She’s Running is a FIERCE series highlighting Latinas running for office in local, state and federal elections.
For the first time since 2004, New York Rep. Joe Crowley, one of the most powerful Democrats in the House, has a challenger in the primary elections, and she’s a working-class millennial Puerto Rican woman.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, is taking on the 10-term incumbent for New York’s District 14 seat, which covers parts of southern Bronx and northern Queens.
A former campaign organizer for 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez is calling for similar policy measures as the Vermont senator, including Medicare-for-all, tuition-free higher education and $15 minimum wage, but her platform pushes further by advocating for the defunding of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and cancellation of Puerto Rico’s Wall Street debt.
The first woman of color to ever run in her district, the Bronx-born Latina wants to start a political revolution. Since kicking off her campaign in May 2017, she has been critical of her competitor Crowley, a 55-year-old white man who has represented a majority people of color district since 1999, when then-Rep. Thomas Manton dropped out of his race for re-election and handpicked Crowley to replace him with no serious challengers. The controversial move, according to Ocasio-Cortez, is an “extension of supremacy,” one she hopes to challenge through a grassroots campaign.
While Crowley — a top candidate for speaker of the House, should Democrats retake the chamber — raised $2.7 million in contributions since the start of 2017, Ocasio-Cortez, a first-time candidate, amassed about $115,850 through March. For the Latina, whose campaign isn’t accepting money from political action committees that take donations from corporations, small contributions from everyday people and conversations with a working-class community that resembles her own family is how she intends on winning the June 26 primary election.
We chatted with Ocasio-Cortez about her decision to run for office, why she’s calling for a political revolution, what young Latinas can bring to government and more.
1. Why did you decide to run for New York’s 14th Congressional District seat?
I think that there were so many things that were building up. I’ve always been an educator and organizer in my community and came from a working-class background, so I’ve had that commitment to community for a long time. But in the last couple years, I found myself more involved in activist movements, and more involved in specific issues, whether that be DACA, or criminal justice reform, or Medicare-for-all, and that brought me to a point in 2016, where I decided to organize in the South Bronx for Bernie Sanders’ campaign and enter into electoral organizing. After the election, I wanted to do more. I felt a deeper commitment to protect my community and help bring it to prosperity. On a whim, a friend and I drove across the country, going to Ohio, Flint and Standing Rock, and I was moved to a point where I had to do something, and it couldn’t be extracurricular. I felt moved to do much more, and it was actually that day that I got a message from Brand New Congress, reaching out via email asking if I’d be open to running and if I can hop on a call. I didn’t know what next step my journey would take, but it felt like it was put there for a reason, so I pursued it. It took a couple months of figuring it out, but it led me to launching my campaign in May of last year.
2. You have a very progressive platform, and among your priorities are ending political corruption, Medicare-for-all, immigration, criminal justice reform, just and sustainable recovery for Puerto Rico — including full debt forgiveness —raising the minimum wage and free public higher edudation. Why are these issues currently crucial to your district?
There are a lot of reasons NY-14 is a special community. It’s a exemplary, I feel, in what we can provide the country. We have a deeply blue community. It’s 85 percent Democrat, 10 percent Independent and 5 percent Republican. This district is safely blue, but we don’t have leaders that are providing a bold and ambitious agenda to move us forward. Instead, they are compromised by special interest groups and Wall Street. Even more, 70 percent of the district is people of color, and 50-to-60 percent is Latino, yet we’ve never had someone represent us that is Latino. Rikers Island is within our district lines, but we don’t have a champion of criminal justice reform. The things that would most benefit us here would also benefit our family across the country: tuition-free college, improved and expanded Medicare, a new green deal. It’s not enough to have a Democrat in the community do nothing but accept Wall Street money and vote for tax cuts for the rich. It’s also not appropriate that he was appointed the seat. It’s really hard as a candidate not to question whether this inherited form of representation is an extension of supremacy. It’s hard not to come to that conclusion, because he was unelected; he was given the seat by a family friend, and the fact that this is still happening in communities of color seems so inappropriate and hurtful.
3. You are one of a few candidates who support defunding ICE. Why is this important to you?
Fifty percent of this district is immigrant — not just Latino; It’s very diverse with people from Bangladesh, China and Russia — and we have been hit hard by ICE. People are scared to open their doors. People are seeing ICE in subway stops. And when you dig up the structure of ICE, the fact that it was just established in 2003, and born out of a wave of legislation of the PATRIOT Act, you understand what ICE is designed for and that it’s illegitimate.
