It’s possible that Rep. Joseph Crowley (D‑NY) never expected to run in a competitive Democratic primary. After all, over the past 14 years, Crowley hasn’t faced a challenger from his own party, until now.
On June 26, Crowley will go head-to-head with 28-year-old Puerto Rican Bronx native Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th District. A longtime community organizer, activist and democratic socialist, Ocasio-Cortez is waging a grassroots insurgent campaign to unseat the powerful incumbent.
She’s running on a platform of Medicare for All, the abolition of ICE, free public college, a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico and a federal jobs guarantee. Since announcing her campaign in 2017, she’s been endorsed by a number of national progressive groups including MoveOn.org, Our Revolution, Justice Democrats and the Democratic Socialists of America.
On June 15, during the first and only televised debate in the race, Crowley appeared visibly nervous as Ocasio-Cortez criticized him for not living in the district he claims to represent as well as for accepting corporate donations. “I just think that if a person loved their community they would choose to raise their family here,” she said. “They would choose to drink our water and breathe our air.”
Crowley has amassed an incredible amount of power as the chair both the House Democratic Caucus and the Queens County Democratic Party, earning him the nickname the “King of Queens.” From his perch in these positions, Crowley acts as the virtual kingmaker for aspiring New York politicians. Without his support, political careers can be killed before they even begin. Such power has made him unaccustomed to opposition because so few dare to challenge his authority.
To Ocasio-Cortez, that authority is part of the problem — along with the support he receives from large real estate developers and Wall Street. She has refused to take any corporate money in the race and while donations of $200 or less account for nearly 70 percent of her donations, for Crowley that figure stands at less than one percent.
During the June 15 debate, Crowley tried to portray himself as the anti-Trump candidate. “We’re here to fight against Donald Trump,” he said, arguing that his own leadership is vital to winning back the House during the midterms. “It’s not enough to fight Trump,” Ocasio-Cortez later shot back, “We have to fight the issues that made his rise in the first place.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign represents more than just a response to the current administration. Viewing Trump as a symptom of much larger problems in our political system, she has been outspoken about structural issues such as endemic poverty, police violence and a brutal immigration system.
A former volunteer for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run, Ocasio-Cortez is also critical of the corporate influence over the Democratic Party which she believes is alienating voters who see the interests of working families being sold off in favor of corporate and developer greed. “This race is more than just about diversity or race,” Ocasio-Cortez said during the debate, “it’s about class.”
Growing up in the Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez has experienced first hand the struggles working families face with trying to afford rent on low wages. “My mom was forced to move to Florida because she couldn’t afford to live in New York anymore,” she tells In These Times.
Ocasio-Cortez also sees her campaign as part of a larger movement of women across the country who are running for public office in record numbers. At least 575 women have declared their candidacy for the House, Senate or governorship, three-quarters of whom are Democrats. “The surge of women candidates is indicative of institutional injustice,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “We are part of a movement fighting for racial, economic and social justice.”
As Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign shows, this trend of progressive women running for office isn’t only playing out in red states but deep in the heartland of the Democratic Party in places like New York. She is joined by three other female candidates running in Democratic primaries in New York’s outer boroughs, Jessica Ramos in the 13th District, Melissa Sklarz in the 30th District and Julia Salazar in District 18. This sudden surge of female candidates challenging incumbent Democrats in New York reflects both a progressive upsurge in the city as well as a growing disdain for machine politics.
While Ocasio-Cortez has gained national attention in her race — thanks to a viral video coupled with a sophisticated campaign — she still faces significant hurdles in her quest to unseat Crowley, who has been floated as the potential next House speaker. Crowley has raised $3.4 million for the race compared to Ocasio-Cortez’s $300,000.
Voter turnout is another major obstacle her campaign has to overcome. In last year’s mayoral primary only 31,000 people showed up to the polls in the 14th District. Turnout for the June 26 primary could dip well below 20,000 explained John Mellonkopf, director of CUNY’s Center for Urban Research.
Without Crowley’s level of resources or media visibility, Mellonkopf believes Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign will have trouble competing. Along with Crowley’s corporate funders, he also has the backing of labor unions such as the AFL-CIO as well as organizations such as Make the Road NY and Planned Parenthood
What she lacks in cash, however, she is hoping to make up for in volunteer power. One of the most challenging obstacles potential candidates face before they run is getting on the ballot in the first place. The New York Board of Elections requires candidates collect 1,250 signatures for congressional races in order to appear on the ballot. Ocasio-Cortez’s army of volunteers submitted around 5,400 petition signatures, well beyond the required amount, and has continued to knock on doors and canvass for her campaign ever since.
By forcing Crowley into the district’s first primary in 14 years, Ocasio-Cortez’s supporters can already add a victory under their belt. “If I lose on June 26, our community will have no more or no less power then it did on June 25,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “But this campaign has already built an infrastructure of power.”
Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the seeds of progressive change have been planted. “No matter what happens on election day,” Ocasio-Cortez says, “what we’re building is permanent. Every conversation is like gas in the tank.”