Anyone remotely familiar with New Jersey politics knows it is a machine state.
When Governor Phil Murphy’s administration dared to kick the hornet’s neck and shine a light on potential abuses of the NJ Economic Development Authority by George Norcross, Democratic Party boss, it made quite a few waves felt even outside the Garden State. Within the Democratic Party structure, it intensified if not created a rift between Murphy and Democratic leaders in the state loyal to Norcross. In a largely blue state, the Democrats were divided in a very public fashion and once-stated legislative priorities mysteriously vanished.
There are yet other examples of essentially naked acts of corruption or malfeasance. Senator Bob Menendez, for one, has managed to retain his seat in Congress despite revelations about his impermissible acceptance of benefits, the beneficiary of congressional standards watered down to the point of absurdity. After a stint as governor that saw his popularity steadily decline over his tenure amid scandals and uneven handling of the state’s budget crisis, Goldman Sachs alum Jon Corzine presided over MF Global, a futures broker and bond dealer, ultimately overseeing the company file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and settling with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to the tune of $5 million for his part in the firm’s collapse. And this is just the Democrats. Don’t even get me started about Chris Christie, Bridgegate, and his abuses of his position.
In short, at every level, New Jersey politics of late has been marked by a rigid adherence to big-money establishment politics and prominent political figures compromised by conflicts of interest. Thankfully, though, the hegemonic power structure of the state isn’t going uncontested.
As Ryan Grim and Akela Lacy wrote about in an article for The Intercept last month, New Jersey’s “cartoonishly corrupt Democratic Party is finally getting challenged.” Referencing the Corzine, Menendez, and Norcross scandals as part of this profile, Grim and Lacy highlight a wave of progressives who not only are challenging entrenched party loyalists, but doing so with serious campaigns, notably in the House. Hector Oseguera’s bid to unseat Albio Sires, a congressional veteran who has been a member of the House since 2006 with little to show for it in terms of legislative achievements or name recognition, is the main focus of the piece.
Oseguera, an anti-money-laundering specialist, isn’t the only progressive name-checked in the article, however—nor should he be. Whether it’s Democratic Party primaries in the House or Senate or even county freeholder races across the state, there are a number of primary challengers championing progressive causes and giving New Jersey voters credible options in the upcoming July 7 primary.
In New Jersey’s fifth congressional district, for instance, Dr. Arati Kreibich, a neuroscientist who immigrated to the United States at the age of 11 with her family, is challenging Josh Gottheimer, a centrist Democrat with a war chest upwards of $5 million who serves as co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group that seems to cause more problems than it actually solves. In my home district, NJ-9, octogenarian Bill Pascrell faces competition from Zinovia “Zina” Spezakis, the daughter of Greek immigrants with a strong focus on addressing climate change. Cory Booker, fresh off his failed presidential campaign, is opposed by Larry Hamm, a long-time community activist, leader, and organizer. Even Bonnie Watson Coleman, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, faces a challenge from Lisa McCormick, who previously managed 38% of the vote against Sen. Menendez in his latest reelection bid and, like Spezakis and Hamm, is inspired by the presidential runs of Bernie Sanders.
As Grim’s and Lacy’s report underscores, citing the sentiments of Eleana Little, a candidate for Hudson County freeholder, the progressive left in New Jersey has people. It has grassroots funding/organizing and volunteers phone-banking and sending out postcards. Despite setbacks at the presidential campaign level, there is real energy behind down-ballot candidates fighting for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, cancellation of student debt, and a $15 minimum wage, among other things. For a movement inspired by the likes of Sen. Sanders, these primary challengers are proving that “Not Me. Us.” is not just a campaign slogan—it’s a mantra.
Can one or more of these candidates win? It’s possible, even if the odds (and fundraising) are against them. Following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sensational upset primary win over Joe Crowley in NY-14, progressives and political news media alike are looking for “the next AOC.”
One race being watched closely because of its perceived similarities (not to mention its geographic proximity) is Jamaal Bowman’s bid to unseat Eliot Engel, a 16-time incumbent and high-ranking House Democrat. In case you missed it, Engel was recently caught in a hot mic situation in response to speaking at an event related to the protests following George Floyd’s death, telling Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Please, New York’s 16th, vote for Bowman and refuse to stand for that level of apathy.
AOC’s success story is yet an outlier, as numerous progressive challengers to established names in Congress have failed to match her electoral success. This doesn’t mean their efforts were without merit, however. Moreover, the political calculus has changed appreciably since this election cycle began. Obviously, there’s the matter of COVID-19, which has changed so much about our everyday lives, at least for the time being. The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests happening here in the United States and elsewhere, too, have ignited calls for meaningful change. People are fed up, to put it mildly. Whether that sense of outrage translates to increased voter turnout remains to be seen. Then again, if you had told me a month ago that protesters would compel a major city like Minneapolis to consider disbanding its police force and that Confederate symbols and statues of Christopher Columbus would be getting upended, I would’ve stared at you in disbelief. At this moment, everything seems possible.
