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.
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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.
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.
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Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.