A crowd of purple-clad supporters had gathered around an overhead television set at one end of a bar in a remote corner of north-central Bronx when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez hustled in through a side door.
For almost a year, Ocasio-Cortez had been running a longshot campaign for Congress against a 10-term incumbent who was barely known to his constituents. When the results from that day’s Democratic primary flashed on the screen, the candidate screamed and clasped her hands to her mouth: She was up by 15 points and headed to the biggest political upset of the year.
At just the moment they needed to be building name recognition, grassroots insurgents had to compete for attention with a once-in-a-century crisis.
“This changes everything,” attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout told me as the crowd of mostly young radicals celebrated.
Standing nearby, Julia Salazar was beaming from ear-to-ear. And with good reason. AOC’s victory would turbocharge her campaign with donations and volunteers. The then 27-year-old democratic socialist would go on to stomp 8-term incumbent Martin Malavé Dilan by 18 points in September in a State Senate primary in north Brooklyn. Six other incumbent Democratic state senators were also knocked off by mostly younger progressive challengers, shifting the balance of power in Albany to the left.
Teachout fell short in her statewide run but her prophecy has proven true.
AOC’s rags-to-riches victory marked a seismic shift in the calcified world of New York machine politics in which climbing the political ladder required being a loyal apparatchik who did the bidding of those above, patiently collecting favors for years if not decades until it was “your turn” to run for higher office.
In 2016, there was only one contested down-ballot Democratic primary in the whole city. Deference was the order of the day.
This year New York Democratic state and congressional primaries will be held June 23 and they are overflowing with millennial leftists — almost all of whom are women and/or people of color — taking on entrenched machine incumbents, many of whom have not faced a competitive race in decades. The names of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang will appear at the top of the ballot in a presidential primary contest that state officials tried to eliminate before the courts intervened.
The prospects for sending a whole herd of old bulls out to pasture seemed promising at the beginning of the year. Much has changed since then. Biden won the Democratic nomination, sending many supporters of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren into a deep funk. Then the coronavirus hit, throwing people out of work and turning the city into a ghost town.
At just the moment they needed to be building name recognition in their districts, grassroots insurgents had to compete for attention with a once-in-a-century crisis while their most effective campaign tactic — mobilizing hundreds of supporters to knock on doors and have one-to-one conversations with potential voters — was off the table due to the need for social distancing.
“I was terrified,” recalled Jabari Brisport, a democratic socialist running for State Senate in Brooklyn who briefly weighed dropping out of the race and had to pull hundreds of volunteers from the field after a state of emergency was declared in mid-March. But Brisport and others have retooled their volunteer-heavy campaigns, placing more emphasis on phone banking, writing personally addressed postcards and helping distribute groceries and other material aid to families in their districts hard hit by a plummeting economy.
One candidate who has never stopped hustling is Ocasio-Cortez. She faces a well-funded primary challenge from the right by Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former CNBC television host. AOC has responded by tapping her vast small-dollar donor network to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to frontline community organizations in her congressional district and has been spotted delivering groceries to her constituents’ front doors.
The down-ballot candidates whose races will be watched the most closely are middle school principal Jamaal Bowman in New York’s 16th congressional district in northern Bronx and Westchester County and a slate of five DSA-backed candidates running in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
In NY-16, Bowman is backed by AOC and a slew of progressive groups. His opponent Eliot Engels is a 16-term incumbent and chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee.
Three of the five DSA candidates — Phara Souffrant (Flatbush), Marcela Mitanyes (Sunset Park) and Zohran Mamdani (Astoria) — are running for state Assembly against longtime machine incumbents. Brisport is running for an open state Senate seat that sprawls across central and south Brooklyn. Bronx community organizer Samelys López has consolidated progressive support but faces a steeper climb in a race that features a pair of well-known city council persons — real estate industry darling Ritchie Torres and notorious homophobe Rubén Díaz Sr.
DSA backed Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar in 2018 and narrowly missed electing Tiffany Cabán as Queens District Attorney in 2019. It has 6,000 members in New York City and more than 65,000 nationwide and can mobilize volunteers and small-dollar donors on a scale most candidates can only dream of.
If the young, diverse and unabashedly working-class DSA slate and other grassroots progressives like Bowman can knock off old guard incumbents on June 23, it will strike another salutary blow to the Democratic Party machine here in New York City and State and will confirm that what AOC and others began two years ago was not a fluke.
More than that, it will send a jolt of hope to left electoral movements across the country that, while the dream of a Sanders presidency has been snuffed out, the torch is being passed to a new generation that looks nothing like the grumpy old Jew from Brooklyn who could never stop talking about poverty amid plenty in the world’s wealthiest nation.
“By saying ‘Medicare For All’ and ‘eliminate student debt’ and ‘Green New Deal’ over and over he was teaching the movement what it was fighting for,” Brisport says. “And because of Bernie Sanders’ repetitiveness, he’s empowered thousands of organizers and a whole new crop of politicians to run on that message.”
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