While not to compare the state of New Jersey politics to protests of that magnitude, along these lines, if you would’ve told me a year ago we’d have a group of progressives this impressive running for office in a state this hostile to primary challenges, I would’ve looked at you sideways. At a time when ordinary citizens are demanding accountability and substantive action from the people meant to protect and serve them, it feels like only a matter of time before people ask for better with their ballots.
In advance of this year’s New York Democratic primaries, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had already generated a lot of attention, thanks in large part to a viral campaign advertisement called “The Courage to Change.” The spot highlights how Ocasio-Cortez is, to put it simply, not your average congressional candidate. As the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaigner says in a voiceover for the two-minute ad:
Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office. I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family. Mother from Puerto Rico, dad from the South Bronx. I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny. My name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I’m an educator, an organizer, a working-class New Yorker. I’ve worked with expectant mothers, I’ve waited tables, and led classrooms, and going into politics wasn’t in the plan.
So, what compelled the 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez to run? Not to suggest her campaign is a derivative one, but her platform sounds a lot like one belonging to a certain Vermont senator who ran for president:
After 20 years of the same representation, we have to ask: who has New York been changing for? Every day gets harder for working families like mine to get by. The rent gets higher, health care covers less, and our income stays the same. It’s clear that these changes haven’t been for us, and we deserve a champion. It’s time to fight for a New York that working families can afford.
That’s why I’m running for Congress. This race is about people vs. money. We’ve got people, they’ve got money. It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same. That a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air cannot possibly represent us. What the Bronx and Queens need is Medicare-for-all, tuition-free public college, a federal jobs guarantee, and criminal justice reform.
We can do it now. It doesn’t take a hundred years to do this. It takes political courage. A New York for the many is possible. It’s time for one of us.
Ocasio-Cortez has stated her campaign is not about progressives vs. establishment Democrats, and rather, that it’s about people over politics and money, but it’s clear from her mission statement that she’s there in opposition to politics as usual, and if that means going through long-tenured party members to do it, so be it.
In particular, her campaign spot name-checks Joe Crowley, Democratic representative from her district and member of the House since 1999 (hence, the “20 years” reference). Crowley, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem like a bad guy per se, but he also represents the centrist, “old white guy” political mold that voters increasingly are eschewing in their embrace of substantive policy ideas (and it probably doesn’t help he’s been chummy with lobbyists and pro-business types). Sure, he’s moved farther left than when he started in Congress, but going against someone who looks and sounds like a real-deal progressive, he and others like him are suddenly more vulnerable.
As the title of this post would indicate, they may be very vulnerable, indeed. In a fairly surprising result, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took down the 10-term incumbent Crowley in last week’s primary, capturing 57% of the vote. Ocasio-Cortez’s “upset” win is surprising for any number of reasons, not the least of which are her status as a relative unknown and political neophyte, Crowley’s entrenchment in Washington, and her being outdone roughly 10-to-one in campaign spending. Ocasio-Cortez’s political bid began seemingly as a feel-good story, and progressives likely would have been happy with her showing regardless of the outcome. Now, however, she appears poised to be a force to be reckoned with.
In the immediate aftermath of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upending of Joe Crowley’s re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-re-election bid, it would seem few are really well equipped to reckon with her success. Certainly, that we are even treating her victory as a surprise is owed somewhat to the media’s previous lack of focus on her, a trend that others outside the establishment vanguard have encountered (see also Cynthia Nixon, of whom we would stand to know little if we weren’t already familiar with her acting).
Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been consistently critical of the blind eye turned toward progressives in everyday political discourse, in particular chastised Joy-Ann Reid and MSNBC in a couple of tweets the day after Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win:
Compare @JoyAnnReid’s revealingly insular and self-justifying tweet above about how “political journalism” (i.e. MSNBC) ignored the @Ocasio2018 race to @brianstelter’s honest and accurate @CNN story on how several media outlets actually covered the race.
A cable network that is monomaniacally devoted to faithfully serving the agenda of Party leaders and uncritically disseminating their talking points is obviously going to miss – or deliberately suppress – any challenges to those Party dictates. That’s what happened there.
While MSNBC talking heads are overlooking progressive candidates for public office and even the sources that more closely follow them, moderate Democrats are painting Ocasio-Cortez’s victory as an anomaly or one-off rather than a sign of the times during this post-mortem period. Nancy Pelosi, notably, dismissed these returns from NY-14 as being indicative of a movement or anything “larger” than one district. It’s perplexing considering the energy and press following Ocasio-Cortez seem like things Democrats of all make and model should be embracing. Then again, this is Nancy Pelosi we’re talking about here, a woman that Republicans seeking office are only too happy to have around because she evidently possesses a Hillary Clinton-like ability to make public declarations GOP political advertisers can use to their strategic advantage to make her and the Dems seem out of touch.
