Amer­ica’s next top politi­cian?

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

Ben Ri­ley-smith meets Alexan­dria Oca­sio-cortez, the for­mer wait­ress on track to be­come the youngest woman ever elected to Congress

Two Then years she de­cided ago, Alexan­dria to run for Oca­sio-cortez, of­fice. She has 28, since was a top­pled taco wait­ress an in­cum­bent in New twice York. her age, caught Pres­i­dent Trump’s at­ten­tion, and next month she’s all but cer­tain to be­come the youngest woman ever elected to Congress – de­spite her far-left pol­i­tics. Is she an anom­aly? Or is this the start of a Tea Party of the Left? Tele­graph US ed­i­tor Ben Ri­ley-smith in­ves­ti­gates. Pho­to­graphs by Gil­lian Laub The Tele­graph Mag­a­zine | 6 Oc­to­ber 2018

Alexan­dria Oca­sio-cortez is not sure what to do with Oliver Grady III. She has agreed to hold the 13-year-old Bos­ton ter­rier so his owner can vote, but 10 min­utes have passed and there is no sign of her re­turn.

‘She said he was not friendly,’ Oca­sio-cortez warns the crowd gath­er­ing around her out­side the Bronx Lit­tle School in New York. The dog, barely a foot tall and wear­ing a pur­ple span­dex vest, looks non­plussed.

But it is the 28-year-old politi­cian, and not her tem­po­rary pet, draw­ing at­ten­tion. Teach­ers dou­ble take when they see her – one of them asks for a selfie. Chil­dren stare as they pass with lunch trays, prob­a­bly recog­nis­ing her from TV.

It is the same re­ac­tion Oca­sio-cortez has been get­ting all day from strangers in Parkch­ester, her home neigh­bour­hood in South­east Bronx, while out can­vass­ing for fel­low Democrats. Driv­ers swerve to the side­walk and stick their smart­phones out of the win­dow. Passers-by shout con­grat­u­la­tions. Some­one in a food van sell­ing $2 egg rolls reaches out for a high five.

When the dog’s owner re­turns – a 72-year-old Puerto Ri­can woman called Ada – she too is gush­ing. ‘She’s good, she’s fab­u­lous, she’s very smart. If she does what she prom­ises, she’ll be OK.’

Ris­ing po­lit­i­cal star Oca­sio-cortez is all but cer­tain to be­come the youngest woman ever elected to the US Congress at the midterm elec­tions early next month. A win would see her shap­ing and vot­ing on Amer­ica’s laws be­fore she has even turned 30.

The achieve­ment was teed up ear­lier this year when she un­seated a 10-term con­gress­man twice her age and won the Demo­cratic Party’s nom­i­na­tion in New York’s 14th dis­trict, in one of the most seis­mic up­sets of the cam­paign sea­son so far. Her ri­val Joe Crow­ley, 56, had been in Wash­ing­ton since 1999 and was the party’s fourth-most se­nior fig­ure in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Oca­sio-cortez, on the other hand, had never held po­lit­i­cal of­fice, lived in a one-bed­room apart­ment with her boyfriend and worked as a wait­ress, serv­ing tacos and cock­tails in be­tween knock­ing on doors.

The vic­tory turned ar­tic­u­late, im­pas­sioned and pho­to­genic Oca­sio-cortez into a po­lit­i­cal su­per­star overnight. TV hosts mar­velled at how the daugh­ter of a Puerto Ri­can cleaner could have top­pled such a lead­ing mem­ber of the DC es­tab­lish­ment. Pe­tite, sharply dressed and com­posed in front of the cam­eras, she was soon in end­less de­mand from the ca­ble news chan­nels.

It is not just her age and back­story that made her vic­tory so sur­pris­ing, but her pol­i­tics. Oca­sio-cortez won on an unashamed plat­form of demo­cratic so­cial­ism that would be con­sid­ered left-wing in Euro­pean pol­i­tics, let alone in Amer­ica: govern­ment-funded health in­sur­ance for all; a $15 min­i­mum wage; free univer­sity tu­ition; a state-guar­an­teed job for any­one who wants one; no po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions from cor­po­rates.

Her rise has echoes of Jeremy Cor­byn’s un­likely climb from Labour back­bencher to po­ten­tial prime min­is­ter. As with Cor­bynites, left-wing Democrats see in the decade-long stag­na­tion of wages a cri­sis of mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism that has warmed younger vot­ers to an al­ter­na­tive eco­nomic model.

In­deed, Oca­sio-cortez’s nom­i­na­tion is not a one-off, but part of a coun­try-wide move­ment. It has been dubbed a ‘Tea Party of the Left’ by crit­ics, with mod­er­ate Demo­cratic con­gress­men chal­lenged by can­di­dates within their own party from the left, trig­ger­ing civil-war-type feuds.

