New Dems pre­pare agenda

Oca­sio-Cortez, other fresh­man reps look to shape House

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Elise Viebeck and David Weigel

Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez has rapidly emerged as the de facto leader of a his­toric class of House Democrats whose di­ver­sity and ties to the pro­gres­sive left will shape the party as it tar­gets Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and works to clar­ify its mes­sage ahead of the 2020 elec­tions.

In­com­ing mem­bers have quickly ex­erted their in­flu­ence on Capi­tol Hill since the midterm elec­tions, with pro­gres­sives bol­ster­ing Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi’s, D-Calif., bid for speaker by de­clin­ing to en­dorse an op­po­si­tion move­ment led by cen­trist Democrats.

Yet while Rep.-elect Oca­sioCortez, D-N.Y., and her lib­eral peers have cho­sen so far not to ag­gra­vate the lead­er­ship dis­pute, their rel­a­tive youth, en­ergy and pro­gres­sive bent raised the specter of fu­ture con­flict as cen­trists and lib­er­als fight for con­trol of the party’s agenda for the next two years.

“This is prob­a­bly one of the most en­tre­pre­neur­ial, in­no­va­tive and rest­less fresh­man classes that we’ve seen in re­cent mem­ory,” said for­mer Rep. Steve Is­rael, D-N.Y., who ran the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee from 2011 to 2015. “What I would cau­tion them to do is to keep their eye on who the prob­lem is — and the prob­lem is the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

The threat of fresh di­vi­sions among House Democrats be­came clear af­ter Oca­sio-Cortez beat Rep. Joseph Crow­ley, D-N.Y., chair­man of the House Demo-

cratic Cau­cus, in a June pri­mary in their Queens-based con­gres­sional district. The upset drew na­tional at­ten­tion. Oca­sioCortez, a demo­cratic so­cial­ist, went on to cam­paign with Sen. Bernie San­ders, I-Vt., for like-minded can­di­dates around the coun­try and to gen­er­ate a mas­sive fol­low­ing on­line.

The midterm elec­tion pro­duced a pow­er­ful class of fresh­man Democrats that has been riven by the speak­er­ship race, as cen­trists from red and pur­ple dis­tricts ex­press op­po­si­tion to Pelosi and pro­gres­sives back her or con­spic­u­ously de­cline to join the in­sur­gents.

Oca­sio-Cortez threw sup­port be­hind the would-be speaker dur­ing a re­cent live video on In­sta­gram in which she told an au­di­ence of nearly 5,000 view­ers that op­po­si­tion to Pelosi was com­ing from her right flank.

She re­peated this ar­gu­ment Wed­nes­day on Twit­ter.

“All the chal­lenges to Leader Pelosi are com­ing from her right, in an ap­par­ent ef­fort to make the party even more con­ser­va­tive and bent to­ward cor­po­rate in­ter­ests. Hard pass,” she wrote. “So long as Leader Pelosi re­mains the most pro­gres­sive can­di­date for Speaker, she can count on my sup­port.”

Oca­sio-Cortez won her pri­mary af­ter crit­i­ciz­ing es­tab­lish­ment Democrats for fail­ing to push bold pol­icy so­lu­tions to cli­mate change, in­come in­equal­ity and ris­ing health-care costs. She re­ceived sup­port from pro­gres­sive groups such as Jus­tice Democrats, which also en­dorsed the House can­di­da­cies of Il­han Omar, D-Minn., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ayanna Press­ley, D-Mass.

These three women each broke bar­ri­ers with their vic­to­ries — Omar and Tlaib are the first two Mus­lim women elected to Congress, and Press­ley is the first black woman elected to Congress from Mas­sachusetts.

To­gether, the in­com­ing fresh­man Democrats are his­tor­i­cally di­verse, with women and peo­ple of color mak­ing up a ma­jor­ity of the group. Among them is Ja­hana Hayes, who be­came the first black woman to rep­re­sent Con­necti­cut in Congress when she won the open 5th Con­gres­sional District race. Eigh­teen newly elected House Democrats are un­der age 40 — three times the num­ber who served this term.

“I think the women who won in the House, par­tic­u­larly Ms. Oca­sio-Cortez, are mag­nif­i­cent. They will be heard,” said for­mer con­gress­woman Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a co-leader of the Con­gres­sional Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus from 2006 to 2010.

Woolsey urged the new­com­ers to em­brace Pelosi, who she de­scribed as a true pro­gres­sive.

“She can teach them if they will lis­ten, and she will lis­ten to them,” Woolsey said.

While Pelosi has man­aged to avoid se­ri­ous op­po­si­tion from the pro­gres­sive fresh­men, they are ex­pected to put pres­sure on her to move the House’s agenda to the left.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who leads the mod­er­ate New Demo­crat Coali­tion, said the party should be “very strate­gic to avoid” votes that put pres­sure on vul­ner­a­ble cen­trists. He pointed to the pro­gres­sive talk­ing point of abol­ish­ing Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment as un­help­ful.

“The thing that an­noys me about ‘Abol­ish ICE’ is that it be­came a po­lit­i­cal li­a­bil­ity for some of our most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers, and it wasn’t even a real pol­icy pro­posal,” Himes said. “Why put it out there in a form that makes life very dif­fi­cult for peo­ple in red­der ar­eas?”

