This piece is part of Splinter’s series The New Guard, where we interview progressive candidates who are running in 2018 midterm races across the country to shake up the Democratic Party establishment.
With the 2018 midterm season heating up, much of the focus over the past year has been on deep red districts where moderate Democrats—like Doug Jones in Alabama and Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania—are winning upset victories in previously safe Republican strongholds.
But the overhaul isn’t limited to just Republicans. In safe blue seats across the country, progressives are also challenging Democrats to shake up their own party’s establishment. In one such race, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is challenging Congressman Joe Crowley, the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House. Crowley represents New York’s 14th Congressional District, which covers parts of Queens and the Bronx, and is a potential successor to Nancy Pelosi as House Democratic Leader (or Speaker of the House if Democrats take back the chamber in November).
Crowley, who is the chair of the Queens Democratic Party, was handpicked for the seat by the previous chair of the Queens Democratic Party. He hasn’t faced a primary challenger in 14 years. With money and institutional backing on Crowley’s side, Ocasio-Cortez, a former organizer for the Bernie Sanders campaign in the Bronx, faces a major uphill battle.
Ocasio-Cortez sees her run as a chance for Democrats in safe seats to push the national political conversation to the left. She has endorsed a slew of far-reaching progressive ideas, including defunding ICE, Medicare-for-All, and tuition-free college. (Last year, Crowley signed onto the House’s Medicare-for-All bill.) On Tuesday, she came out in favor of a federal jobs guarantee, a policy idea that’s hugely popular among voters.
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I recently spoke to Ocasio-Cortez about her campaign, navigating New York’s political system, and the state of the Democratic Party.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
First off, why don’t you tell me why you’re running?
I’m running because I have a background of working with families and kids in this district. I feel like our district has gone far too long without proper representation. This is one of the most potentially progressive communities in the country. We should be leading the national conversation on things like criminal justice reform and tuition-free college. We have the ability to change the nation and I think that it’s our campaign that can make that happen for this country.
In order for our country to move forward both parties have to transform fundamentally. On the Democratic side, we need to be the party of working people again and no one has stepped up to the plate. People have been too scared in New York’s frankly very intimidating political environment.
Joe Crowley hasn’t faced a challenger in 14 years. He’s not only one of the most powerful Democrats in Queens, but also one of the most powerful Democrats in the House. Obviously it’s an uphill battle to run against him. What do you think this says about how the Democratic Party is run in New York City?
I mean, it’s dynastic. It’s old school. It’s very driven by wealth, and to me it’s fundamentally undemocratic. I think it’s a shame that our representation has been decided by money and bureaucracy, that it’s been decided by entrenched relationships and horse trading. But the good news is that I think New Yorkers are more invested than ever in changing the way we do politics. So while we are up against a large amount of money, we’re really up against a small amount of people. We have a very broad base of grassroots support that I think makes this race much more competitive than the traditional rules of politics would typically deem our campaign to be.
Do you think it’s significant in and of itself that Crowley faces a challenge even if you don’t end up winning?
Oh, 100%. Because as you mentioned, he hasn’t had a challenger in 14 years. And I really do think that depending on our performance, which I do have a lot of faith in, what we’ve been discovering on the campaign trail is that this figure who seems so formidable among the establishment is perhaps not as formidable as he seems. So I do think that this could potentially be part of a much larger shift in New York politics—and also national politics—that some of these unassailable figures may not be as grassroots-supported as we like to think they are.
What do you think are the biggest issues facing the district right now?
There’s a lot, but ultimately it comes down to the bread and butter issues of providing a future for our families and ensuring that you can put meals on the table. I think that really comes down to education—tuition-free college has been a big point that we’ve been discussing on the campaign. Medicare-for-All, so that everyone is covered by dignified health care and doesn’t have fear about their financial status when they go to a hospital or doctor. Criminal justice reform is enormously important to this campaign; Rikers Island is in the district. And also immigration. Half of our district’s residents are immigrants, and these issues are enormously important, especially in the Trump era, to ensure that we are protecting our neighbors and our family members.
Last month you came out in favor of defunding ICE, which only a handful of candidates across the country so far have advocated for. Why is this an important priority for you?
