Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Why She Wants to Abolish ICE and Upend the Democratic Party

In an interview, the left primary challenger discusses everything from how Democrats have failed to protect working class interests to the need for a Marshall plan for Puerto Rico and why her democratic socialist message is catching on.

Kate Aronoff June 25, 2018

On June 25, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez received the endorsement of New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon. (Ocasio 2018)

In many ways, the race to rep­re­sent New York’s 14th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, encom­pass­ing parts of Queens and the Bronx, is a micro­cosm for the fight being waged with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. There, incum­bent can­di­date Joe Crow­ley — a crea­ture of New York’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty machine — is fac­ing off against 28-year-old com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, the first pri­ma­ry chal­lenger he’s had since 2004.

I believe that the fight for the Democratic Party is really the fight over the future of this nation. And it should go in the direction of fierce advocacy for—and accountability to—working-class Americans.

Oca­sio-Cortez sup­port­ed and cam­paigned for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and iden­ti­fies as a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist. Her cam­paign plat­form includes sup­port for a fed­er­al job guar­an­tee, Medicare-for-All and abol­ish­ing ICE. She has also sworn off cor­po­rate donors, while Crow­ley rakes in gen­er­ous cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions from Wall Street and real estate developers.

Though NY-14 is com­prised of around 70 per­cent peo­ple of col­or, Oca­sio-Cortez would be the first Lati­na ever to rep­re­sent the dis­trict in Con­gress. And despite the fact that young vot­ers are over­whelm­ing­ly more pro­gres­sive and the country’s largest age demo­graph­ic of poten­tial vot­ers, the aver­age age of Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives is 61. Crow­ley is 56, one of the most pow­er­ful Democ­rats in the House and rumored to be on the short­list to suc­ceed Nan­cy Pelosi as the next Speak­er of the House should the Democ­rats win back the House in November

With endorse­ments rang­ing from the Queens Demo­c­ra­t­ic Club to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) to New York guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Cyn­thia Nixon, Oca­sio-Cortez is hop­ing Crow­ley doesn’t make it that far. In advance of Tuesday’s pri­ma­ry, In These Times spoke with Oca­sio-Cortez about how she talks about demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism on the cam­paign trail, why abol­ish­ing ICE mat­ters to NY-14 and how the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty needs to change.

Kate Aronoff: Your race seems to exem­pli­fy some broad­er trends with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. How do you think the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty needs to change?

Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez: I feel like there is an unfor­tu­nate sta­tus quo issue with the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, in that it doesn’t want to active­ly or proac­tive­ly orga­nize. New York State is so designed around depress­ing the vote — not even just sup­press­ing the vote but depress­ing the vote.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty in New York state is reliant on non-vot­ers. And it’s a place of priv­i­lege that the par­ty here is able to come from in that they have to rely on peo­ple not vot­ing just as much if not more as rely­ing on their very small base of machine vot­ers. We had one of the low­est vot­er turnout rate in the entire coun­try. We’re talk­ing about one to three per­cent turn-out in many of our pri­maries. And even in the gen­er­al elec­tion last year, the first year after Trump was elect­ed, we still had some of our low­est vot­er turnout for city elec­tions in recent history.

When I first start­ed this race, peo­ple were telling me, Only go after your triple prime vot­ers — vot­ers that have vot­ed in the last three pri­maries. Every­one else is a waste of time.” That was appalling to me. In a com­mu­ni­ty like ours — we’re peo­ple of col­or, we’re work­ing-class Amer­i­cans and peo­ple who work two jobs and strug­gle to find time the vote — what you’re essen­tial­ly say­ing is that those peo­ple are a waste of time. When you only want to go after triple prime vot­ers — espe­cial­ly in an era where vot­ing is get­ting more and more dif­fi­cult — you’re basi­cal­ly say­ing that a small­er and small­er amount of peo­ple matter.

You’re also say­ing that the only peo­ple that mat­ter to you is one to three per­cent of our pop­u­la­tion. While I under­stand max­i­miz­ing your efforts, I also know that the only time we cre­ate any kind of sub­stan­tive change is when we reach out to a dis­af­fect­ed elec­torate and inspire and moti­vate them to vote. That is how Oba­ma won and got re-elect­ed, and that’s how Bernie Sanders did so well.

