Since the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, there has been a quiet but steady rise of women and people of color running for elected office all over the United States—often in places where we previously have not seen ourselves reflected in our representatives. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old, third generation Bronxite whose father is from the South Bronx and mother is from Puerto Rico, is a prime example of the women stepping up to challenge the status quo.
The longstanding incumbent who she’s running against in New York’s 14th Congressional District is Joe Crowley, a 56-year-old white man who has been the district’s Democratic representative for the last 14 years. His district includes the Bronx and Queens, the two most diverse boroughs in New York.
Running on a campaign of “people vs. money,” Ocasio-Cortez has rejected money from corporate PACs, and shared her progressive, socialist platform with the help and financial support of volunteers. Her average campaign contribution is approximately $18, and she has raised over $300,000 entirely on contributions of $200 or less, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That is unprecedented in her district, where Crowley has raised millions of dollars—with the overwhelming majority of it coming from large donors.
Tuesday is Election Day for New York City voters, and Ocasio-Cortez has just returned from a visit to the Tornillo-Guadalupe Port of Entry where she confronted officers and protested the separation of immigrant families. She is hopeful that there will be a stark increase in voters showing up to the polls in her district. “We can change the whole game if we just choose to vote,” she says, “even if you wouldn’t have ordinarily voted before.” I spoke to her about what she witnessed at the border, her hope for the future of local politics, and her last minute pitch to those headed to the polls.
Our interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Tell me a little about what’s on your mind today as you wait for the results to come in.
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: You know, it’s one of those days where you savor every moment. A year and a half ago I was working at a restaurant, and I started my campaign out a paper grocery bag and nobody thought that this was going to be anywhere near remotely successful. Nobody thought that we would get any attention. I was told that what I did didn’t matter, but we charged on. It was great waking up today and seeing how much things have changed and how much we’ve influenced the national discourse and we’ve organized our community and built power, and built organizing structures where there weren’t any before, in a community that has been historically disenfranchised. It just feels like a massive success. I’m looking forward to seeing the polls come in tonight... I’m looking forward to celebrating all the hard work that our organizers have done here. It feels great.
Crowley has been unchallenged for over a decade, and there hasn’t really been a candidate like you in the past, in terms of age, race, and having open socialist, progressive stances. What pushed you to run?
At the end of 2016, I was in South Dakota in Standing Rock and I was witnessing the Lakota, Sioux people really trying to protect and exert democratic power over their own community and the water supply in the whole Midwest. I saw a fossil fuel corporation that had literally militarized itself against American people, and I saw that our incumbents in both parties were defending them and were silent. And I just felt like we’re at a point where we can’t afford to be silent anymore, and we can’t afford to sit out a political process that we may have grown very cynical over. And in order for us to change course, and change the future, it’s going to take people who haven’t typically been seen or thought of as a typical candidate. And it’s going to take strategies and resources that haven’t been used before. It’s going to take people that reject big money and lobbyist influence to help charge this path forward. And so our district hadn’t been challenged for 14 years, and I went back home and I saw not only that but also that my incumbent was appointed his seat. I saw that my incumbent that represents a community that is so diverse and working class is financed by lobbyists and pharmaceutical corporations and Wall Street banks and luxury real estate corporations. I felt that we deserved better and we needed a change.
I noticed you have a Spanish-first website. Porque? Also, tell me a little bit about your decision to not take money from corporate PACs.
Well, the district is 50-60 percent Latino, and 40 percent predominantly Spanish-speaking. So any person who wants to represent this district needs to at least be bilingual. This is one of the most diverse districts in the United States. Not only is Spanish spoken here, but Bangla, Arabic, Mandarin, Albanian... And I think that’s really just representative of what leadership here needs to be. Leadership in NY-14 has to be multilingual. It’s not even an option. It’s a requirement for anybody who wants to represent the communities who live here. So, to me, especially given how predominantly Latino and Spanish-speaking the district is, we had to. There’s no choice—if you want to reach the electorate, you have to do it in the language that the electorate speaks. That was really important to me.
As for not taking corporate money, people that live in this district are suffering directly because of the things that corporate influence lobbies for in Congress. Corporate influence lobbies for lower wages, they lobby to deregulate luxury real estate. For me I felt like I had to reject that money from the outset.
Like you mentioned, you’re looking to represent a very diverse part of NYC, but in the past that hasn’t quite been reflected in Congress. Why do you think people aren’t running, or haven’t been up until now? Specifically women and people of color.
Well, the reason we don’t run is because the history of the United States shows that disenfranchised groups do not have access to social influence, to wealth, to dynastic power, to multi-generational power and, in order to run, what we’re told is that you need that. In order to even consider running for office, the message that is sent from most of the powers that be is that you need to flip through your phone and be able to raise a quarter of a million dollars from the contacts in your phone. So, it’s unsurprising that when women weren’t even allowed to get a credit card by themselves until 1970, that they don’t feel they have the ability to run now. It’s unsurprising that people of color, that the disabled, that working class Americans, don’t feel like they can meet this artificial bar that’s been put forth by both parties. By the [Republican National Committee] and the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.] So, when someone says, “Hey, I’m thinking about running,” and people say, “Well, who do you know anyway,” or “What have you done anyway” and “How much money can you raise?” It’s unsurprising that those folks are dissuaded. So, when people tell you they want to run, instead of saying, “Well, what makes you think you can do that?” you should be saying, “How can we get it done? How can we make sure you’re supported? what’s gonna be our plan?” That’s the way we should be responding to people who want to run for office. Particularly women, people of color, members of the LBTQ community, working-class Americans and so on.
