Ever since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the fiery Democratic Socialist from the Bronx, toppled the ten-term incumbent in her New York district, analysts have wondered whether she can be as much of a renegade in Washington as she was on the campaign trail.
So far, all signs suggest she will be. In the mere week since Ocasio-Cortez was elected to office, she has made splashes in the news with confessions about her financial struggle to secure an apartment in Washington, her sharp criticism of Amazon’s plan to open a new headquarters near her district, and her audacious decision to join green activists at a sit-in at House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office.
Many freshmen members of Congress stay relatively quiet; they have little power compared to their more senior colleagues. But Ocasio-Cortez, who has attracted a huge amount of media attention, has chosen to break from Democratic establishment norms right out of the gate, keen on harnessing the movement energy that drove her into office. Yet she’s not just a House-side version of Senator Bernie Sanders, the most prominent democratic socialist in America. Instead, she appears to be forging her own path, embracing a raw political persona that celebrates diversity and youth. In other words, she’s not only pushing Congress to the left—she’s also changing the way its left flank looks and operates.
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory on Election Day last week was no shocker; her solidly Democratic district was never going to vote for a Republican. But the next day, she made news for something else, revealing to the New York Times that she was strapped for cash. “I have three months without a salary before I’m a member of Congress. So, how do I get an apartment? Those little things are very real,” she told the Times. Ocasio-Cortez, who started her campaign for Congress while working as a waitress in Manhattan, she’s using savings to scrape by and “hoping that gets me to January.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s comments blew up on social media, where the right chided her for being financially irresponsible and a Fox News panel chuckled at her housing predicament. But many on the left found her candor to be relatable and refreshing. The episode shone a light on the massive affordable housing crisis plaguing metropolitan areas across the nation. It also positioned her as somebody particularly motivated to tackle that issue compared to many of her peers in Congress, whose median net worth is over $1 million.
The housing comments were just another case of Ocasio-Cortez deftly turning the personal into the political, a skill that many older politicians utterly lack. She has used her Instagram account to field policy questions from followers while preparing a pot of ramen at home, showcase the racially diverse squad of left-wing freshmen congresswomen that she’s become the de facto leader of, and openly discuss the unique fear and anxieties that she experiences as young a Latina at the forefront a growing social movement. Ocasio-Cortez’s unusual candor about her personal experience allows her to come across as an everywoman—and also to assert pride in her identity as somebody who is breaking into spaces that haven’t historically included people like her.
But she differs from the Democrats of the past in substance as well as style. On Monday, after reports emerged that Amazon was opening up a new headquarters in Queens right next to her district, Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated the announcement, as did Democratic New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. But Ocasio-Cortez did not—instead she wrote up a viral series of tweets that said there was “outrage” in her community over fears of residents being priced out of their neighborhoods, and threw cold water on the claim that Amazon was going to add new life to the local economy.
“Has the company promised to hire in the existing community?” she tweeted. “What’s the quality of jobs and how many are promised? Are these jobs low-wage or high wage? Are there benefits? Can people collectively bargain?” Ocasio Cortez’s skepticism of Amazon—a view shared by some progressive local politicians—showed a willingness to buck mainstream Democratic policy thinking about how cities should grow their economies.
But perhaps the most important thing Ocasio-Cortez did in the past week was deciding to join a group of over 150 green activists organized by the Sunrise Movement during a sit-in at Pelosi’s office. The climate justice group was seeking to apply pressure to Pelosi—who is very likely to become the Speaker of the House—to adopt an aggressive green agenda and create rules banning Democratic leadership from taking money from the fossil fuel industry.
It was a remarkable gesture—Ocasio-Cortez’s first visit to the office of the most powerful member of her party in the House was as part of a protest. By showing up at the sit-in, Ocasio-Cortez ensured that a demonstration that might have otherwise gone unnoticed garnered national attention. And as she stood surrounded by energetic young activists, she signaled that she intends to stay embedded in the social movements that helped her rise to power.
Ocasio-Cortez attempted to present the protest as a symbol of good-faith pressure rather than adversarial criticism, telling the protesters that if Pelosi is elected speaker that “we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen.” And Pelosi later reciprocated that tone: “Deeply inspired by the young activists & advocates leading the way on confronting climate change,” she tweeted. “The climate crisis threatens the futures of communities nationwide, and I strongly support reinstating the select committee to address the crisis.”
It’s still early days, but Ocasio-Cortez is clearly demonstrating tremendous ambition. She’s not only game to challenge the traditions and the power structure of her party—she’s trying to do it on her own terms. As she said about the protest at Pelosi’s office: “The way things are done has not been getting results. We have to try new methods.”
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