On the left, Oca­sio-Cortez’s early crit­i­cism of her fu­ture col­leagues has been cel­e­brated for iden­ti­fy­ing what some pro­gres­sives be­lieve their lead­ers need to en­cour­age to keep mo­men­tum — steady, ag­gres­sive di­rect ac­tion, even if it makes some peo­ple un­com­fort­able.

Her ap­proach was on full dis­play this month as newly elected mem­bers as­sem­bled in Wash­ing­ton for the first time since the elec­tion.

Within 24 hours, Oca­sio-Cortez joined a cli­mate-change protest in Pelosi’s Capi­tol Hill of­fice, con­ducted a brief scrum with re­porters, and drew hun­dreds of thou­sands of view­ers to In­sta­gram videos about her ex­pe­ri­ences — from catch­ing up on laun­dry, to pick­ing se­cure mo­bile de­vices, to tour­ing the Li­brary of Congress.

“Wel­come to Hog­warts,” she wrote on a video cap­tur­ing the li­brary’s lav­ish Great Hall.

Oca­sio-Cortez and her fel­low Demo­cratic new­com­ers’ al­ready siz­able fan base among younger vot­ers and vot­ers of color will give par­tic­u­lar weight to their en­dorse­ments in the next Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial pri­mary, while their flu­ency on so­cial me­dia — a rad­i­cal shift from the staid, prepack­aged style used by most politi­cians — could set the bar for how can­di­dates gen­er­ate in­ter­est and sup­port on­line.

As the group’s most prom­i­nent mem­ber, Oca­sio-Cortez is help­ing to ad­dress the lack of di­ver­sity and ad­vanc­ing age of lead­ers on the left, ar­gued Sean McEl­wee, the co­founder of the Data for Progress think tank.

“She’s a pro­gres­sive left­ist who’s not a 77-year-old white guy,” said McEl­wee. “Peo­ple look at Oca­sio-Cortez and they iden­tify with her.”

At 29, Oca­sio-Cortez is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and she has led the way in us­ing so­cial me­dia to cul­ti­vate a vast fol­low­ing and to en­cour­age women and peo­ple of color to sup­port Democrats.

“The Democrats won the ma­jor­ity by align­ing mod­er­ate and in­de­pen­dent sub­ur­ban vot­ers with en­er­getic, pro­gres­sive ur­ban vot­ers,” Is­rael said. “It’s got to con­tinue that align­ment. It’s not one or the other. It’s got to be both if they’re go­ing to re­tain the ma­jor­ity in 2020.”

Yet be­ing thrust into the na­tional spot­light as a novice politi­cian has had down­sides for Oca­sio-Cortez, re­veal­ing gaps in her knowl­edge and ex­pos­ing her de­liv­ery and qual­i­fi­ca­tions to crit­i­cism.

She once re­ferred to Is­rael’s “oc­cu­pa­tion of Pales­tine,” draw­ing swift crit­i­cism. She has said the “up­per-mid­dle class doesn’t ex­ist any­more in Amer­ica,” that “un­em­ploy­ment is low be­cause ev­ery­one has two jobs,” and that cap­i­tal­ism “has not al­ways ex­isted in the world and will not al­ways ex­ist in the world.”

When Repub­li­cans pounced on her most re­cent gaffe — a com­ment that Democrats must take back “all three cham­bers of gov­ern­ment: the pres­i­dency, the Se­nate and the House” — she urged GOP crit­ics to “ac­tu­ally step up enough to make the ar­gu­ment they want to make: that they don’t be­lieve peo­ple de­serve a right to health­care.”

Oca­sio-Cortez uses her so­cial me­dia ac­counts to spar with de­trac­tors but also to in­tro­duce fol­low­ers to other in­com­ing Democrats, build­ing their pro­files and bol­ster­ing the group’s sense of col­lec­tive iden­tity.

In one re­cent In­sta­gram post, she called at­ten­tion to Omar, who wears a head­scarf, and her fight against a rule that bans head cov­er­ings for mem­bers on the House floor.

Can­di­dates who were en­dorsed by Oca­sio-Cortez and lost said that her sup­port none­the­less boosted their cam­paigns and put them on the na­tional radar.

Kansas at­tor­ney Brent Welder nar­rowly lost a House pri­mary; Oca­sio-Cortez and San­ders had ral­lied for him.

“They’re two of the most pop­u­lar fig­ures in the Demo­cratic Party, and that’s be­cause they’re grass-roots lead­ers who stay con­nected to the peo­ple,” said Welder. “Democrats need to re­mem­ber the pop­ulist roots of our party.”

Welder’s loss was more re­flec­tive of pro­gres­sive groups’ per­for­mance this elec­tion: just 11 of the 61 non-in­cum­bent can­di­dates en­dorsed by Jus­tice Democrats won their pri­maries.

Left-wing groups have re­sponded with talk of re­plac­ing mod­er­ate or “out-oftouch” in­cum­bents in safe seats. On Satur­day, Jus­tice Democrats an­nounced an #OurTime cam­paign to find the “next Oca­sio-Cortez.”

Or­ga­niz­ers said the ini­tia­tive would di­rect re­sources and at­ten­tion to­ward strong can­di­dates who could, like the con­gress­woman-elect, speak to the party’s base with­out fil­ters.

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, cen­ter, stands on the steps of the U.S. Capi­tol with other newly elected mem­bers of Congress.

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