Current members of the Squad: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. File photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images
Call it the Squad plus four. There is good reason to think that the four progressive women of color House Democrats including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could double on election day—and climate advocates say it couldn’t come at a better time. After winning their primaries earlier this year, at least four candidates endorsed by the Sunrise Movement and other progressive groups are likely to be elected to the House because they are running in heavily Democratic districts: Cori Bush in Missouri, Marie Newman in Illinois, and Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones in New York.
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“We’re working to elect a few more members of this crew,” Garrett Blad, a spokesperson for the climate organization the Sunrise Movement, told VICE News. If Joe Biden wins the election, activists and other observers say there is potential for an enlarged Squad to ensure that climate change is a top priority and pressure his administration to move forward with his plan to invest $2 trillion in green jobs and infrastructure, 40 percent of which is targeted to people living in disadvantaged parts of the country. “For too long we’ve been focused on the climate crisis in a really kind of technocratic way,” Jennie Stephens, director of Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs and author of the new book Diversifying Power, told VICE News. “These new emerging leaders…bring a better capacity to center social justice, racial justice, and economic justice at the core of the policies that we need. That is so critical.” In the scenario that Democrats take the House and Senate, which is looking increasingly feasible but far from guaranteed, “we could arguably get a lot of parts of the Green New Deal funded and passed, or at least a down payment on it, in the next year,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice-president of policy and strategy for the progressive research group Data for Progress, told VICE News. Besides supporting the Green New Deal—the idea that the federal government should make massive low-carbon investments that reduce pollution and create jobs in marginalized communities—these potential Squad recruits share a similar political philosophy to current members Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ocasio-Cortez, who are all likely to win re-election.
Unlike more traditional politicians, they loudly advertise their connections to progressive social movements. Bush, for example, was active in the Ferguson, Missouri, street protests against police violence in 2014 that led to the creation of Black Lives Matter. Sunrise helped work on Bush’s successful primary campaign against Lacy Clay, a long-time Democratic lawmaker whose family had represented the St. Louis congressional district for over half a century. Squad members use their platform to build public support for progressive ideas, Blad said, even if it means sometimes picking fights with the Democratic establishment. “We want people who are willing to go into Congress and make some good trouble,” he said. A key example of this took place shortly after the 2018 midterms, when Ocasio-Cortez visited Sunrise members who were occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office to call for transformative action to fix the climate emergency. The subsequent media attention helped launch the Green New Deal into the mainstream political conversation. “Things that AOC and Ilhan Omar and the Squad do are news, and they have a large following online,” NoiseCat said. “At the end of the day, politics is increasingly about warring social media brands, so the ability to shape news cycles is an important form of power.”But he thinks that the Squad, whatever form it takes after the election, will quickly have to get to work on policymaking to address the climate emergency. Even assuming that a Biden administration makes a massive green stimulus a top legislative goal, that enthusiasm could quickly fade with intense opposition from Republicans, large corporate emitters, and the new Supreme Court.
New Squad members could have the moral and political authority to push for stimulus provisions that target communities experiencing poverty, pollution, and climate change, said Anthony Rogers-Wright, policy coordinator for the Climate Justice Alliance, because they come from those communities and have firsthand knowledge of the impacts. “They don’t theorize about environmental injustice,” he told VICE News. “They see what it actually looks like.” Bowman represents the Bronx, whose low-income residents have high rates of asthma from breathing polluted air. Bush is running to represent a part of St. Louis where Black residents face greater environmental hazards than white residents. Candidates like this make Rogers-Wright “extremely excited,” he said. “We have going to Congress bona-fide grassroots organizers who know what it’s like to be accountable to their communities.”Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.Have a story for Tipping Point? Email TippingPoint@vice.com