As much as New York is a reliable blue state during presidential and senatorial elections, it is far from being a progressive utopia. We’ve already focused on the problems created by Gov. Cuomo’s embrace of the breakaway IDC in the State Senate, but the problem also extends to many of the state’s national representatives. This week, we’re talking with one candidate who is looking to change the toxic status quo.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign for Congress had earned a little bit of coverage, but her press team couldn’t find any news outlet willing to premiere her new campaign ad. “They were like, ‘no, no, no,’ so I was like, alright, I’m just going to put it on Twitter,” the 28-year-old political organizer tells Progressives Everywhere. “Thankfully it turned out really well.”
That’s a bit of an understatement, as the ad went mega-viral on Twitter, helped out by admiring words from progressive MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes. The entire sequence of events was a pretty tidy summary for Ocasio-Cortez’s career and campaign, a grassroots effort that challenges entrenched powers that no one has dared face down over the last decade and a half.
A Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent, Ocasio-Cortez is running to represent New York’s 14th congressional district, and in doing so, challenging one of the most powerful Democrats in the city and country, Rep. Joe Crowley. She is unbowed by the inherent odds stacked against her; she was an organizer for Bernie Sanders, who was unafraid to take on entrenched Democratic interests. Crowley spent years helping to control who got on the ballot in New York, but once Ocasio-Cortez qualified, it was game on.
Ocasio-Cortez argues that the relatively conservative Democrat, who has designs on Speaker of the House should Democrats retake Congress, has focused on fundraising and his national donors to the exclusion of progressive policy. On the other hand, she is more focused on the needs of the community, as she made clear during her conversation with Progressives Everywhere. The New York Democratic Primary is on June 26th.
What inspired you to take on such a big challenge?
I was at Standing Rock two years ago, I was seeing what was happening on the ground. I was looking at corporations that were literally militarizing themselves against American citizens. And these companies, they give money to Democrats too. And the day that I left Standing Rock, I got a call from Brand New Congress, which is an organization trying to field non-career politicians in the 2018 midterm to get money out of politics, and they asked if I’d be willing to run. I was like, whoa. So I took a look at what was happening in our community.
We have a lot of these Democrats who are just laying as low as possible and hiding under the “D” next to their name, but they really aren’t doing the right thing. That’s our case here with Joe Crowley. He runs a profoundly corrupt local political machine, silences candidates of color, that silences women, that silences working class grassroots candidates in order to rezone New York City for luxury real estate interests. He hadn’t been challenged in 14 years.
The demographics of the area have changed dramatically. The community here was not being serviced for its needs. We have Rikers Island in the district, and we haven’t had a champion on criminal justice reform.
Should you get the nomination, what issue is Rep. Crowley ignoring that you will focus on?
One of the things that he does is takes money from luxury real estate developers and basically translates it into increasing the cost of living in New York City to provide a profit margin for his donors. He does this on a local level and on a national level. One of the only pieces of legislation that he’s even past in the past couple of years involves foreign investment and regulation. The FIRPTA is essentially designed to pad the pockets of luxury developers.
[Note: Crowley’s bill allowed foreign investment in US real estate to jump from 5 to 10 percent without facing a special tax. Crowley received a huge spike in donations from the real estate industry right before introducing this legislation.]
Slowly but surely our affordable housing policies have been tweaked and redesigned in very unsexy and boring wings. But they ultimately result in deregulations for the wealthiest. The United States invests $200 billion dollars in housing every year, but you would never know it because a lot of that money goes to the wealthiest people through things like tax cuts, designed for people who can take advantage of them.
Things like expanding the Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Things like permanently funding the Low Income Housing Trust in the United States. We have federal programs in place. NYHCA used to be the crown jewel of affordable housing in the United States. And you look at what happened this past winter, where people living in NYHCA didn’t have hot water. Some of them didn’t even have heat. That’s not because NYHSA doesn’t work, that’s because the federal government has slowly been defunding HUD.
We’ve basically been rolling back and shutting down all of our most progressive housing policy in the US. And it’s terrible because we know that these things work. We know that affordable housing works, we know that low-income housing works and we also know that we don’t have to live in a world of four-year wait lists for people to afford the cities that they live in.
This is very much on money in politics problem. The industries in particular that have completely captured our government and especially the Democratic Party are Wall Street, real estate, big pharma, healthcare. People talk about what quote-unquote Republican industries are and we think of the NRA, we think of fossil fuel corporations, things like that. But the real companies that are eroding our democracy are private equity and real estate. They by far contribute the largest amount of money to compromise both parties, but especially Democrats and Joe Crowley.
Crowley is the chairman of the Queens Democratic Party and has a very formidable machine behind him — The Intercept article about your race laid that out. How do you beat that?
Joe Crowley has not been challenged in 14 years. So when we first started, everybody said there’s no way. He is way too powerful. But as the chairman of the Democratic Party, he has failed. Because as the chairman, he has not been expanding the electorate. He hasn’t been a good steward for the Democratic Party in Queens County. He’s brought in a lot of money, but when you go to an average Democratic Club in Queens, the average age nowadays is about 90. That’s not to be ageist, but there is no diversity in age. So even though he is chairman of the party and he is able to command a lot of automatic endorsements out of fear, that’s just money.
We’ve been doing a really, really good job as organizers. That’s what I am at heart. I’m an organizer. I’m not a big money kind of girl. I was born very working class. My mom cleaned houses and drove school buses. I knew that if I was going to compete in this race, I couldn’t do it on big money. What I could do is out-organize him and so that’s been our main strategy. We have been inspiring and expanding the electorate. This is one of the lowest turnout districts in the United States.
And honestly, if you’re chairman of the Democratic Party and you have presided over the total lowest voter turnout in America, maybe you do deserve to lose your job. Because your one job is to strengthen the Democratic Party and it’s completely languished under your 20-year tenure.
New York has a lot of problems with Democrats who don’t act like Democrats, but instead protect vested interests.
Crowley just endorsed an IDC member while claiming to be a real Democrat himself. We know that for him the only thing that matters is money. And it’s not to dismiss the need for a basic amount of funds to run a campaign. But really when you look at his tenure, when you look at his record, he endorsed the anti women’s rights candidate and put him over the top of Marie Newman in Illinois.
In the places where he actually has the juice, he doesn’t use it for the advancement of social, economic or racial justice. Everything else is just a press release. So with the IDC you have folks that are still taking all of this corporate money and have historically sanitized some of the most progressive legislation in America. Now they’re pretending to have dissolved the IDC, but they still have those corporate interests at heart. He’s kind of like a federal IDC member, he’s not as progressive as he says.