4. Your campaign slogan reads, “It’s time for a political revolution.” What does this mean to you, and what does this look like?
I think that it’s not just about partisan politics; it’s not just about red to blue. We need to change how we select our leadership from the ground up. In 2018, it’s not just red to blue but making the blue bluer, and we need to elevate our standards. It’s time for us to start deciding and asking if our representatives are taking special interest money and, if so, what for, luxury real estate developments that are pricing people out, fossil fuel companies? We can no longer allow that to persist, and it exists across parties, so what we really need is a revolution in how we choose and re-elect officials. We need people championing working-class people, regardless of opinion, because your stance needs to represent the views of your constituents, not your donors.
5. As a woman, as a Latina, as a young person, what do you think your identities can bring to Congress?
I think that when you have a Congress that is dominated by any kind of person, you will have an issue. It’s not about diversity for diversity’s sake but rather about entire populations being disenfranchised. A huge problem in government is representatives who serve themselves, but government is for the people and by the people. If we want a truly representative government, that requires representatives across gender, race, income and experiences, and the fact that our representatives are overwhelmingly one race and one gender shows we aren’t there yet. But this is true in New York, which claims to be very liberal. Our mayor, city council speaker, chairman — the most powerful people are white males, and the city is 66 percent people of color. I’m not saying these people shouldn’t hold these seats, but I am saying, zoom out and see that even these communities don’t actually have a true access to power.
6. I don’t just want to focus on your identities, however. You’re a veteran organizer, working for the Bernie Sanders campaign, you also worked in the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s foreign affairs and immigration office, and, according to your site, are also an entrepreneur. How do you think these experiences and the skills you’ve gained through them prepared you for elected office?
I think from an organizing perspective, you get a functional experience in organizing and working on many campaigns that really throw you into actually having face-to-face contact and communication with folks in your community and see the issues they are facing, so that is powerful. But, in a way, to me, what’s been even more beneficial has been my time working in restaurants and coming from a working-class family and knowing what it’s like working to make ends meet. It gives me perspective and ability to connect with people here that no amount of DC internships can give you.
7. You’re a first-time candidate, and in speaking with several others, I’ve learned that many were inspired to run because of this current administration. Is this true for you?
It’s somewhat true. The issues we are confronting today have always been there, their seeds have always been there, but this administration has brought them ahead, and what it has done is create an enormous opportunity for candidates and activists. We are seeing public discourse evolve at a fast rate that I think that in a bizarre way we can see a blessing. If we try to convince ourselves that everything is normal, it probably would have taken another 10 years before a politician said that “Black lives matter” or “we stand with dreamers,” so in a strange way, the election has brought clarity, either you’re on the train or not. People, especially vulnerable communities, are looking to see who is there for them and who is silent. I personally felt more emboldened to do everything possible, to leave it all on the field for my community.
8. There has been a wave of women running for public office for the first time this year. What are your thoughts on this?
I was just having a conversation about this with someone, and what I think part of this is is we are so done asking for permission. We are not doing it anymore. In a ton of communities, especially here in Queens and New York City, when you float the idea to run for office around, the response is you have to pay dues to the existing machines, but the reason we are having a surge for office is a lot of women are saying no and rejecting that premise. We are pealing back the layers on that and looking at who runs these democratic machines, and it goes back generations and upholds the traditional orders of society. We are seeing it’s all bogus, and we deserve a seat and are calling BS on this mythology of waiting your turn.
9. 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. What has been the most challenging part of your race against him so far?
The most challenging part of the race is seeing how little our community actually has power. It’s hard to see our community has been taken advantage of in this way. But it’s also great because it’s given me the opportunity to organize people and give them a reason to vote. While there is this appearance of formidable power, we have one of the lowest voter turnout districts in the country, so when they do realize they have a voice and start to see what’s happening, it’s a great opportunity to make a change and build courage to make that change.
10. Finally, as a first-time candidate, I think you can offer a lot to young Latinas who aspire to run for office. Do you have a message for Latinas with political dreams but perhaps see those as unfeasible?
I used to be that. That used to be me. What’s important is you need to dive in. We were socialized to feel like we are not good enough, like no matter what we do, we are not deserving of whatever, it might be a promotion or elected office. All of that is false. You just need to do it. Also, if you do want to run for office, don’t compromise your values. Your integrity, sticking to your values, cannot be bought. I might be out-funded, but I know that people are resonating with my message more than anything else. You need to always represent your community, and every community is different, so that compromise is fine. But you don’t have to be more than you are to run or to try to run. If you want to, you should try.