Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is running to unseat 19-year incumbent Congressman Joseph Crowley, compares her race to the story of David and Goliath.
Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Bronx resident, said she hadn’t ever considered running for office since she was disenchanted with electoral politics. But now, she’ll be the first candidate to challenge Crowley in 14 years for his district, which spans northwest Queens and part of the Bronx.
She interned for Senator Ted Kennedy in college and during that time, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions could spend unlimited sums of money to influence elections.
“That was around the time Citizens United had passed and I had just really felt like electoral politics was out of the question, especially in New York with how dynastic it is, how machine-oriented New York politics was,” she said. “I never really thought of running.”
Instead, Ocasio-Cortez focused on working with children and served as educational director for the National Hispanic Institute. She stayed involved in politics, campaigning for Bernie Sanders, and when he didn’t win the primary, Ocasio-Cortez traveled to Standing Rock in North Dakota with community organizers to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“It was really my experience at Standing Rock that was pretty pivotal for me because I saw how corporations were literally militarizing themselves against American citizens so that they could kind of maximize their profit margins on fossil fuels,” she said.
One day after her trip to Standing Rock, Brand New Congress, a political action committee (PAC) started by former Sanders staffers that aims to elect progressives to Congress, called Ocasio-Cortez and asked if she wanted to run against Crowley in Congressional District 14.
“I was taken aback but after really kind of examining our community, what’s been going on here and the potential that this seat could bring to Congress, I felt like it was a worthy fight to get into, so we decided to run,” she said.
The district includes Jackson Heights, Astoria, East Elmhurst, College Point, Woodside and parts of the Bronx like Morris Park, Parkchester and Pelham Bay. It is also safely Democratic with 133,541 registered Democrats and 19,505 registered Republicans living in the district, according to the Board of Elections.
Ocasio-Cortez, who has pledged not to take any money from lobbyists or super PACS, said that the community never “truly got to know” Crowley because of the method in which he was elected. When former Congressman Thomas Manton retired in 1999, he withdrew on the last possible day so that he could choose Crowley to replace him on the ballot.
“We have basically, on one side, a multimillion-dollar machine candidate that was never elected, who does not live in the district — he lives in Virginia, his children go to public school in Virginia,” she said. “It’s really kind of the pinnacle of someone who is a little out of touch but very influential.”
Crowley is also the chair of the Democratic Caucus and the chair of the Queens County Democratic Party. He is also rumored to possibly take over Nancy Pelosi’s position as Speaker of the House.
“But our campaign is very emblematic of the change that Americans are really trying to seek in the country, which is a non-corporate-backed candidate that is fighting for really ambitious new ideas that should be introduced to our national conversation,” she said. “I think this is happening all over the country.”
Ocasio-Cortez said she knows that she’s going “up against the old boys club” but argues that her campaign has already started to make a difference.
“I’m proud to say that after we launched our race he has been pressured to the left in really big ways,” she said. “We’ve pressured him to cosponsor Medicare-For-All.”
In addition to Medicare-For-All, Ocasio-Cortez is campaigning to overturn Citizens United, establish free public college, create a renewable energy economy and address climate change. The Bronx resident recently came out in support of defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after hearing concerns from constituents in the district.
“People are scared to open the door and this goes irrespective of status,” she said. “Even for documented individuals we’re seeing the administration phase out legal status that so many Queens residents depend on, like DACA and TPS. We’re coming out in support of defunding ICE until we have a structure for immigration enforcement that is just and in [alignment] with our values.”
As of December 2017, Ocasio-Cortez raised $59,767, according to opensecrets.org. Crowley raised $2,137,582 as of December 2017. The top industries that donated to his campaign include the real estate, and securities and investment industries.
“I don’t take money from lobbyists, I don’t take money from corporate PACs and I’m not financed by the industries that are straining Queens residents,” she said. “I think that that at its core draws the differences all the way down the line.”
Ocasio-Cortez also argues that the outcome of this race could change Queens politics. When former Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland announced she would not run to defend her seat, former Assemblyman Francisco Moya, disgraced Queens politician Hiram Monserrate and three other candidates jumped into the race.
But only Moya and Monserrate appeared on the ballot after a Moya staffer challenged the three other candidates’ signatures.
“We know that the way the machine enforces itself in Queens is that they don’t even allow elections to happen in the first place,” she said. “What I look forward to our victory bringing to Queens is an opening of our democracy here so that anybody who wants to run can run and doesn’t have to get permission from anybody. We can really return this county to the democratic values that we deserve to uphold here.”