If we con­tin­ue to go down this course of only car­ing about peo­ple who have vot­ed in the last three pri­maries, we’re going to keep los­ing. I just wish our Demo­c­ra­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tives cared about our com­mu­ni­ties. These com­mu­ni­ties do want to turn out, but they just aren’t being spo­ken to. They don’t feel val­ued because they aren’t val­ued, and so they won’t go out to vote for some­one who doesn’t val­ue them. It becomes a self-ful­fill­ing prophe­cy. It’s not up to the vot­er to change that. It’s up to the lead­er­ship to change that. It’s up to the peo­ple seek­ing votes to change that and it’s up to the par­ty to change and to break that cycle.

KA: If you get to Con­gress, how would you hope to change those rules and make the par­ty more Democratic?

AOC: I think that a lot of this change does have to hap­pen from bot­tom-up. Ever since 2016 there have been real­ly strong efforts to reform the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Uni­ty Com­mis­sion has pro­posed a lot of these changes, like open­ing up pri­maries and chang­ing some of these dra­con­ian vot­ing reg­is­tra­tion laws. But ulti­mate­ly the peo­ple in pow­er right now, at least in New York state, rely on how things are right now. There are just a lot of folks that unfor­tu­nate­ly — if they won’t change on some of the most basic issues of enfran­chise­ment — they need to go. In my opin­ion, if you’re a Demo­c­rat and you’re sup­port­ing a sys­tem that mar­gin­al­izes the voic­es of work­ing-class peo­ple, you need to be replaced.

There are a lot of peo­ple who want to defend the sta­tus quo out of safe­ty, and say, This is how it’s been for years and in this admin­is­tra­tion we can’t afford to take risks.” This is a proven strat­e­gy of fail­ure. In 10 years we’ve lost 1,000 Demo­c­ra­t­ic seats. We lost the House. We lost the Sen­ate. We lost the pres­i­den­cy. This is what play­ing it safe has got­ten us.

I believe that the Repub­li­can Par­ty is long gone, and the only real hope for respon­si­ble gov­er­nance is the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. So I believe that the fight for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is real­ly the fight over the future of this nation. And it should go in the direc­tion of fierce advo­ca­cy for — and account­abil­i­ty to — work­ing-class Amer­i­cans. That is prob­a­bly a dif­fer­ence that I have, not only with my oppo­nent, but with many mem­bers of the party.

KA: You iden­ti­fy as a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist. How do you frame that to voters?

AOC: Espe­cial­ly in this time, peo­ple are real­ly not inter­est­ed in ‑isms or par­ties or the names of ide­olo­gies. Some­times when I can­vas in old­er neigh­bor­hoods, the word pro­gres­sive is a rel­a­tive­ly new word. Old­er vot­ers are like, what does that even mean? It’s a sim­i­lar thing with demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism. I don’t lead with that. I show peo­ple what we’re fight­ing for. What I talk about is Medicare for All, tuition-free pub­lic col­lege and hous­ing as a human right. In my inter­pre­ta­tion of what demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist is, it is the fight for a basic lev­el of dig­ni­ty that our soci­ety refus­es to violate.

When I com­mu­ni­cate those val­ues, I feel like I show peo­ple what our cam­paign is about. And then they see — whether it’s on our web­site or with our DSA can­vassers — that this is what demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism is and means, it gives peo­ple a much eas­i­er under­stand­ing of that. I was actu­al­ly expect­ing more oppo­si­tion on this from my oppo­nent, but there real­ly hasn’t been any. And I think that’s because we try to stick to the issues.

KA: Speak­ing of some of those issues, you’ve come out in sup­port of abol­ish­ing ICE. Could you say why that’s impor­tant to folks in your district?

AOC: NY-14 is 50 per­cent immi­grant, includ­ing nat­u­ral­ized U.S. cit­i­zens and undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple. Immi­gra­tion is a top three issue in our com­mu­ni­ty because it speaks direct­ly to the sta­bil­i­ty of work­ing fam­i­lies here. When I’m advo­cat­ing for a work­ing-class agen­da, for the safe­ty and secu­ri­ty of work­ing-class peo­ple, it means health­care, hous­ing and immi­gra­tion. They’re issues of, Can I stay here tomorrow?”

If there is any seat in Amer­i­ca that is advo­cat­ing for the abol­ish­ment of ICE it should be NY14. It is a dis­trict that is 85 per­cent Demo­c­ra­t­ic. We have very lit­tle to risk by tak­ing bold and ambi­tious posi­tions. Even for those who aren’t immi­grants, we are all so deeply invest­ed in the lives and the future of immi­grant fam­i­lies in NY-14, and every­body here cares about this issue.

