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Since taking office in January, nearly every move Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has made has come under scrutiny, both from the right and the left. Conservatives love to hate her – for her clothes, her dancing, and, of course, her liberal policy ideas. She’s been called economically illiterate, though she majored in economics and international relations at Boston University.
When Amazon scrapped its plan to build a second headquarters adjacent to her Queens district, the brunt of criticism – that the state had lost 25,000 jobs thanks to ignorance and bullheadedness – landed on her.
But the congresswoman’s core constituents say all this is exactly what they elected her to do. To them, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez shows a keen understanding of what the community needs, and doesn’t hesitate to use her national status to bring attention to it.
Her defenders talk about things like opportunity and changing the system. They say she’s showing that young people, women, communities of color, can take power into their own hands. “They feel like they’re being heard,” says Julissa Bisono, a Latina activist from the district. “She’s bringing all of our local issues to a big platform. We needed that.”
Mystery novelist Radha Vatsal was playing detective.
The Queens resident had recently heard about an upstart young woman who was taking on the district’s longtime Democratic congressman, Joe Crowley. Ms. Vatsal wanted to learn more about her, but couldn’t recall her name.
“I was like, ‘Ocasio something,’” says Ms. Vatsal, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 17 years. “I just remember my experience of googling it and trying all different variations, and nothing would come up.”
That was in April of 2018. Later that month, Ms. Vatsal’s mystery woman would secure four times the number of signatures she needed to get on the ballot in New York’s 14th district. In June, she’d stun political observers by drubbing Mr. Crowley in the Democratic primary. And in November, she’d become the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress.
Today, a search of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez turns up countless headlines, videos, and tweets. A recent Gallup survey found that at least 70 percent of Americans now know her name.
The congresswoman’s exploding fame has given her a platform to lead the charge on policy ideas around fighting climate change, expanding health care, and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and made her a darling of the Democratic Party’s left wing.
It’s also made her a lightning rod – the target of constant, cutting criticism focused on her policies as well as her youth and inexperience. Detractors have called her out for opposing Amazon’s plan to build a second headquarters in New York, dismissing her views on economic policy as naive and ill-informed. She saw blowback last month with the rollout of the Green New Deal – the stimulus package meant to address both climate change and economic injustice that’s one of her key policy initiatives – when her office released a fact sheet that didn’t match up with the plan’s legislative text. Since being elected, she’s drawn fire from fact-checkers over statements she’s made about the Pentagon’s budget and the Middle East.
According to Gallup, more Americans nationwide now regard her unfavorably than favorably (although the rise in her unfavorable rating has come mostly from Republicans).
It’s a lot to take so early in a political tenure. With the 2020 elections on the horizon, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s style strikes even some Democrats as too confrontational, at a time when party brass are working to unite a diverse coalition.
“If I were her consultant, I’d tell her: ‘You’ve got to recognize you’re in this game for the long haul. You have to do all the heavy lifting and the homework that’s required, all the relationship-building and coalition-building in order to be seen as a serious legislator,’ ” says Elizabeth Sherman, who teaches politics at American University in Washington, D.C. “She’s in danger of squandering her credibility.”
But supporters in her district – and she won 78 percent of the vote in the general – say she models exactly the kind of leadership that underrepresented communities desperately need in this nationalized, hyperpartisan era. It’s more than the fact that she’s a young woman of color with savvy social media skills in an institution still dominated by older white men. There’s real value, they say, in having a representative who balances national attention with local needs. She faces down criticism without blinking and makes a point of voicing her constituents’ ideals at the highest levels, even when those ideals go against the party line. And she still shows up to a neighborhood library event on a Saturday afternoon.
“What she’s doing is kind of reframing the conversation,” Ms. Vatsal says. “She’s put an anchor here. We may end up in a different position, but at least someone has staked our ground.”
The right flavor of liberal
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is a Bronx native, but a lot of the support she saw in the primary came from Queens – specifically, Jackson Heights.
Bordered on the north by LaGuardia Airport and the south by the 7 train as it rumbles down Roosevelt Avenue, the community is a blend of the working class and the well-educated, native-born millennials and immigrant families. Restaurants bear signs in multiple languages. Collectively, Jackson Heights residents speak more than 160.
For years, Mr. Crowley and the Queens County Democratic Party faced little opposition here. The neighborhood, like the district, is mostly liberal, and the former congressman did what good liberals are supposed to do: oppose the National Rifle Association (NRA), support the Affordable Care Act, and call for immigration reform. By 2016, his 10th consecutive term, Mr. Crowley was the fourth most powerful Democrat in the House.
Then Donald Trump won the presidential election.