Not all have been suc­cess­ful. Not all chal­lengers share the ex­act same poli­cies. But that wing of the party – var­i­ously called pro­gres­sive, left-wing or demo­cratic so­cial­ist – is surg­ing. It prompts the ques­tion: can a left-wing plat­form win back Don­ald Trump vot­ers in mid­dle Amer­ica? And above all, could the Democrats re­ally pick a so­cial­ist to run for pres­i­dent in 2020?

On a grey Septem­ber day, Oca­sio-cortez takes a break from can­vass­ing and heads to El­lie’s Diner – a lo­cal of hers, decked out with green leather booths and lam­i­nated menus – where she de­scribes how a work­ing-class up­bring­ing shaped her out­look.

She was born in Parkch­ester, a largely African-amer­i­can and His­panic com­mu­nity that

Her rise has echoes of Jeremy Cor­byn’s un­likely climb from Labour back­bencher to po­ten­tial prime min­is­ter

orig­i­nated as a planned hous­ing de­vel­op­ment, and raised by her Puerto Ri­can mother and Amer­i­can fa­ther, who worked as an ar­chi­tect. But as she reached school age they de­cided to move to Westch­ester County, a more af­flu­ent sub­urb 25 miles north, on ac­count of its bet­ter schools. While liv­ing there her mother be­gan work­ing as a cleaner in the houses of richer neigh­bours, in­clud­ing Oca­sio-cortez’s own school friends. ‘I re­mem­ber in high school she cleaned a woman’s house so that I could get SAT lessons,’ she re­calls.

Later, she won a schol­ar­ship and stud­ied eco­nomics at Bos­ton Univer­sity, but the un­ex­pected death of her fa­ther from can­cer at the start of her sec­ond year deep­ened the fam­ily’s fi­nan­cial woes and a long-run­ning bat­tle to keep their house fol­lowed. Her mother be­gan a job as a bus driver, in ad­di­tion to her clean­ing work, and af­ter her stud­ies Oca­sio-cortez started wait­ress­ing at a taco bar in Man­hat­tan to sup­ple­ment her mother’s in­come. ‘That was the most po­lit­i­cally gal­vanis­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that I’ve had,’ she says. ‘There is just a cer­tain vis­ceral truth of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing be­ing a work­ing-class per­son in this coun­try that can­not be con­veyed in ar­ti­cles or any­thing like that.

‘There’s no real way to com­mu­ni­cate what it’s like to wake up at six o’clock in the morn­ing and work lit­er­ally an 18-hour day. To en­counter all sorts of labour abuses, but you can’t re­port them be­cause you’d lose your job and you don’t have unionised work­force or labour pro­tec­tion. And then do­ing it all for just $200 [£150] a day, if you’re lucky, or as lit­tle as £50.’

At one point Oca­sio-cortez re­calls ask­ing her fel­low work­ers, many of whom were im­mi­grants, whether they had health in­sur­ance. ‘Not a sin­gle per­son that I worked with was cov­ered,’ she re­calls. ‘They all were just sav­ing money for a rainy day.’

Her grow­ing po­lit­i­cal in­ter­est led her to work part-time in Sen­a­tor Ed­ward Kennedy’s Bos­ton of­fice, deal­ing with con­cerns that in­cluded im­mi­gra­tion is­sues. Then emerged a politi­cian for whom she was will­ing to go all-in: Bernie San­ders.

At the time, the Ver­mont sen­a­tor, in his 70s, was con­sid­ered on the po­lit­i­cal fringe, but then his bid for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion in 2016 took off. Iden­ti­fy­ing as a demo­cratic so­cial­ist and rail­ing against cor­po­rate Amer­ica, he surged in the race at first and blind­sided Hil­lary Clin­ton, the pre­sump­tive nom­i­nee.

‘For me it was re­ally just the mes­sage,’ says Oca­sio-cortez. ‘Peo­ple take for granted how much of what he was say­ing was so taboo at the time that he was run­ning for of­fice.’

Though San­ders out­per­formed all ex­pec­ta­tions, he ul­ti­mately came up short and bowed out. By the time Trump was elected in Novem­ber 2016, Oca­sio-cortez was back wait­ress­ing, but mo­ti­vated by San­ders she was pre­par­ing her next move – run­ning for po­lit­i­cal of­fice her­self.

