“Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” began the now-legendary campaign ad for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, released just four weeks ago. What followed was a powerful, viral video, called “The Courage to Change,” that addressed racial and gender identity and meshed seamlessly with one about her social class position. “I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family — mother from Puerto Rico, dad from the South Bronx. I was born in a place where your Zip code determines your destiny.”
Ocasio-Cortez, whose parents moved from working-class Parkchester in the Bronx to Yorktown Heights in middle-class Westchester County, N.Y., for better schools, won second place in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, got a degree at Boston University in economics and international relations, and after years of channeling her millennial political fever, pulled off the biggest political upset of the year, trouncing Joseph Crowley, the King of Queens, running as a democratic socialist but on the Democratic Party ticket, and bent on shutting down the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement as cable news flashed images of crying children separated from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico.
“I don’t think anyone saw this coming,” said Marlene Peralta, a senior strategist at the media consulting group Progressive Cities. Peralta, who was born in the Dominican Republic and has lived in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn since she was 14, knows how tough New York politics can be for Latinas.
Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old self-styled champion of the working class who, as the ad shows, can effortlessly change from flats to high heels on an elevated subway train platform, scored a stunning upset victory that not only shocked America but also might signal a new direction for the Democratic Party. It is clear that the movement started by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2016 had found new life in very un-bro-like fashion.
“I think so many young people are completely disillusioned with mainstream politics and the two-party system, and democratic socialism is something that seems to speak to their concerns and interests,” said Marisol LeBrón, a Latino studies scholar who grew up in Parkchester — the same Bronx area Ocasio-Cortez is from — and identifies as queer and Nuyorican. “The fact that she is a young woman of color helped her connect with young people around the country who identify as progressive or left and are trying to think through party politics in this increasingly repressive moment.”
Cristina Beltrán, who teaches politics at New York University, felt it was important that Ocasio-Cortez made it clear not only “who” she was, but also “what” she strongly represented. “Her message wasn’t just ‘elect me, I’m a Latina with a good personal story.’ Instead, she seemed committed to bringing alienated voters into the process, and she had a progressive, anti-corporate message about economic justice.”
With a platform that calls for Medicare for all, tuition-free public college, a federal jobs guarantee, criminal justice reform, a green rebuilding of the nation’s power infrastructure and the abolition of ICE, Ocasio-Cortez has crystallized the politics of a generation that is fed up with increasing inequality and the emergence of Trumpian authoritarianism. Her life story and political actions have a flexible, intersectional quality that is taking shape before our eyes, helping to create a new force in American politics.
“The most exciting part of her victory is her platform,” said Carlina Rivera, a first-term member of the New York City Council from the Lower East Side of Manhattan who shares Ocasio-Cortez’s youth and pride in being an urban, working-class Latina. “She’s clearly aligned with Democratic values — humane, responsible policies that focus around racism and classism and discriminatory policies. I think it dispels the Bernie Bro myth — look at who voted for her! Communities of color and white people. Voters don’t want someone who’s comfortable; they want you to engage with them.”
With her own hybrid of intense neighborhood canvassing and digital engagement — on social media and in several millennial-focused online publications — Ocasio-Cortez is fusing identity politics with class politics. “I can’t name a single issue with roots in race that doesn’t have economic implications, and I cannot think of a single economic issue that doesn’t have racial implications,” she told the magazine the Nation last week. “The idea that we have to separate them out and choose one is a con.”
Bristling at complaints from her opponent Crowley that she emphasized her Puerto Rican roots, “making this about race,” she accused him of maintaining only a token presence in the district and said his children were schooled in Northern Virginia. She made the connection between racial and ethnic background and not having access to the generational wealth that makes running for office easier. Although Puerto Ricans have been American citizens since 1917 and therefore avoid the naturalization process and its perils, Ocasio-Cortez bonded strongly with the Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans in her district.
New York’s 14th Congressional District itself is a sprawling territory of racial and ethnic intersection — about 50 percent Latino and 20 percent white. The East Bronx, where I was raised, has Latinos, blacks, South Asians and some remaining ethnic Europeans, while the Jackson Heights-Elmhurst section of Queens is home to a fascinating mix of Central and South American Latinos, South Asians, Chinese and Koreans. On any given day at the 90thStreet stop of the 7 train in Elmhurst, where Ocasio-Cortez filmed a social video of her campaigning, one will hear a sonic blast of cumbias, rancheras, beauty parlor ads and soccer matches. None of this staggering mix seemed to faze Ocasio-Cortez.
To this potent stew, Ocasio-Cortez added a Sanders-like appraisal of what ails the American Dream, offering solutions that hew to the “s”-word strategies of a group with which she openly identifies, the Democratic Socialists of America. That same “socialism” that the center and right often identify with pretentious European thinkers and student-debt-saddled millennials turns out to be a viable approach to the problems of people of color who are segregated out of opportunity for high-quality education, affordable housing and the accumulation of generational wealth.
Rivera, who also identifies as a democratic socialist, feels that that outlook represents a kind of politics that is “truly progressive, and understands that the system hasn’t been working for people of color. Being a socialist is a lot closer to being a progressive than most people think.”
While Ocasio poses a strong challenge to mainstream Democrats, she also might threaten the local Latino/Puerto Rican political establishment that has never veered too far away from the Democratic center. Bronx borough President Rubén Díaz lamented Crowley’s loss, calling him someone the community needed in Washington, and up to now there’s been no reaction from longtime Boricua Reps. Nydia M. Velásquez (N.Y.), José E. Serrano (N.Y.) and Luis V. Gutiérrez (Ill.), the latter of whom campaigned for Crowley.
Ocasio will face Republican Anthony Pappas in November for the 14th District seat, but given the poor track record of Republicans anywhere in the five boroughs outside of Staten Island, she is likely to win, becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Then she would face perhaps her biggest challenge — avoiding the compromising of her high-minded ideals by continuing to refuse corporate donations. Can she make alliances with new-wave progressives and mainstream Democrats alike to push for single-payer health insurance, significant criminal justice reform and the end of the horrendous hounding of immigrants that has thus far characterized the Trump years?
For now, as the overnight sensation of a new Democratic movement, Ocasio-Cortez can at least feel satisfied that she has finally found a way to bring race and class together in American politics.
“Ocasio-Cortez’s victory gives me a lot of hope, not only because she is young and Latina like me with a promising political future, but because she actually got Latinos to come out and vote,” Peralta said. “Now we can say, ‘See, this is why you vote, and this is how you make a political system that has taken us for granted for too long finally take us seriously.’ Don’t be surprised if you see Governor Cuomo, Cynthia Nixon and other candidates focusing on Latinos from now on. We will have the Ocasio effect to thank for it.”
Originally published in The Washington Post on June 29, 2018