Do you see that happening? Do you see other women following in your footsteps?
I hope so. I hope so.
Who have been some women who you’ve looked to in this process for inspiration and guidance?
Oh man, yeah. There’s no way I could do this without some of the other really great women nationwide who are running very similar races to me. Women like Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts. She’s the first black city councilwoman. She’s running for Congress in an extremely similar race to me. She’s also running against a 20-year incumbent who is unrepresentative of his community. And, it was so funny because Ayanna Pressley—she actually is a city councilwoman, she already is a legislator, she has decades of experience, and people still tell her that she’s not good enough, that she’s not experienced enough. So, at a certain point you just realize that no matter how good you are, they’re always gonna hit you with that same excuse. So I look towards women like Ayanna Presley. I look to women like Paula Jean Swearengin out in West Virginia who ran for United States Senate with only $179,000. It is really, really hard to do this, but it is also possible. You shouldn’t shy away from things just because they are difficult or unlikely; that is no excuse to not try. And so, I look to Paula Jean Swearengin, Ayanna Pressley, I look to women like Cori Bush who helped organize the first response in Ferguson, who is a pastor, who is running for Congress. Her primary is coming up in August. I look to Linsey Fagan out in Texas, I look to women like Lucy Flores who ran in 2016 in Nevada. I look towards them because they show that not only can it be done, but that I’m not the only one doing it.
What do you want to say to those in your district who may not know a lot about you as a candidate?
We have given our current representation a generation’s lead. He has gotten all the money and all the power. And, in that time we have lost the House, we have lost the Senate, and we have lost the presidency. And, there is no plan that he has presented in how he is going to change strategy so that we don’t continue to be a nation in decline. And so, at this point, we as voters need to take responsibility for what’s going on. If we choose to stay a course that has proven to lose, we will continue that path. But, when we chart out a new vision of what we can accomplish as a party and as a country together with an affirmation of things like approved and expanded Medicare for all, tuition-free college for our kids, improved wages, a clear and humane path towards citizenship, we at least have a vision, and have a plan. Something to try that we haven’t tried before instead of continuing the course that we know has already failed us disastrously. So, not only do I think we are the right, ethical, and moral choice, I also think that we are the strategically correct choice for our party and for the future.
What are your priorities right now?
Well, I hope that this crisis is addressed before January of next year, but, should we continue to have a humanitarian crisis on our borders I think that’s the first and foremost priority. So long as we continue this strain of human rights abuses, we should be pushing to defund ICE, if not the abolishment of it altogether. Secondly, we’ve also built a lot of momentum around addressing healthcare, depending on how many chambers we take. I hope we take both of them. I’d love to see a real concerted push for Medicare for all.
I saw that you were at the Texas border this week, correct?
Can you tell me a little bit about what your experience there was like?
Well, I was there with various Latino rights organizations like Voto Latino, and RAICES Texas, and they had invited me down, so I went. You know, it’s very important that every single American and every single person in this country is bearing witness to what it going on. You may not be near a border, but you are near an airport, you are near an ICE facility where they are bussing in children at night and taking children on planes in the dark of the night. And the reason they’re doing it at night is because they don’t want to be seen. So, going down to that border, going to whatever is around you is very powerful. Just to bear witness to the people doing this, because they do stop. I was at that border and I talked to one of those officers and I used the name on his badge and I called him out by name and I looked him in the eye and I said “Why are you doing this?” Because we have the right. And when I looked him in the eye, I saw the guilt that he felt. And that tells me that’s what’s going on right now is susceptible to change. We can end what is happening but we have to do it. We as people have to do it. We have to apply that pressure. We need to remember that the thing that saved healthcare last year was not necessarily elected officials, it was the thousands of people making phone calls and flooding the lines of Republicans who were supporting the repeal of Healthcare. And we have to do the same thing right now because right now, the character of the United States is at stake. That’s what’s on the line. In addition to the thousands of families and children who have already been damaged and need to be made whole, and those families that have yet to come.
For those who aren’t near the border—New Yorkers specifically, what can they do to get involved?
A lot. We have a primary season coming up. We need to push on our incumbents to abolish ICE. On June 30th there’s going to be a nationwide protest and it’s happening in all 50 states, so I implore everybody to turn out and occupy and bear witness to what’s happening. We have to be fully participating in actual resistance, because this is when we actually need to be showing up. And if you’re in New York, I encourage people to check out organizations like DSA, and New Sanctuary Coalition. They do really phenomenal work in accompaniment and creating community security around these issues. They train allies and individuals in what they can specifically do. If people are interested in participating in civil disobedience, check out the actions on June 30th. DSA is doing their own training as well. There’s a lot you can do, whether you want to support financially or whether you want to support in your actions, there are a lot of organizations that are trained and have been doing this work for quite a long time that can help people.