KA: There’s a huge Puer­to Rican dias­po­ra com­mu­ni­ty in New York. In Con­gress, what would you hope to do in terms of the ongo­ing recov­ery from Puer­to Rico, but also the ongo­ing aus­ter­i­ty poli­cies on the island and Congress’s role in that?

AOC: I think there are a cou­ple of issues. I sup­port Sens. Bernie Sanders (I‑VT) and Eliz­a­beth Warren’s (D‑MA) plan for a $146 bil­lion invest­ment in Puer­to Rico. I think that if Con­gress real­ly cared and if Con­gress actu­al­ly had a vision, we could use Puer­to Rico as an exam­ple for how we can approach the rav­ages of super storms and cli­mate change mov­ing for­ward. Puer­to Rico’s entire pow­er sys­tem has been wiped out. The lit­tle that they’ve rebuilt to replace it is in extreme­ly pre­car­i­ous shape. I wor­ry. My fam­i­ly is there, and I wor­ry because it’s now hur­ri­cane season.

Cos­ta Rica can oper­ate on 100 per­cent sus­tain­able, renew­able ener­gy. Puer­to Rico is a small island and I believe we can make those invest­ments to make that hap­pen. There are still homes with blue tarps on the roof. What would be trans­for­ma­tion­al for so many people’s lives would be just the bare min­i­mum. Mem­bers of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty vot­ed to low­er the min­i­mum wage on the island to $4.25 (for work­ers 25 and younger). And these are Amer­i­can cit­i­zens. In terms of a vision I think that we need a Mar­shall Plan for Puer­to Rico, and to switch to 100 per­cent renew­ables on the island.

It’s a small enough place that we can do that, and we can show the world what recov­ery in an era of extreme cli­mate change looks like. We have to start fig­ur­ing that out and learn­ing those lessons now. We cer­tain­ly need to review the Jones Act, and we cer­tain­ly need to repeal the Mer­chant Marine tax, which is cre­at­ing a surg­ing cost of liv­ing on the island. We need to get these vul­tures cap­i­tal­ists out of there, but it’s hard because La Jun­ta (the PROME­SA board) is there. Con­gress vot­ed to install a cor­po­rate board and remove the very lit­tle self-gov­ern­ment and self-deter­mi­na­tion that Puer­to Ricans had.

Puer­to Rico is a colony of the Unit­ed States. I dis­agree with cer­tain Democ­rats on cer­tain issues. I think Oba­macare should go fur­ther, for instance, but I don’t think that Oba­macare was bad. It just wasn’t good enough. But when it comes to Puer­to Rico, I think that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has active­ly harmed the sit­u­a­tion. When you have Democ­rats that are vot­ing to low­er the min­i­mum wage, what that com­mu­ni­cates is that we do not see you as equal peo­ple deserv­ing the same rights as every­body else. We need to start hold­ing peo­ple account­able for that.

KA: PROME­SA was passed with bipar­ti­san sup­port. As a Demo­c­rat, what do you think the future of the PROME­SA board — La Jun­ta — should be?

AOC: I think La Jun­ta should be abol­ished. Espe­cial­ly when you look at who is on it. It’s lob­by­ists, the peo­ple who engi­neered the debt and took the prof­its from that debt and then used it to finance cor­po­rate Demo­c­ra­t­ic cam­paigns. Those are now the peo­ple those Democ­rats have empow­ered after tak­ing mon­ey from them, and appoint­ed those peo­ple to gov­ern­ment posi­tions.

If we allow this to hap­pen in Puer­to Rico, what pre­vents it from hap­pen­ing any­where else in the Unit­ed States? Now that they’ve done it there, what keeps them from doing it in Cal­i­for­nia, Chica­go or the Bronx? Noth­ing. They’ve set the prece­dent, and the peo­ple that vot­ed for PROME­SA accept­ed that sec­ond-class cit­i­zen­ship is okay to impose in Amer­i­ca. It may have been bipar­ti­san, but it was a moral­ly rep­re­hen­si­ble position.

I’m not going to try and pack­age it nice­ly. My grand­fa­ther died in the storm. Chil­dren are chok­ing on air because now, since so many homes have gone with­out repair, fun­gal spores are going into the air and kids are get­ting asth­ma, and the water sup­ply is com­prised. We may have a sit­u­a­tion that is tan­ta­mount to 1,000 Flints on the island. I don’t think inac­tion is accept­able, espe­cial­ly when they vot­ed to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for it with PROME­SA. Wall Street man­u­fac­tured a debt cri­sis to pres­sure peo­ple to do it. They also paid the politi­cians to vote a cer­tain way. That is the crux of the prob­lem when we accept mon­ey from pri­vate equi­ty groups. We have a prob­lem when we accept mon­ey from one side and then pre­tend that we’re neutral.

