America’s next top politician?
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