schools and the grinding poverty she witnessed in Puerto Rico shaped her working-class identity. She returned to the Bronx after college to work as a director for early childhood education programs through the National Hispanic Institute. She became involved in electoral politics during the 2016 Democratic primary as a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “Before working on that campaign I really thought it was impossible to run a for office without corporate money, which is why I never thought of doing it,” said Ocasio-Cortez.
After the 2016 election, she traveled to Standing Rock, North Dakota where she encountered thousands of non-violent protesters. They were there in solidarity with members of the Lakota Sioux who faced off in the frigid cold against police water cannons and attack dogs to try and stop an oil pipeline that threatened the tribe’s water supply.
“Seeing people from across the country and the depth to which they were putting everything on the line was just really inspiring to me,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Upon leaving Standing Rock, Ocasio received a call from Brand New Congress (BNC), a group that was looking to challenge incumbents from both parties in the 2018 midterms with unabashedly progressive candidates who would eschew corporate backing in favor of small-donor support. Ocasio-Cortez was taken aback when BNC urged her to run in New York’s 14th Congressional District against an incumbent who had not faced a primary challenge in 14 years. She decided to take the leap.
“If you were going to do this, it had to come from an organizer,” she said. “It had to come from someone outside the system who would give it a jolt. If you want any kind of political career in New York City, you can’t challenge Joe Crowley.”
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Queens is a one-party state where the Democratic Party machine wields near-total control over the political life of the borough. Crowley, 56, sits at the apex — the most powerful New York politician you’ve never heard of.
While headline-chasing politicos such as Cuomo, Schumer and Gillibrand get more press, Crowley gradually amasses power. He has raised more than $20 million for his campaigns since 1997. He has funneled some of that largesse into campaign contributions to conservative and moderate Democrats across the country and is widely believed to have his sights set on someday supplanting Nancy Pelosi as the top Democrat in the House of Representatives.
He is also Chair of the Queens County Democratic Party. From that perch, he controls the Queens delegation to the City Council and, in January, used an alliance with Bronx Democratic Party boss Marcos Crespo to install real-estate industry favorite Corey Johnson as Speaker of the New York City Council. Crowley also decides who gets the Democratic nomination to judgeships in Queens. Likewise, he controls who sits on the Queens County Surrogate’s Court. There, two of his closest allies — Gerald Sweeney and Michael Reich — have pocketed $30 million and $500,000 respectively in processing fees since 2006 as court-appointed administrators for the estates of Queens residents who die without a will. As for the widows and orphans who might need those resources, they’re out of luck.
In addition to his well-stocked campaign war chest, Crowley can draw on the backing of local Democratic Party clubs, two dozen labor unions who have endorsed him and a legion of elected officials who will sing his praises on command.
Yet, in a twist of irony, Crowley might be a victim of his past success in deterring primary challenges in NY-14.
“Most people have no idea who their congressman is even though he’s been in office for almost 20 years,” said Amanda Vender, a public high school teacher from Jackson Heights who has canvassed and phone banked for Ocasio-Cortez. “There’s so much enthusiasm when I talk to people and explain that there’s someone who doesn’t take corporate money and is a new, fresh face on the scene.”
Crowley’s ties to the real estate industry — he’s received $235,000 in contributions from it this cycle — may also come back to bite him, at least in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, where the city’s proposed rezoning on 82nd Street has sparked outrage. If enacted, it would allow a 13-story luxury apartment building to be built with a Target store on the ground level. Locals fear this would spur more gentrification and displacement of long-time residents and family businesses.
“My parents are elderly and live in this area and they are getting priced out,” said Naureen Akhter who is backing Ocasio-Cortez.
Ethan Felder volunteered for Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016 and gathered 200 petition signatures for Ocasio-Cortez in Corona and LeFrak City. “They’re not tied to the incumbent,” he said of the mostly middle-aged and older residents he met. “They’re very open to someone who is more reflective of their community.”
Indeed, demographics are trending against Crowley who was installed in his seat in 1999 by his predecessor Thomas Manton without a contested primary. He now represents a district that is 70 percent people of color and 50 percent immigrant.