It’s unac­cept­able. I accept that I’m being out­spent 10 to 1. In my per­son­al mail­box I’ve got­ten 10 glossy mail­ers for Joe Crow­ley. What I want peo­ple to know is that these mail­ers are paid for by the same peo­ple who are mak­ing mon­ey off of child deten­tion cen­ters on the bor­der, opi­oid lob­by­ists and fos­sil fuel cor­po­ra­tions. He is in such an elec­toral­ly safe Demo­c­ra­t­ic dis­trict and yet he choos­es to cash in.

KA: Speak­ing of fos­sil fuels, your dis­trict includes three penin­su­las and is vul­ner­a­ble to sea lev­el rise. Recent stud­ies pre­dict that LaGuardia Air­port, for instance, could be inun­dat­ed by sea lev­el rise in the com­ing decades.

AOC: We need more envi­ron­men­tal hard­lin­ers in Con­gress. There is an elec­torate here that is lis­ten­ing. It’s kind of iron­ic, because the areas of the dis­trict that are expe­ri­enc­ing the worst of cli­mate volatil­i­ty right now are actu­al­ly pock­ets of Democ­rats who vot­ed for Trump. In that case, envi­ron­men­tal­ism and address­ing cli­mate change is becom­ing a bipar­ti­san issue in front­line com­mu­ni­ties. They may have vot­ed for Trump, but they are scream­ing at the top of their lungs that their elect­ed offi­cials aren’t rebuild­ing the crum­bling seawall.

In terms of what I want to pro­pose in Con­gress, we talk a lot about a Green New Deal. We talk a lot about very aggres­sive­ly switch­ing to 100 per­cent renew­able ener­gy as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. We need a Mar­shall Plan for renew­able ener­gy in the Unit­ed States. The idea that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty needs to be mod­er­ate is what’s hold­ing us back on this. We need to be iden­ti­fy­ing our safest seat, and using those seats to advance the most ambi­tious vision pos­si­ble that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty wants to espouse. When peo­ple ask what the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty stands for, there often isn’t an answer beyond giv­ing every­one equal rights. That the party’s big idea” in 2018 is that peo­ple should be equal…that alone points to far how we have regressed and how lit­tle we’re advanc­ing a vision beyond that.

I don’t feel like we have a Con­gress that is build­ing pop­u­lar sup­port around these ideas. If we don’t have that, we need to be orga­niz­ing out­side the cham­ber and orga­niz­ing pop­u­lar sup­port. That’s what the Repub­li­can Par­ty has been doing while Democ­rats have been asleep at the wheel.

KA: You’ve advo­cat­ed for Mar­shall Plans and for a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee. That’s a pret­ty dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship to spend­ing than the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has adopt­ed recent­ly, what with Nan­cy Pelosi say­ing the Democ­rats will adopt a Pay-Go rule if they take back the House in 2018. How do you think Democ­rats should relate to bud­gets and spending?

AOC: I real­ly won­der how many mem­bers of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty actu­al­ly have a degree in eco­nom­ics like I do. The Pay-Go plan is so indica­tive of a lack of under­stand­ing of how we need to grow. I’m advo­cat­ing for the ideas because I have an under­stand­ing of how the econ­o­my works. If we did Pay-Go dur­ing the Great Depres­sion, we would still be a devel­op­ing nation. We need a New Deal. There has almost nev­er been a peri­od of sub­stan­tial eco­nom­ic growth in the Unit­ed States with­out sig­nif­i­cant invest­ment. And no invest­ment pays off with­in the same cycle. No invest­ment pays off with­in the same year — espe­cial­ly a gov­ern­men­tal invest­ment. Even busi­ness­es don’t work that way.

The idea that we’re going to aus­ter­i­ty our­selves into pros­per­i­ty is so mis­tak­en, and hon­est­ly I feel like one of the big prob­lems we have is that, because Democ­rats don’t have a deep under­stand­ing of or degrees in eco­nom­ics, they allow Wall Street folks to roll in the door and think that they’re giv­ing them an edu­ca­tion. They’re not. It’s a con, and they’re get­ting conned because they don’t under­stand the trans­for­ma­tive pow­er of the purse that Con­gress has. It’s not just Democ­rats. I don’t think most of Con­gress under­stands how eco­nom­ics works.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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