Suddenly, being a good liberal wasn’t enough, says Jacob Neiheisel, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo. “You had to be the right flavor of liberal.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez – or A.O.C., as she’s called these days – has that flavor in spades, and she worked it during the campaign. Through social media, she won over young people like David Lee, a Queens resident who a year ago was in his second bachelor’s program at Columbia University. Mr. Lee was especially taken with a video of her talking about “Medicare for All,” swearing off corporate PAC money, and promoting a renewable energy economy.
“Her message instantaneously resonated with me,” says Mr. Lee, the son of South Korean immigrants. He signed on to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign in April 2018 and soon dropped out of school to volunteer for her full time.
Others she convinced with her ground game. Longtime Jackson Heights resident Nuala O’Doherty was at first skeptical that anyone could beat Mr. Crowley, much less an untried 28-year-old. But Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and her team were unrelenting, says Ms. O’Doherty, a mother of five who runs the Jackson Heights Beautification Group. The then-candidate went to living rooms and libraries, talked to superintendents and students. “Literally, she showed up to events where there were seven people,” Ms. O’Doherty says. “And she wouldn’t leave.”
By the time Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was elected in November – one of a record number of women who entered Congress and helped flip the House to Democratic control – there was little doubt about her ability to commandeer the spotlight.
A question of leadership
What critics now are questioning is her leadership. Since taking office in January, nearly every decision she’s made has come under scrutiny, both from the right and the left. Conservatives love to hate her – for her clothes, her dancing, even her staff, which has faced accusations of obscuring PAC money during the campaign. Some have said outright that she’s economically illiterate, though she majored in economics and international relations at Boston University. Last week, after the deadly mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand, she drew criticism for tweeting that the NRA uses the phrase “thoughts and prayers” to deflect attention from proposed policy changes in the aftermath of gun tragedies.
Even at home, support for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is by no means universal. Though she beat Mr. Crowley by 15 points, estimated turnout in that primary was between 11 and 13 percent, suggesting it was a vocal, energized minority that won her the nomination. Some voice concerns around her approach, which they worry could alienate potential allies in Congress.
Others squirm over the fact that she’s a vocal member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). At an Irish pub in the Queens neighborhood of Woodside, attempts to ask about the congresswoman were met with a salty “You mean the socialist in the SUV?” No one cared to comment further.
Her biggest clash with establishment members of the party came over Amazon’s plan to build a second headquarters in Long Island City, a Queens neighborhood adjacent to her district. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was among the most prominent politicians opposing the deal, which had been brokered by state party leaders. When it fell through, the brunt of criticism – that the state had lost 25,000 jobs thanks to ignorance and bullheadedness – landed on her.
But the congresswoman’s core constituents say all this is exactly what they elected her to do. To them, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez shows a keen understanding of what the community needs, and doesn’t hesitate to use her national status to bring attention to it. That’s what her opposition to the Amazon deal was, they say: a plea that leaders deal with the community’s challenges – like overcrowded schools and crumbling infrastructure – rather than looking to a major corporation to supply Manhattanites with jobs and real estate moguls with high-end projects.
“We don’t care about the big real estate developers,” says Mr. Lee, who’s also a member of the DSA. “We care so strongly about the working class communities of color being able to live a decent life in this city. That’s what matters to us.”
Political scientists say it’s too soon to definitively cast Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence as part of a broader trend. But it is worth looking at the style of leadership she’s modeling in an evolving Democratic Party.
“At a time when we value institutions less, does that outsider perspective carry more weight?” asks Sally Friedman, a professor at the University of Albany who focuses on political representation. “It’s an interesting question about Congress and what kind of Congress we’re going to have. Where do the institutional parts of it fit, and what’s from the outside?”
For now, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez seems to have the kind of support at home that can withstand the battery of invectives flung her way. Her defenders talk about things like opportunity and changing the system. They say she’s showing that young people, women, communities of color, can take power into their own hands. That a healthy, vibrant democracy means giving a voice to those who’ve been told for decades to wait their turn.
“Folks are feeling more engaged because … with Ocasio, they feel like they’re being heard,” says Julissa Bisono, a Latina activist who works with the Queens contingent of Make the Road New York, a nationwide community organization. “She’s bringing all of our local issues to a big platform. We needed that.”
Ms. Vatsal, the novelist, says that although she has more than a decade on Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, she’s found plenty to admire in the younger woman. “As a woman of color, I always thought I was strong and outspoken. But seeing her … how she steadily stood her ground, it was really instructive,” Ms. Vatsal says. “She’s representative of a real – and we see that across the country – wave of women at high levels and low levels speaking up for themselves.”