Across Amer­ica, other ‘Berniecrat­s’ – left-wing Democrats who were sup­port­ive of San­ders, but dis­il­lu­sioned by the party es­tab­lish­ment and craved bolder poli­cies – had also be­come de­ter­mined to change the sta­tus quo. One group of San­ders’ staffers de­cided to tar­get Congress and set out to find can­di­dates who shared their be­liefs. ‘The idea was to re­cruit peo­ple from scratch,’ re­calls Corbin Trent, who had worked in the San­ders cam­paign head­quar­ters. ‘When we started we said, “No for­mer politi­cians, pe­riod.” It didn’t mat­ter if you were a mayor or what­ever.’

At first call­ing them­selves Brand New Congress, they later splin­tered to cre­ate Jus­tice Democrats. Their mis­sion – to ‘elect a new type of Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity in Congress’ – was a clear warn­ing shot to the old guard. Through their San­ders net­works and so­cial me­dia, they put out a call look­ing for young, dy­namic, left-wing Amer­i­cans will­ing to give it a shot at be­com­ing con­gress­peo­ple and to their shock, 12,000 ap­plied. Among them was Oca­sio-cortez’s brother Gabriel, who put for­ward his sis­ter.

So far, Jus­tice Democrats has en­dorsed 26 can­di­dates who will stand in the US midterm elec­tions next month. Many are women and from eth­nic mi­nori­ties (re­flect­ing the group’s cham­pi­oning of gen­der and racial equal­ity), and a num­ber have al­ready de­feated more mod­er­ate Demo­cratic in­cum­bents.

It was this will­ing­ness to take on fel­low Democrats that earned the nick­name Tea Party of the Left – a mir­ror re­ver­sal of the force that rad­i­calised the Re­pub­li­cans dur­ing the Obama years and counted Sarah Palin as a fig­ure­head. And, as with the Re­pub­li­cans, the in­ter­nal feud­ing has cre­ated bad blood, with com­plaints of dirty tac­tics and party money used to pro­tect those al­ready elected.

But Trent is unapolo­getic about tak­ing on his own party. ‘The es­tab­lish­ment Democrats are wor­ried about Re­pub­li­cans tak­ing away their jobs, so they be­have more like Re­pub­li­cans,’ he says. ‘We need peo­ple to fear that pro­gres­sives will take their jobs.’

There are other signs that San­ders’ poli­cies have lived on be­yond his pres­i­den­tial bid. For one, Amer­i­can so­cial­ism is back among a num­ber of young vot­ers. The so­cial­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion Demo­cratic So­cial­ists of Amer­ica (DSA), formed in 1982 through the merger of two ri­vals, had been limp­ing on for decades. By the sum­mer of 2016 – months be­fore the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion – it had just 6,500 mem­bers. But in Fe­bru­ary 2017, the month af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, its mem­ber­ship had more than dou­bled to 15,000, and within a year it hit 35,000. Now there are­more than 50,000 mem­bers, mak­ing it

‘The es­tab­lish­ment Democrats are wor­ried about Re­pub­li­cans tak­ing away their jobs, so they be­have more like Re­pub­li­cans’

the largest US so­cial­ist or­gan­i­sa­tion since the Sec­ond World War.

Maria Svart, na­tional di­rec­tor of the DSA, likens it to a ‘re­birth’ and points out that most new mem­bers are mil­len­ni­als, at­tracted to mod­ern so­cial­ism by San­ders’ cam­paign and then driven into po­lit­i­cal ac­tion by Trump’s vic­tory.

Though some in the Re­pub­li­can Party clearly be­lieve the ‘S-word’ – so­cial­ism – still hor­ri­fies mid­dle Amer­ica, con­jur­ing up images of Joseph Mc­carthy and ‘reds un­der the bed’, Svart points out that young peo­ple didn’t live through the Cold War and the red scare. In­stead, ‘Young peo­ple have lived through neo-lib­er­al­ism, which is a 50-year as­sault on our ba­sic liv­ing stan­dards,’ she says.

Svart ar­gues that the 2008 crash is more res­o­nant with young vot­ers than the Soviet threat and points to the ex­am­ple of Lee Carter, a young demo­cratic so­cial­ist who took on a long-time Re­pub­li­can in­cum­bent for a seat in Vir­ginia’s state par­lia­ment. An at­tack leaflet was put out with the word ‘so­cial­ism’ at the top, and a pic­ture of Carter’s face along­side car­i­ca­tures of Karl Marx, Friedrich En­gels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Chair­man Mao. He ended up win­ning by nine points.

Back in El­lie’s Diner, Oca­sio-cortez’s scram­bled eggs and chips have ar­rived. She re­calls the joy of her vic­tory over Crow­ley back in June, how she built a cam­paign from the ground up based on her un­der­stand­ing of the area from past com­mu­nity or­gan­is­ing.

