QUEENS, N.Y. — Fifteen months ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had never thought to run for political office before in her life, let alone challenge a 10-term incumbent congressman for his seat.
It was after watching the 2016 election that the 28-year-old decided it was time her diverse, working-class New York City district be represented in Congress by a young, progressive woman of color. So she has mounted a primary challenge against one of the most powerful Democrats in the House of Representatives, Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.).
“We’re a district that covers the Bronx and Queens and Rikers Island,” she said in an interview with Mic at a Queens diner in the district where she’s running. “Our median income is around $47,000 a year, we’re about 70% people of color. We’ve had the same representation for a generation.”
New York’s 14th Congressional District covers some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country — some even say the world. But as Ocasio-Cortez indicates, Crowley, a 55-year-old white man, has represented the area for nearly two decades.
If special elections in the past few months are any indicator, Democrats are poised for a grassroots-fueled political upset in this year’s midterm election, akin to the wave of victories the insurgent tea party saw in the first midterm election of the Obama presidency. While much of the focus of 2018 has been on Democratic attempts to unseat Republicans, there are a number of progressive primary challengers looking to take on longtime Democratic incumbents in safe blue districts.
Ocasio-Cortez’s primary challenge to Crowley has emerged as an early test of progressive grassroots organization, as well as enthusiasm for tangible change in the aftermath of Trump’s first tumultuous year in office. Ocasio-Cortez said she had been astounded to learn the surprising way in which Crowley came to initially take his seat in Congress.
“He wasn’t democratically elected,” she said. “He didn’t democratically win a primary. That is how we’ve had such unrepresentative representation of our district for so long.”
Crowley first took office in 1999 through a controversial series of machinations overseen by his mentor and predecessor, then-Rep. Thomas Manton. That year, Manton was seeking re-election in the heavily Democratic district and faced no serious challengers. But in the race’s 11th hour, Manton dropped out and handpicked Crowley to replace him. The move suggested that Manton had only sought re-election in the first place in order to box out any potential challengers to Crowley.
With no time for a serious challenger to mount a campaign against him, Crowley was certified to replace Manton on the ballot by the Queens County Democratic Party, which Manton was running at the time. At the time, the New York Times called the move “befitting [Manton’s] place as one of New York City’s last remaining party bosses.”
Since then, the Crowley family has become something of a political dynasty in New York, with Crowley and his cousins holding various positions in Congress, the New York City Council and the Queens Supreme Court. Crowley’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment.
“Joe Crowley has a big reputation in New York, a long history in New York and really solid name recognition in New York,” Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist with deep knowledge of New York politics, said in an interview.
The Crowleys “are a New York City political dynasty,” Reinish added. “It remains to be seen what will happen with the next generations but they’re a big family, a politically involved family, and they occupy all different kinds of jobs, all of which are publicly and politically facing.”
Ocasio-Cortez has no such connections. Born in the Bronx to a large Puerto Rican family, her father had been a lifelong New Yorker, while her mother moved to the city at age 23 from Puerto Rico.
At a young age, her family moved to suburban Yorktown, New York, and her father commuted to his architecture business in the Bronx. The rest of her extended family, including many of her cousins and other close relatives, remained in the Bronx.
The experience of living between the two worlds of New York’s poorest borough and its more affluent suburbs gave Ocasio-Cortez an early firsthand look at some of the inequities facing the country.
“I grew up with this reality and understanding of income inequality as, ‘When I’m in this zip code I have these opportunities, and when I’m in that zip code I don’t have these opportunities,’” she said.
“At a very young age I knew it was wrong. I knew that the fact that my cousins didn’t have adequate resources or adequate public services and good schools, and I did, was something that just didn’t strike me as right.”
After enrolling at Boston University on a scholarship from Intel, Ocasio-Cortez found herself working in the foreign affairs and immigration office of Sen. Ted Kennedy from early 2008 until his death in 2009.
“I was the only Spanish speaker, and as a result, as basically a kid — a 19-, 20-year-old kid — whenever a frantic call would come into the office because someone is looking for their husband because they have been snatched off the street by ICE, I was the one that had to pick up that phone,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I was the one that had to help that person navigate that system.”
That experience shaped her understanding of the challenges faced by undocumented people in the United States — challenges she says Democrats in Congress have not done enough to fix.
