the city politic

Why Jessica Ramos Went After AOC

Jessica Ramos and AOC are not aligned on every issue. Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

To the various moderate Democrats and outright conservatives in politics and media, the spectacle was too delicious to pass up — a self-identified progressive was going to war with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Jessica Ramos, a state senator who represents an overlapping Queens district, lacerated the famous congresswoman on Twitter Sunday after a medical student claimed that AOC’s staff shut down a conversation about single-payer health care. Ocasio-Cortez promptly replied, telling the student she was “sorry to hear this happened” and that “it’s not representative of me or my values.”

Ramos, who was not tagged in the response, shot back directly at Ocasio-Cortez. “Maybe if you spent more time in your office and with your team you’d know what goes on. Just saying it would be nice if you breathed our air. So, as an employer, what happens with the staffer who said this?’”

Ocasio-Cortez never responded to Ramos, but Ramos repeatedly criticized the congresswoman as users on Twitter, including fellow elected officials, rushed to her defense. “Our district offices are on the same floor in the same building. She’s barely ever present in the community. It’s an indisputable fact,” Ramos tweeted. She went on to claim that Ocasio-Cortez, who entered office the same year as her, rarely returned her phone calls or texts.

Some speculated that Ramos was interested in launching a primary against Ocasio-Cortez someday; Ramos, who is ambitious, flatly denied that was true. She quickly found herself isolated, as fellow progressive lawmakers, including Tiffany Cabán and Zohran Mamdani in Queens, declared that they had no trouble working with AOC. Two of Ramos’s own state senate colleagues chided her, with one, Jabari Brisport of Brooklyn, posting a recent photo of Ramos and Ocasio-Cortez together and mocking the idea that Ramos couldn’t secure a meeting with the congresswoman.

All of this may be ephemeral, as Twitter spats tend to be, but it’s worth lingering on a very public falling-out between two rising Latina lawmakers who, to outsiders at least, appear to share an unapologetically progressive posture. Both AOC and Ramos were elected in 2018 on a tide of activist rage against centrist incumbents. The former, to great fame, slayed Joe Crowley, the boss of the Queens Democratic machine and a possible heir to Nancy Pelosi. The latter defeated the late José Peralta, a Democratic state senator who had joined a centrist faction in the upper chamber that collaborated with Republicans to lock the left out of power.

Ocasio-Cortez won in June 2018, and Ramos in September that year. After her win, Ocasio-Cortez backed Ramos, and the two would come together in 2019 to successfully oppose Amazon’s plans for a new taxpayer-subsidized headquarters in Queens. Later that year, both women proudly endorsed Bernie Sanders for president.

So what went awry? The clash between Ramos, 37, and Ocasio-Cortez, 32, is, on one hand, emblematic of a split that few in the media and in mainstream Democratic politics properly comprehend. Both are self-identified progressives, but Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Ramos is not. Though AOC is not always involved in the inner workings of the socialist organization — or even promoting it aggressively on her own enormous online channels — she has supported its entire slate for state assembly and senate in this election cycle. In a new Queens-Manhattan district, she has thrown her weight behind socialist Kristen Gonzalez. Ramos, who would ideologically align with Gonzalez in the state senate, is not supporting Gonzalez or anyone in the race. Last year, Ramos chiefly backed a moderate, pro-NYPD candidate for City Council in Queens, running up against a DSA contender who came close but could not win. Ocasio-Cortez and Ramos have had other disagreements, including on a bill Ramos was trying to push in Albany that would have added a $3 surcharge to online package deliveries. Progressives aligned with Ramos had hoped to reduce truck traffic and boost public transit. AOC argued, in turn, it punished working-class consumers.

AOC and Ramos came to urban politics in very different ways. Born in the Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez grew up in Westchester, went to school in Boston, and arrived in New York as a political outsider, working for the Bernie 2016 campaign and deciding to run for Congress after being recruited by Brand New Congress, an anti-Establishment leftist organization. Before challenging Peralta, Ramos, a Queens native, was much more steeped in mainline Democratic politics, working for the de Blasio administration and various labor unions. For four years, she was also a Democratic district leader, forging a decent relationship with the man Ocasio-Cortez would eventually dethrone, Joe Crowley.

All of the politicians who immediately closed ranks around AOC are DSA members, demonstrating a powerful reality in New York politics: Socialists stick together, and Ramos might be more estranged from certain colleagues going forward. Lawmakers in the progressive space either have warm feelings for Ocasio-Cortez or fear ending up on the wrong end of a devastating tweet thread that can drive a day or more of national news coverage. Among local elected officials, Ramos is very much on her own as she wages a social-media battle against the congresswoman.

But there is a more banal reality that Ocasio-Cortez and her many defenders should acknowledge: Alienating local politicians, in the long run, can be dangerous. Ramos’s complaints aren’t unique. Other activists and politicians in New York have groused, behind the scenes, that Ocasio-Cortez is not as accessible as they would like her to be. A prominent housing activist said publicly he couldn’t get an adequate response from her office on a pressing policy matter. Another politician privately recalled, after winning office for the first time, more easily securing a meeting with Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader. The Schumer example is instructive. The Brooklyn Democrat has been both ruthlessly ambitious and widely liked, or at least easily tolerated, in New York political circles for almost a half-century. If Schumer is as press-hungry as any politician who has ever lived, he has always managed to return a phone call, schedule a meeting, or appear at the most obscure event imaginable. AOC enjoys a level of fame unfathomable to most of us; at the same time, stronger staff and attentiveness to relationship-building could have averted such a flame war. Texting back isn’t difficult. It can transcend, in many cases, the ideological fissures that inevitably split political worlds.

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