Recent Queens upsets were tremors of the political earthquake that led to Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of Crowley

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in Queens political history by defeating Congressman Joe Crowley on June 26. (Photo by Andrea Elizabeth/Ocasio 2018)

When the Associated Press called the 14th Congressional District primary for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over 20-year incumbent Congressman Joe Crowley on Tuesday night, pundits in Queens and across the country struggled to comprehend how this monumental political upset happened.

Crowley appeared to be on his way toward potentially becoming the next Speaker of the House; as chair of the House Democratic Caucus, he had been rumored for months to be a potential replacement for Nancy Pelosi if and when she leaves her post as caucus leader. Crowley’s re-election was seen almost as a fait accompli; his district is safely Democratic, and — with his experience and leadership as Queens County Democratic Party chair — many figured that he’d be able to turn back the challenge of Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old civic activist making her first run for public office.

Those assumptions, of course, were proven wrong on June 26. While even Ocasio-Cortez herself was stunned by the outcome, an examination of recent Queens political history suggests that there were indeed tremors of this political earthquake going back several years that many seemed to overlook or ignore.

Turn the clock back to September 2016, when another firmly entrenched incumbent, Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, faced a Democratic primary challenge from another upstart candidate for public office, Brian Barnwell. It was the summer when Maspeth, part of the 30th Assembly District that Markey represented, raged over a proposed homeless shelter in the community.

Maspeth residents lashed out at local elected officials, including the nine-term incumbent Markey. At a Community Board 5 hearing that August, she was booed out of the building after attempting to make remarks voicing her opposition to the shelter. Many residents felt she wasn’t as passionate as they were in fighting the plan; others felt that she had been virtually invisible on the scene, whereas Barnwell attended regular protests held outside the shelter site.

Barnwell wound up defeating Markey in the September 2016 primary, getting more than 62 percent of the vote; he went on to win the Assembly seat in the November general election.

The second tremor came last year, when two-term incumbent Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (Congressman Crowley’s cousin) sought four more years in office. Robert Holden, a civic leader with years of experience and community activism, stood in her way; after Crowley defeated him in the September Democratic primary, Holden continued his candidacy on third-party lines, then wound up securing the Republican Party nomination later in the month.

After a heated, protracted battle, Holden wound up narrowly defeating Crowley in the November election, powered largely by Republican voters, many of whom saw their vote against Crowley as being equal to one against Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Both of those races, in which the establishment candidate lost, were the result not only of general voter discontent with politics as usual, but also low turnout. Barnwell’s primary victory occurred in a race in which just a little more than 2,500 votes were cast; Holden’s win over Councilwoman Crowley came in a citywide election in which just 22.3 percent of Queens voters participated.

The combination of low voter turnout, constituent anger and dynamic candidates propelled the incumbents to defeat in those races — and it worked again in the June 26 primary.

Some suggested that the demographics helped tip the scales in Ocasio-Cortez’s favor (nearly half of the 14th District’s population is Hispanic), but it was her campaign more than any other factor that gave her this victory.

Ocasio-Cortez fought for every vote by connecting to young Democrats in northwest Queens and the Bronx — on the street and on social media — with a progressive agenda focused on the working class. She also hit Crowley hard on issues that didn’t sit well with many progressive voters in the district, including accepting campaign contributions from corporate donors (Crowley had out-raised Ocasio-Cortez by nearly 10:1), his leadership role in a Queens political machine, and accusations that he didn’t spend most of his time in the district he represents.

Her strategy paid off in the end, with a motivated team of voters and volunteers getting out the vote on Primary Day. But just like the previously mentioned upsets in Queens, the total turnout was again anemic, fitting a continued citywide trend of overall voter apathy.

Just 27,444 votes were cast on June 26 in the 14th District; the New York State Board of Elections notes that the district has 235,745 registered Democrats. That means just 11.6 percent of registered Democrats participated in the 14th District primary.

What’s more, these primary voters effectively decided who will represent them on Capitol Hill for at least the next two years. Ocasio-Cortez is expected to easily win the seat outright in the November general election against her Republican opponent, Anthony Pappas, an economic professor.

While this earthquake shook local and national politics, there’s a good chance Queens might be in for one more shakeup in September. Incumbent state Senator Jose Peralta is facing a challenge from Jessica Ramos, a former de Blasio aide, who’s mounting a spirited campaign of her own.

Peralta irked many in the community back in 2017 when he joined the Independent Democratic Conference, a breakaway group of Democratic state senators who agreed to work with Republicans in the chamber. Since launching her bid this year, Ramos has sought to paint Peralta as a “Trump Democrat,” as the IDC — along with another Democratic senator who is caucusing with Republicans — helped give the GOP control of the state Senate.

Even though the IDC has since made its peace with traditional Senate Democrats and reunited with them, there’s still question about whether there’s enough hostility to convince Democratic voters in Peralta’s district to make a change in the primary.

But much of Peralta’s district overlaps with the 14th Congressional District. Ramos was quick to congratulate Ocasio-Cortez on her June 26 victory, and she sees the result as a sign that the anti-establishment movement in the area is alive and well.

“To incumbent Democrats who put wealthy donors over working families: you are on officially on notice,” Ramos said in a statement. “Enough is enough. Queens’ voters made their voices heard last night: it’s time to clean house.”