‘I un­der­stood where the pock­ets were, I un­der­stood where I could dive deep, I un­der­stood where there would be push­back,’ she says of her dis­trict. ‘A lot of peo­ple don’t un­der­stand the av­er­age voter. I feel like that’s my strength.’

The plan worked won­ders. De­spite be­ing out­spent 10:1, she de­feated Crow­ley – who, in a show of hu­mil­ity, ded­i­cated a ren­di­tion of Bruce Spring­steen’s Born to Run to his young ri­val at his re­sults party. Oca­sio-cortez still has to de­feat her Re­pub­li­can op­po­nent, An­thony Pap­pas, on 6 Novem­ber, but her dis­trict’s bluer-than-blue vot­ing his­tory sug­gests it is prac­ti­cally a done deal.

The big­ger ques­tion is whether her suc­cess can be repli­cated across Amer­ica – af­ter all, the DSA mem­ber­ship of 50,000 hardly makes it main­stream. More mod­er­ate Democrats fear that forc­ing the party to the left could re­sult in fall­ing into a trap laid by the Re­pub­li­cans, and warn that such a shift risks aban­don­ing the blue-col­lar work­ers they lost to Trump in 2016, as well as alien­at­ing Re­pub­li­cans who are con­sid­er­ing turn­ing on the Pres­i­dent. Stick to the cen­tre ground, they ar­gue, and we will be back in the White House in 2020.

Oca­sio-cortez dis­agrees. ‘Come on,’ she ar­gues, be­com­ing more an­i­mated than she has been all day. ‘Don­ald Trump is pres­i­dent. Who thinks that the cen­tre holds in this coun­try?

‘The cen­tre has lost us the House [of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives], the cen­tre has lost us the Se­nate, the cen­tre has lost us the pres­i­dency. This idea that Amer­i­cans are crav­ing luke­warm pol­icy ideas that are these Franken­stein’s mon­sters of blah is so wrong.’

Some think she is wrong, not least the Pres­i­dent, who seizes on cer­tain poli­cies – such as abol­ish­ing Amer­ica’s Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment (ICE), which helps with de­por­ta­tions – and uses them to paint the whole party as weak on bor­der se­cu­rity.

But politi­cians hop­ing to clinch the Democrats’ nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent in 2020 have spot­ted the en­ergy bub­bling up on the pro­gres­sive side and are look­ing to ride the wave. San­ders could run again. His fel­low left-wing tubthumper El­iz­a­beth War­ren, the Mass­a­chu­setts sen­a­tor, looks to be pre­par­ing a bid, too. An­other half a dozen Democrats in the Se­nate alone are on ma­noeu­vres, plus count­less gover­nors and may­ors. The race is set to burst into the open next year. And the com­mon theme emerg­ing is the will­ing­ness, in ei­ther pol­icy or rhetoric, to align them­selves with Oca­sio-cortez’s wing of the party.

At El­lie’s Diner, our con­ver­sa­tion ap­proaches its end. This af­ter­noon, Oca­sio-cortez is head­ing back out to cam­paign for fel­low left-wingers in pri­maries against other Democrats, send­ing out In­sta­gram posts and Face­book Live broad­casts urg­ing sup­port­ers to turn up and vote. Some end up win­ning. Many fall short.

Oca­sio-cortez does ad­mit that some of her poli­cies, such as abol­ish­ing ICE, may not have uni­ver­sal ap­peal, but in the ‘Age of Trump’, she be­lieves it is time to try.

Be­fore leav­ing the diner, she re­calls Ada, the owner of Oliver Grady III, to ham­mer home her point. ‘That women whose dog I just walked to the polls, she wants Mike Pence [the Re­pub­li­can vice pres­i­dent] to be pres­i­dent, but she also re­ally likes me,’ Oca­sio-cortez says.

Pol­i­tics is no longer a ‘neat, clear-cut’ di­vi­sion be­tween Right and Left, with the only way to win be­ing down the mid­dle, she ar­gues. Trump showed that. It is time, she tells her party, to show ‘moral courage’ and stick to what it be­lieves. Whether Amer­ica agrees with her def­i­ni­tion of the phrase is the real ques­tion now.

‘I un­der­stood where there would be push­back. A lot of peo­ple don’t un­der­stand the av­er­age voter. I feel that’s my strength’

Left On the cam­paign trail for New York State Se­nate can­di­date Alessan­dra Bi­aggi

Pre­vi­ous page Alexan­dria Oca­sio­cortez in New York last month.

With fel­low New Yorker and Demo­crat Cyn­thia Nixon on the night Oca­sio-cortez won in June

With for­mer can­di­date for the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion Bernie San­ders

Oca­sio-cortez with her mother, brother and grand­mother

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