In New York's 14th Congressional District, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is looking to upset the district's Democratic incumbent, Rep. Joseph Crowley, who has not faced a primary challenge in 14 years.
A third-generation Bronxite from a Puerto Rican family, Ocasio-Cortez is running a grassroots campaign that she says is trying to connect her to the working-class population that makes up the district.
The rifts on the political left ever since President Donald Trump was elected have been more palpable than perhaps ever before, and it's worth examining how the Democratic Party should move forward.
Ocasio-Cortez is an example of the new, more progressive Democrat: She has eschewed corporate donations and super PAC money.
Salon sat down with Ocasio-Cortez to discuss a wide range of issues including her campaign, her strategy and why the American political apparatus is in need of a revolution. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Explain the importance of small, individual donors, and how that's driven your campaign.
You can't serve two masters, just can't do it. You need to be funded by everyday people if you are going to represent everyday people. Period. Why would a corporation give you money if they get nothing in return? They're not charities. You can talk the talk all day long, are you walking the walk? And not enough people walk the walk. Democrats or Republicans. Not enough of them are taking the bold actions that are committed to the things that they say.
Your opponent, Joseph Crowley, has not faced a single primary opponent in 14 years. What does it say about American politics when incumbents have little to fear?
To understand why Joe Crowley has not had a primary in 14 years, in a district that's 70 percent people of color, that is very working class, that is half immigrant, that really shares nothing in common with him . . . In order to understand why, you need to understand his role on the local level, and how he's tying his national influence to create a top-to-bottom machine in New York City. But, mind you, he's not the only person who does that. To use his position to attract millions of dollars in special interest funds in his own personal PACs — because you have not just his campaign fund, you have JOE-PAC, you have super PACs that you don't even know about that are affiliated with him. And so he takes his PAC, and he uses his position in Congress to funnel money to that PAC to then influence politics — and pay off, essentially, politicians on a national and local level.
He's not just the congressman; in an astounding conflict of interest, he's the congressman and he's chairman of the Queens Democratic Party. So riddle me how the chairman is supposed to be impartial in his own endorsement in the race?
The most vulnerable Joe Crowley can be is by a challenger who is an insurgent, grassroots candidate not beholden to special interests, who is from the Bronx, who is a woman of color. He's none of those things, and he's not prepared for any of those things.
You're running to the left of a Democrat in the era of Donald Trump, something many party loyalists have looked down upon. How do you feel about the notion that intra-party criticism should not be a current focus?
I don't think of myself as running from the left of Joe Crowley; I think of myself as running from the bottom. Because our political problems are not left and right — they're top and bottom. And he works for corporations, and I work for people. It's that simple, this is not even about dragging the party to the left. This is about making politics accountable. I represent my district. I represent the people that live in my district. He doesn't live in the district, either, he lives in Virginia. I'm running with the accountability and with the spirit and with the support of people who actually live here, and those people are working class. And the best things for working-class people are tuition-free college for their kids, health care for their families . . . feeling like they're protected from superstorms.
A key slogan of your campaign reads, "It's time for a political revolution." What does that mean to you, and are you worried about isolating Democrats?
We need to fundamentally change how we elect our leadership. We need to fundamentally change how we hold them accountable. I look forward to the day that being largely bankrolled by lobbyists is a disqualifying characteristic for a politician. I look forward to the day that everyday people start asking, "Where do you get your money from?"
And that's happening. It's going to start happening more and more. I tell New Yorkers, "Ask your elected officials, city councilman, assemblyman, dogcatcher — I don't care — ask them if they take money from real estate PACs." You take money from these real estate groups, and Joe Crowley puts the city council people in place who will rezone communities, who will allow high rises in places like Woodside and Sunnyside and the South Bronx — communities where these things do not belong . . . people who live there don't want them.
An overwhelming majority of the PAC contributions to your opponent comes from business as opposed to labor, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Talk about that disparity and what it reveals about political priorities.
It's about the balance. There's no problem being supported by businesses, especially if those businesses are in your community . . . no problem with it. But when you look at the balance, when you are just overwhelmingly represented by multimillion-, rather, multibillion-dollar groups, you are dependent on people who rely on low wages for them to exist. You're dependent on people who exploit workers, to a certain extent.
It's not because they [Democrats] actually believe we should be more centrist, it's because they're paid to be more centrist. If you want to help the private sector so bad, become a lobbyist. But your job as an elected official is to represent the people who live in your community.
What's your response to critics of ambitious platforms like yours that include tuition-free college, Medicare-for-All, etc.? Do you think this agenda can work across the country?
I do. I don't think it's anyone's responsibility to impose an agenda on your community, but I think you can come out with a strong stance, be unapologetic about it and find the people in your community who believe in that, win them over, engage in public discourse — have that conversation — I think it's important.
Can everyone run the way that I run? No, because I'm running like a rep. from the Bronx with Rikers Island in the district, whose community is half immigrants. Not everyone can do the things that I can do because not everyone is representing a community like my community. But, I think all in all, some shade of what we're doing can be done everywhere in America.
To Democrats during the 2016 election cycle who simply wrote off all Trump supporters as racists, or deplorables, was that strategy counterintuitive? Were there legitimate working-class grievances that went ignored by the Democrats?
You have to talk to working people, you have to talk to working people. And when working people don't feel like they're being talked to — when I don't feel like I'm being talked to — I'm going to tune you out. Whether you like it or not, Trump talked to working people. He was lying through his teeth ... but he knew exactly who he was talking to.