“The Queens of 20 years ago is not the same as the Queens of today,” Ocasio-Cortez noted.
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Ocasio-Cortez, who identifies as a democratic socialist, is running on a platform of Medicare for All, free public university tuition, a “Green New Deal,” a federal jobs guarantee, criminal justice reform and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“In an 85 percent Democratic district, you won’t get voted out of office for fighting for the working class,” said Virginia Ramos Rios, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign manager.
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign comes at a time when the aftershocks of the 2016 election — Sanders’ surprisingly successful insurgency and Clinton’s general election defeat — continue to reverberate through the Democratic Party. Entrenched Democratic incumbents who have been coasting for years are being primaried like no time in recent memory. In New York City, Carolyn Maloney (13 terms) and Yvette Clarke (6 terms) are both facing strong primary challenges from younger, well-funded opponents.
Across the country, a parallel infrastructure of groups such as BNC, Justice Democrats, Our Revolution and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have emerged to support left-leaning candidates who are challenging pro-corporate centrists preferred by the Democratic Party establishment.
These outsider candidates lose more often than they win, even as they move the party leftward, at least rhetorically. Relying on small donor support, they are financially outgunned in most races and generally lack the name recognition and institutional networks of their entrenched opponents. Still, there have been breakthrough moments. In May alone:
Kara Eastman, a Medicare-for-All proponent won a hotly contested congressional primary in Omaha, Nebraska over her centrist opponent.
Stacey Abrams ran on an unabashedly progressive platform and became the first black woman to be nominated for governor in Georgia. Paulette Jordan did the same in Idaho and became the state’s first female Native American nominee for governor.
In Pennsylvania, four democratic socialists, all women, backed by the DSA defeated four older male opponents to win state house seats.
A bastion of both patronage-based political machines that prefer the status quo and finance and real estate elites that profit from it, New York City will be a tougher nut to crack. Joe Crowley stands at the intersection of those forces.
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Not that Ocasio-Cortez, or “Doña Quixote” as she sometimes refers to herself, is letting that slow her down. In addition to support from Brand New Congress, she has also garnered the support of the Justice Democrats, People for Bernie, Black Lives Caucus and the New York City chapter of the DSA among others. She’s held fundraisers in the living rooms of supporters across the district and has raised more than $200,000 from almost 9,000 individual donors, according to her campaign.
On May 26, the Ocasio-Cortez campaign officially opened an office. Located on the second floor of a strip mall by the 90th Street subway stop in Elmhurst, the room was filled with a bustling, diverse crew of 40 mostly-millennial volunteers. Along the walls were maps of all the neighborhoods in the 14th District, from Astoria to Flushing, Throgs Neck to Morris Park. The day before the office opened, Crowley’s campaign announced that he would debate Ocasio-Cortez on June 15 at the New York 1 television studio.
“His clubs are holding emergency meetings,” Felder said. “They can feel her presence.”
The primary’s outcome will ultimately hinge on voter turnout. Sixty-four thousand people in NY-14 voted in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, 31,000 in last year’s mayoral primary, noted John Mellonkopf, director of CUNY’s Center for Urban Research. In a district with a low rate of voter participation that rarely sees a congressional primary, turnout on June 26 could dip to 20,000 or less, meaning the winning candidate may need to garner roughly 10,000 votes to win — or one-third the number of people who regularly show up a couple miles away at Citi Field to watch the Mets play.
In this contest between top-down and bottom-up politics, could one of the biggest upsets in recent New York history be in the making?
Mellonkopf told The Indy he doesn’t think Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign has the resources or the level of media visibility to mount an operation that can overcome Crowley’s advantages.
Ramos Rios disagrees pointing to the $100,000 the campaign raised in the final weeks of May and coverage in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal among other media outlets. “We are reaching thousands of people per day in the district through field organizing and digital efforts.”
According to Ocasio-Cortez, her campaign’s goal is to reach 30,000 confirmed supporters in the district in advance of election day. And while she wouldn’t divulge a number, she insisted her campaign was “well on its way” to meeting that target.
“The only thing we’ve done this whole time is educate and expand the electorate,” she said.
Photo (top): Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Credit: Elia Gran.