2018 elections

The 28-Year-Old Progressive Hoping to Unseat One of the Top Democrats in Congress

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a shot at a major upset. Photo: M Stan Reaves/Shutterstock/M Stan Reaves/Shutterstock

“Are all of the apartments smoking weed?” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asks on a fourth-floor hallway of Elmback Houses in Queens, where indeed the smell of marijuana does seem to waft from one long end of the corridor to the other.

Ocasio-Cortez has come to this block of red-brick apartment complexes in the Elmhurst section of Queens on a quixotic mission: She is running to dethrone Congressman Joe Crowley, who has represented the district for two decades, rising to the fourth spot in the House Democratic leadership, all while serving as the head of the Queens County Democratic Party.

And so Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Bronx-raised former Bernie Sanders organizer, is searching for votes wherever she can find them, hoping to bring millennials and first-time voters out to the polls tomorrow in a race that if she were to win, would upend the entrenched New York political establishment, never mind the country’s. At nearly every door — she avoids the dope-stenched ones — voters seem surprised to see Ocasio-Cortez, and quite pleased that she has made the trek.

“We got you, we got you. I tell everyone here to vote for you,” one elderly woman says, taking a stack of palm cards from Ocasio-Cortez’s hand.

“People ask me who to vote for, I say ‘Vote Alexandria,’” says another.

“I see you in the street all the time,” says a third who came to the door on this bright Friday afternoon in nothing but his T-shirt and underwear.

This recognition stems in part from the fact that the Elmback Houses are down the street from the Ocasio-Cortez campaign headquarters, which is bedecked out front with campaign posters featuring her face looking off into the distance, and that a Ocasio-Cortez truck has been circling the neighborhood all week blaring “Despacito.”

Ocasio-Cortez has attracted glowing press, as national media outlets cotton to the story of the young woman from Puerto Rican parents, who went to Boston University, worked for Ted Kennedy for a brief time, and started her own children’s publishing business, trying to take an axe to the powers that be, running on a platform of abolishing ICE, a federal jobs guarantee, and “Medicare for All.” Her campaign has grabbed a host of national lefty attention, with the Howard Dean–affiliated Democracy for America, the Sanders-affiliated Our Revolution, MoveOn, and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon all pledging their support. An online ad that featured soaring music over shots of Ocasio-Cortez walking the streets of the district, telling her story and asking pointed questions of Crowley — “But after 20 years of the same representation, we have to ask: Who has New York been changing for?” — was widely regarded as one of the best of this campaign cycle from any candidate.

This has led to some speculation that Ocasio-Cortez could pull off the unthinkable. “If the Democratic Party has a Cantor moment, it will occur in NY-14,” activist and writer Sean McElwee tweeted, referring to the former House majority leader Eric Cantor whose loss in the 2014 primary to an unknown opponent shocked the political world. “I predict that next week on June 26th the chair of the House Democratic caucus is in for the political surprise of his life when he will lose to 28-year-old progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” J.D. Durkin, the White House correspondent for the livestreaming financial-news network Cheddar, said on-air last week.

And it is easy to see the sense of it. There is liberal energy coursing through the Democratic Party right now, and Crowley began his career as a leader of the New Democrat centrist coalition and rose in leadership by raising gobs of money for fellow Democrats from corporations and Wall Street interests. Plus, New York’s 14th District is 50 percent Latino and 70 percent voters of color, making Crowley, the son and grandson of Irish immigrants, an odd fit.

But the history of lefty challengers running against entrenched incumbents in New York is really, really, really bad. In 2010, Reshma Saujani mounted a spirited campaign against East Side Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. She lost by 60 points. Two years later, firebrand City Councilman Charles Barron waged a scorched-earth campaign against Hakeem Jeffries, an assemblyman who won the support of almost all of the city’s political class. Polls showed a tight race; Jeffries ended up winning by over 40 points. Year after year it seems the political media’s need to write about a real race is upended by the results on election night.

“I can’t tell you that this time is going to be different,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “I can tell you that we are organizing, we are knocking on doors, and a lot of those folks weren’t. This district hasn’t had a primary in 14 years. It feels like it’s anybody’s game right now.”

In 2012, a federal court moved New York’s congressional primaries to June; for years they had been in September along with the rest of the state’s primaries for local offices. Since then, turnout has plummeted, which Ocasio-Cortez thinks gives her a chance.

“You can get to Congress on less votes than it takes to win a City Council race,” she said. “It is really just about changing who turns out.”

Crowley meanwhile is turning on a massive turnout operation, one backed by his post as head of the county’s Democratic Party. Last week he traveled around the district with Luis Gutierrez, a longtime representative from Chicago who served as Crowley’s unofficial Spanish translator.

Crowley isn’t afraid to go after Ocasio-Cortez, hitting her for taking a wishy-washy stance on gun control and for seeking support from disgraced former state senator Hiram Monserrate’s political club, but he mostly kept his distance, pledging to support her should she win while knocking Ocasio-Cortez for not making the same promise to him. And the genial incumbent has sharpened his language in response to the challenge. He has called ICE a “fascist organization” (while declining to call for its abolishment) and has said that he refused to shake President Trump’s hand.

“I don’t respect the man. I respect the office, but I don’t respect the man.”

The real question in the race may be the margin of victory. Crowley is often talked about as a next potential speaker of the House, and if Ocasio-Cortez makes him sweat, it could make Democrats reluctant to turn to him as someone who could lead the caucus.

For Ocasio-Cortez, that is very much the point. Considering the rest of the Democratic establishment, Crowley is just fine, but the counties of Queens and the Bronx need more of a flamethrower than a get-along guy.

“This district is 85 percent Democratic. You talk about seats that are 85 percent Republican, those guys are straight-up talking about aliens. This seat should be the conscience of the Democratic Party. It’s like, c’mon people, wake up!”

28-Year-Old Progressive Hopes to Unseat a Top House Democrat