I think that we need to reframe this discussion and look at ICE in context. This is an enforcement agency that takes on more of a paramilitary tone every single day. It has no accountability with the Department of Justice. There is very little institutional knowledge or a history of due process with ICE. It’s basically a product of the Bush-era Patriot Act suite of legislation.
So I think all of these pieces of legislation, whether it’s the Patriot Act or the [2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force], which allows for endless war without the approval of Congress, and ICE as well, are part of a much bigger picture that, at the end of the day, erodes American civil liberties. These all deserve to be revisited and, if not reformed, repealed. Some of the things that we’re hearing coming out of ICE are totally horrific. We’re seeing them seeking to destroy records of sexual assaults, we have deaths that have gone uninvestigated, and no one is holding this agency accountable because this agency is not designed to be held accountable.
Another political issue that New Yorkers face is the Independent Democratic Conference. Do you feel like progressives are more paying attention to the IDC and what do you think that says about New York politics?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that one of the silver linings of the Trump administration, if we can even say that, is that people are paying attention now more than ever to issues that have been here for a very long time. The IDC is not a new creation, but more people are rightfully paying attention to it. Especially in New York, which is such a blue state, we have the unique responsibility of, instead of worrying about turning swing districts blue, it’s about making sure that the districts that are blue are clean. It’s up to blue districts to clean house and to replace bad Democrats. Frankly, that’s part of what our race is about too. The IDC is about corporate control of the Democratic Party, and that is a big part of what we’re fighting against in Congress as well.
It seems to me that we’re having all these discussions about candidates in Trump districts and swing states, but you’re saying that it’s also important to push Democrats in very safe blue seat to embrace more radical positions.
One hundred percent. Because if you look at what’s going on in the Republican Party, the safest red seats are the ones that are dragging this country really backwards.
When you look at what we’ve got in the Democratic Party, the people who have these safe seats are centrist, corporatist Democrats. If we have to have centrist Democrats in the party, let those Democrats come from swing districts. But in districts that are very highly Democratic, we should be advancing the national conversation on prison abolition, on student debt cancelation, on Puerto Rico, on a Marshall Plan, on 100% renewable energy in ten years. But no one is advancing that guard in this country because some of our most progressive districts are held by some of the most Wall Street-friendly candidates. It’s a massively wasted opportunity that is slowing progress in America.
What are your biggest criticisms about Crowley’s stances?
I just don’t think they’re strong. When we talk to constituents, they don’t even know what the issues are, they don’t know what the proposals are. I think that’s a critique of the Democratic Party and frankly his leadership, and also the current leadership of the Democratic Party. This messaging of a “Better Deal” was dead on arrival, no one knows what that means. What is a better deal without Medicare-for-All, what is a better deal without the Fight for $15, what is a better deal without free public college? This idea that we’re just supposed to keep getting 10% better in a time when things are getting 50% worse is uninspiring.
We really need to be a party of ideas and of bold, ambitious legislation and advancing things that people never thought were before possible. Because that is what makes government inspiring, that is what makes that makes people want to knock on their neighbor’s door. We need a foundational change in who our representatives answer to.
When you talk to constituents, what do you hear most when you ask them what the Democratic Party stands for?
This is New York, so people care that you’re a Democrat. But I do think that when we break down what’s happening on a local level, people need to understand that some industries have compromised our government in a bipartisan way, and those industries include private equity groups, pharmaceutical corporations, private insurance groups, as well as luxury real estate development. So when we start connecting the dots to voters that the rising cost of living in New York City is not a coincidence, and our government is directly connected to that, I think they start to realize that we do need to be more discerning about who our Democrats are.
There are different levels of Democratic voters. There are some voters that are purely animated to fight the Trump agenda, which is an important cause. But there are also Democrats that want to feel like they’re not just fighting against something, but that they’re genuinely fighting for something, and I think our campaign is able to make that case much better than any other.
As you mentioned, Crowley is not just the congressman, he’s the chairman of the Queens Democratic Party. And so this race represents not just the very large shift on a national level, but also on a local level. By shaking up this machine, we could then open every seat down ballot to be more competitive in the future.
Correction: This post originally misstated Ocasio-Cortez’s age. She is 28.