When you spend too much time with the minority of people, and not the majority of your time with the majority people, you're going to lose touch, you're not going to remember who you're fighting for, and you're not going to know who you're talking to. It's not left, this is not left. This is bottom. This is middle. This is working class.
Talk a little bit about the sentiment from critics all across the spectrum who often say these types of social services aren't affordable?
It's greed, it's greed. We've paid for Medicare-for-all 10 times already. But we devote that to horrible priorities, we devote it to wasteful spending and the truth of the matter is that all of these measures save money. Tuition-free college and tuition-free trade school saves money in unemployment. It saves money in people drowning in student debt. It's an investment, because we get a return on that investment. They are investments that generate returns. If anything, I believe that my platform is the most fiscally responsible platform out of any other option on the table. You establish this system, we will continue to reap the benefits. It's no mystery why people in countries with single-payer health care and universal health coverage defend those systems with everything that they have; they can't imagine what life was like without it.
If elected, would you support a 28th Amendment that would effectively overturn the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC?
Yes. The issue of money in politics was already problematic, but we 100 percent saw, after Citizens United, how disastrous this got. Growing up poor you know exactly what a dollar buys, and it makes me ill when I see politicians . . . have mobilized $50 million in a congressional race, because that's how much it costs to fix the pipes in Flint [Michigan].
What does $50 million buy? $50 million transforms communities and we flush it down the toilet every two years, 435 times across the country, and it makes me feel sick.
You run a very grassroots campaign; tell me about your on-the-ground strategy and how it has played out so far.
A lot of groups in New York City didn't think we had the signatures to get on the ballot. They didn't think we had 1,250, because they looked at our bank account and they said, "There's no way she can afford a field operation that will do this." And we ended up turning in five times the legal requirement, and I think that that is how we win this.
We win this by educating and expanding the electorate; we have one of the lowest voter turnout congressional districts in America. If you run a money race, the person with the most money wins. So you can't compete against a money person with money. You can only compete against a money candidate with organizing, and that's what we do.
That's how you revolutionize this community. Instead of hiring people who already know how to do it, our campaign went through the pains of training 141 newbies in how to collect legal petitions in the state of New York to put someone on the ballot. You can never take that skill away from that person now. Now, that person can go collect signatures for themselves . . . for any other person that they want to run. Now, we've got 141 experienced petition organizers in New York 14, that did not exist before.
What has the reception about your campaign been from people you've spoken with on the ground?
It's been very warm, actually. I don't run into too many people who doubt the issues. I do live in a district that's 85 percent Democratic. And that doesn't mean that it's 15 percent Republican either, it's like . . . another 10 percent independent and unaffiliated and it's like 5 percent Republican. Many of those independents believe in our platform; they've just been disenchanted with the [Democratic] party.
So 90 percent of the people that we run into are totally amenable, they're happy, it's the first time that they've really engaged in a conversation about who their congressperson is. Many of them don't even know who their congressperson is. Many of them are very animated and excited to see someone from their own community run for office. It's really satisfying, for me to go around — like when we were collecting petitions — and say, "Hey I'm running for Congress, I live right there!"
The reception has been overwhelmingly positive.
You mentioned a disenchantment between residents in NY-14 and the Democratic Party; why do you think that exists? Is this a conscious decision?
I think they've gotten caught up in the transactional nature of elections, and then the transactional nature of elections bleeds into transactional nature of governance — and that's what's happened. I don't think it's necessarily been an intentional switch, I think it's been a slow erosion to the point that you don't even realize how bad it is.
I've often been left feeling as if the message the Democrats have sent has been "Well, it's good enough," or "At least we aren't the other guys." How do you see it?
This idea that we don't have to fight every vote, the idea that it's not a fight — that you can phone it in — is wrong. Even in safe blue districts you shouldn't be phoning it in. If you live in a safe blue district you should be swinging for the fences on the most ambitious legislation in America, and that has not been happening.
[If] you live in an 85 percent Democratic district — oh my god — how are you not on Medicare-for-all? How are you not on tuition-free [college and trade school]? And how have you not been on it this whole time? Sure, all these Johnny-come-latelys are joining on, right, because, frankly, people like me are forcing them to. But if you live in such a safely Democratic seat, your job is to be imaginative, your job is to be ambitious, your job is to keep the needle moving forward.
Listen, if you're running in a swing district, I get it. I think it's totally fine to compromise when it's a debate among your constituents, when this is a conversation among your community. Communities compromise. But when it's a compromise between the people you represent and the people who pay you, that's not OK.
What do you think the Democrats can learn from you? What do you have to offer that's different?
I think what's really important to note is that regardless of the outcome of many of these progressive primaries . . . every progressive candidate who runs a grassroots campaign now has an entire organizing infrastructure and apparatus at the end of that campaign — win or lose. And the Democratic Party does not. The Democratic Party has not invested in grassroots organizing for a very long time. It's progressives that are building . . . the organizing infrastructure on the ground that can be tapped into for Senate campaigns, presidential campaigns and so on. But it will not be mobilized unless you stand on the issues.
As one person, how are you going to be able to challenge this larger-than-life party when Democrats don't necessarily want to be challenged?
I'm a movement candidate, and there are at least 50 other brother and sister campaigns that I've joined on with, that I speak to on a regular level, and a lot of them are going to win, so it's not just me. We've got Randy Bryce out there — he's also co-endorsed with Justice Democrats too — so we already have a bond and a channel. You've got Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who is already an incumbent. This is not just one vote; we are building power, whether other people like it or not. And the only reason we're able to build power is because people want us to have power. That's it. If you're fighting against us, you're fighting against the will of people — and that's fine.