On Feb. 9, Congress voted on an omnibus spending package that kept the government from shutting down, but failed to address the issue of young undocumented people in the United States who are protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The Trump administration had set DACA on a path for a March 5 expiration unless Congress came up with a solution. A federal court decision on Monday, however, wiped away that deadline, giving Congress more time, But legislators appear no closer to a solution.
Many House Democrats objected to the fact that the spending bill did not address DACA recipients. On Feb. 7, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) delivered the longest speech in the chamber’s history in opposition of the bill. Crowley, who is the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, voted against the bill.
Despite this, Ocasio-Cortez said Democratic leadership in both chambers did not do enough to whip votes against the bill.
“It’s all talk,” she said of the Democratic leadership’s commitment to protecting the undocumented.
“Are you willing to put yourself on the line, put your votes on the line, for this?” she said. “We saw how low ‘Dreamers’ were on the agenda during the Obama administration. And under the Obama administration, we had the largest amount of deportations in American history. I don’t think Democrats have done what they needed to do on Dreamers. Do we have a Dream Act? No. Is it passed? No.”
Like many young progressives, Ocasio-Cortez also wants her party to push forward on an ambitious health care agenda that includes Medicare for all.
“Our health care system is inefficient, it is expensive, it is undistributed — it literally helps almost no one,” she said. “Improved and expanded Medicare for all is fiscally responsible, it cuts the price of health care for everyone who participates in it so it is cheaper, it is faster and it will cover everyone. So, the entire health of this country will improve with that investment.”
In September, Crowley became one of the only members of Democratic leadership to co-sponsor a “Medicare for all” bill in the House, even as a growing number of rank-and-file Democrats — and more than a few 2020 presidential hopefuls — have embraced the policy. Crowley has also embraced other progressive agenda items like a $15-per-hour minimum wage since Ocasio-Cortez announced her candidacy.
A staffer for Crowley told Mic that the congressman’s decision to sign on to the Medicare for All legislation was based “solely because of constituent outreach.”
Ocasio-Cortez said she thinks her candidacy and advocacy on the issue played a big role in Crowley’s decision. But she also said she’s not running to push Crowley to the left. She’s running to win. That will be a major uphill battle, given Crowley’s longtime incumbency, high name recognition and position in Democratic leadership.
“Crowley’s success or failure hinges on what his constituents in his district think and he is re-elected with healthy margins every two years,” Reinish said.
“I don’t see any vulnerabilities for him. He’s a powerful figure who is kind of an icon in his district, especially with his base in Queens. He is a giant there. He has delivered for decades, and there is no mark of any significant dissatisfaction.”
In an emailed statement Crowley for Congress Campaign Manager Vijay Chaudhuri told Mic, “The people of Queens and the Bronx have elected Joe Crowley to represent them in Congress by an overwhelming majority each and every time his name has appeared on the ballot. This year will be no different.”
Nevertheless, Ocasio-Cortez thinks the winds of change are blowing in her direction.
Several national groups have already endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in her bid to unseat Crowley.
“The 14th District of New York is one of the most progressive and diverse districts in the nation, and the voters there know that they are currently not being represented,” Saikat Chakrabarti, executive director of Justice Democrats, said in a statement. Justice Democrats endorses progressive candidates in Democratic primaries nationwide and supports Ocasio-Cortez.
“Joe Crowley is beholden to Wall Street, and the only issue he is unapologetic about is taking corporate money.” Chakrabarti continued. “Alexandria’s campaign has already pushed Crowley into supporting ‘Medicare for all,’ but we’re seeing that voters are not convinced by his empty gestures and false progressive moves.”
Chakrabarti also noted the district has traditionally seen historically low turnout in its primary campaign because of a lack of challengers, and that that could give Ocasio-Cortez an advantage because of the mobilized base of grassroots supporters behind her.
And there are other signs that leave Ocasio and her supporters hopeful. In November’s Democratic wave election, a member of the Crowley political family, Democratic New York City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, lost her re-election bid — perhaps suggesting that the Crowley name may not have as much cache as it once did.
For Ocasio-Cortez, this is one of the little movements that indicate to her that she has a shot at becoming her district’s next representative.
“I had a really exciting moment this week where I was taking the subway with two volunteers, and this guy walked up to me, and he said, ‘Are you Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?’” she said.
“He said, ‘I’ve been following your campaign, my wife and I started donating to your campaign, it’s such an honor to meet you, thank you so much for running and thank you for taking on this fight.’ That really made me feel like we are on the move — we’re making something happen in this district.”
February 28, 2018, 6:48 p.m.:This article has been updated.