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What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory says about Democrats’ future

Much like Republicans with the tea party, Democrats are being confronted by an energized left wing that could propel the party in upcoming elections, but also portend a growing internal divide.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke with a reporter in New York June 27. The 28-year-old political newcomer, who upset Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York's 14th Congressional District, says she will bring an 'urgency' to the fight for working families.

Seth Wenig/AP

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In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Joe Crowley – a veteran, leading Democratic congressman twice her age – in the primary.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s youth, energy, family story, and left-wing populist message fit the working-class, Latino-majority New York district in a way that Congressman Crowley couldn’t counter. And so the No. 4 House Democrat, once seen as a possible future House speaker, joins the history books as a political giant felled by a grassroots insurgency.

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“This campaign sent a national message to all the United States that you have to work for the community,” says Ramón Ramirez, founding president of the United Dominican Coalition, standing in Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign headquarters in Queens. “It’s simple. You have be close to the people. Crowley, he wasn’t very close to the people.”

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For Democrats, Crowley’s defeat raises profound questions. Is the party heading for a “nasty, tea party-style internal battle” or an “identity crisis,” as some analyses say? Or was Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset a one-off, particular to a changed district, as House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi suggests? After all, Crowley is the first Democratic incumbent to lose in the primary this cycle.

The answer may be, a bit of all of the above. What’s clear, political observers say, is that the Democratic Party is evolving – as all parties do over time – and its center of gravity is moving to the left, in the wake of the Bernie Sanders “revolution.” It’s no accident that Ocasio-Cortez self-identifies as a democratic socialist, as does the Vermont senator, and that she worked as an organizer for his presidential campaign.

“There’s no question we’re heading for greater polarization,” says former Rep. David Bonior (D) of Michigan, once the No. 2 Democrat in the House.

‘Not all Democrats are the same’

To political activists in New York’s 14th Congressional District, it didn’t seem to matter that Crowley had leadership clout in Washington. The same held true in 2014, when No. 2 House Republican Eric Cantor lost his primary to a tea partier, and in 1994, when Democrat Tom Foley became the first House speaker to lose reelection to his congressional seat since 1862. 

Mr. Ramírez of the United Dominican Coalition, a political club, focuses on Crowley’s role as the powerful head of the Queens Democratic Party.

“The situation in this community is, the machine decides,” Ramirez says. “You are to be a candidate for the senate. You are to be the candidate for city council. You are to be the candidate for this office, that office. This is the situation, and people are very tired about that.”

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In fact, Ramirez used to support Crowley; his club had hosted campaign events during the congressman’s nearly 20 years in office. But Crowley and some of his hand-picked candidates had been paying less and less attention to their constituents, Ramirez says, as Crowley pursued his ambitions in Washington.

It was a message Ocasio-Cortez – until just a few months ago a bartender at a popular Union Square restaurant in Manhattan, and a first-time candidate – hammered home during the campaign.

“It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an online campaign video. “That a Democrat that takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our school, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air, cannot possibly represent us.”

As a former Sanders organizer, Ocasio-Cortez sounded many of the same themes as Sanders: Medicare for all, free higher education for all, curbing the “gambling” of Wall Street.

And even as she and her supporters worked tirelessly over the past few weeks – including dozens of young volunteers who came in from all over the country, campaign officials say – Crowley only reinforced the perception that he was more focused on being a Washington insider: he skipped two debates, sending a hand-picked Latina surrogate and former councilwoman to represent him at a debate in the Bronx.

“In a bizarre twist, Rep. Crowley sent a woman with slight resemblance to me as his official surrogate to last night’s debate,” tweeted Ocasio-Cortez, a Bronx native born to a Puerto Rican mother.

The New York Times followed with a scathing editorial about the incumbent’s no shows. “His seat is not his entitlement,” the board wrote. “He’d better hope that voters don’t react to his snubs by sending someone else to do the job.”

Virginia "Vigie" Ramos Rios, campaign manager for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the campaign office in Queens, NY.
Harry Bruinius/The Christian Science Monitor

United in opposition

They did, resoundingly. Ocasio-Cortez won in a landslide, with nearly 58 percent of the vote. Low turnout – 12 percent – helped her effort, she admits.

It was “actually an incredible opportunity for a grassroots organizer – because when only 3 percent of your electorate turns out, you really just need to inspire a couple thousand people and it can totally change the game,” Ocasio-Cortez said on MSNBC the morning after her victory.

At age 28, running in a solidly Democratic district, she stands to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Ocasio-Cortez never let age or gender deter her, amid a boom of female empowerment in politics. Still, her backers don’t deny the challenges ahead.

“It’s very complicated to be an elected official in this community now, I can tell you, because you have to work with so many different groups, working in different places, just to understand the community,” says Ramírez, rattling off the different ethnic communities of this district: Dominicans, Asians, Russians, Ecuadoreans.

If the divisions within the Democratic Party were put on full display in Crowley’s defeat, then President Trump presents a counter-force that will help unite the party heading into the November midterms.

The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and the prospect of a quick confirmation of a new, conservative justice of Mr. Trump’s choosing, will also unite Democrats.

“I don’t see a looming showdown,” says William Schneider, a visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It will be a good year for Democrats, because everything will be about Trump.”

Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, also plays down the notion of Democratic divisions, even following Crowley’s defeat.

“Nationwide, the Democratic caucus is looking more and more like the Democratic electorate,” Mr. Ferguson says, noting the party’s strength among women, minorities, and young voters.

Ferguson prefaces his remarks by stressing how much he likes Crowley – a point echoed by many leading Democrats in the wake of the party leader’s loss. But, like Crowley himself, they are quick to embrace the new.

In his gracious concession speech, Crowley picked up his guitar and played “Born to Run” – dedicating the song to Ocasio-Cortez.

‘What we’re doing isn’t working’

Campaign manager Virginia “Vigie” Ramos Rios – like Ocasio-Cortez – is a political newcomer inspired by the Sanders campaign.

Surrounded by magic marker-drawn campaign posters in an office overlooking the rusting elevated subway tracks along Roosevelt Ave., Ms. Rios is on the phone with other campaign workers discussing the candidate’s furious lineup of media interviews Wednesday afternoon.

Rios came to New York in 2000 and worked in banking until the financial crisis in 2009. It shaped her profoundly, she says, and in 2016 she went to a meeting hosted by the Sanders campaign.

“I started talking about my own journey towards recognizing the fact that what we’re doing in this country isn’t working.” Organizers recruited her to be a delegate for Sanders at the Democratic National Convention, and she began to learn the art of campaigning.

“I’m still truly a novice in these ways,” Rios says, recounting how she had to collect names for her petition to be a delegate. “But then when I went out and started doing it, I realized, no one’s collecting names, nobody’s organizing us. How do we come together, and work together? So I just started doing that.”

After organizing for a time in California, she returned to New York, where a candidate for a Brooklyn city council seat asked her to be his campaign manager.

And she started developing a strategy, she says, to target non-voters and those registered to vote but who typically don’t. “Everybody kept saying, these groups don’t vote, that group won’t come out, and you can’t talk to all those people,” Rios says.

“But those are the people we need to be talking to, and we kept saying, if we don’t give them something to vote for, what is the point of them voting?” she continues, noting how she continued to target such voters managing the Ocasio-Cortez campaign. “They’re working 10, 12 hours a day, and you want them to take time from their day to go vote? But you’re not offering them anything that they care about.”

“I finally got the elated feeling about two hours ago, maybe,” says Rios, as her phone keeps ringing nonstop. “This morning we were talking, hey, it was great that we won, but there was such a small percentage that voted. What we want to see is a more participatory democracy.”