Speaking of Republicans, they’ve got their own reasons to be scared of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Jay Willis, writing for GQ Magazine, explains that they’re “terrified” of the 28-year-old political hopeful, precisely because they can’t beat her on a policy debate. Instead, conservatives like John Cardillo have resorted to questioning her credentials right down to her upbringing, suggesting, among other things, that she grew up in a more wealthy household/neighborhood than she is otherwise letting on. This, to me, is akin to the types of conspiracy theories that would have you believe survivors of mass shootings and children separated from their families at the Mexican border are paid actors. It’s as reprehensible as it is dishonest.
In short, centrist Democrats, conservative Republicans, and corporatist media outlets all see Ocasio-Cortez as somewhat of a threat, and this seems to be as much about her identity as her policy goals. In talking about her “identity,” I’m referring not to Ocasio-Cortez’s Bronx upbringing or Puerto Rican heritage, but her self-identification as a “democratic socialist.”
Much in the way Bernie Sanders was assailed on all sides from people who failed to draw distinctions between “democratic socialism” and “socialism” and ostensibly socialist regimes which belie a dictatorial bent—or intentionally confused them—Ocasio-Cortez’s win is forcing to those on the left and right alike to come to grips with the dreaded S-word. Within the press community, numerous outlets have taken to publishing articles trying to explain for the uninitiated what the heck, exactly, democratic socialism is. Nancy Pelosi, while diminishing Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory, also has publicly rejected the notion that socialism is “ascendant” within Democratic ranks.
On the right, meanwhile, SOCIALISM! SOCIALISM! BURN THE WITCH! This salvo from Cheryl Chumley for The Washington Times entitled “Ocasio-Cortez, New York’s socialist congressional contender, an enemy of America,” I share because I find it especially repugnant. It characterizes her primary win as a “face slap to America” and an “affront to all the Founding Fathers forged.” Chumley is the same woman who recently authored an essay on how “Democrats hate America,” apparently with the numbers to prove this assertion. For the record, her “numbers” are one statistic from a Gallup poll that shows Democrats are less likely to be “extremely proud” to be an American than their Republican counterparts—which surely doesn’t have anything to do with the Trump White House, a GOP-led Congress, and a conservative-majority Supreme Court, right?—and vague sentiments that reference Antifa, democratic socialists, and Obama apologists into one nebulous mix to be feared and loathed. Sorry Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t look and sound and think like you, Ms. Chumley. I forgot that makes her automatically less American or patriotic.
But about those policy goals. In the vein of a Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez supports progressive ideals such as Medicare-for-all, a $15 minimum wage, free tuition for public colleges, campaign finance reform, and housing as a human right. These are not new, and are not controversial to the extent that fellow Democrats may not explicitly argue against them, though they may be reluctant to embrace them in favor of more centrist policies.
Other views, meanwhile, are outside the mainstream, either by virtue of their direct opposition to commonly-held stances within the party or their relative novelty among leadership. For one, Ocasio-Cortez has been a vocal critic of Israel, and joins an evidently growing number of people on an international stage who question the free pass Netanyahu’s government receives for its actions related to Israeli settlements and its handling of Palestinian resistance to the latter group’s apparent subjugation.
While she hasn’t yet clarified her position on the BDS movement, that the Democratic Socialists of America are pro-boycott worries the Democratic elites who have come to count on wealthy Jewish patrons and staunchly pro-Israel groups among their lists of donors. It’s another point of potential division between factions within the Democratic Party, which tend to get played up for effect in the media anyway, but nonetheless may be indicative of a fracture between the old guard and the new vying to push the party in a certain diplomatic direction.
The other major policy quirk which has drawn additional attention to Ocasio-Cortez’s platform is her embrace of an “abolish ICE” mantra. On this note, her views seem to lack nuance, although it would likely be difficult to rally behind a cause with a more cumbersome message. As it would seem, Ocasio-Cortez only wants to “abolish” Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the extent that it would be replaced with a more accountable agency or otherwise reformed.
Of course, Republicans have sought to weaponize this stated goal by insinuating that Democrats who want to abolish ICE are asking for no border control at all, hence other Dems have been reluctant to embrace the slogan. Then again, in light of the ongoing crisis facing the detention and separation of immigrant families, as well as numerous alleged abuses by ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, the discussion over what is permitted in the name of “border security” is a worthy one.
All this has made for a rather confusing dissection of a race that few outside of progressive circles and Ocasio-Cortez’s own support system were wont to predict in her favor, a dissection that tests us as consumers of the news to view our sources critically. After all, what these outlets say about the congressional hopeful may say as much about them as it does her. In the case of Cheryl Chumley, it reveals ugly attitudes predicated on jingoistic paranoia. As such, while the November election in New York’s 14th congressional district will now undoubtedly receive much more widespread attention, how much of it is good or fair remains to be seen.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has only just won the Democratic primary for her district, but given the heavy blue leanings of NY-14, she’s looking like a pretty sure bet to make it to Congress. Either way, there is real energy behind her and her campaign, and not just from New Yorkers.
In Ocasio-Cortez, many pundits see the future of the Democratic Party, one of female leadership and better representation for people of color and other minority groups. They also see, in progressives like Ocasio-Cortez daring to go “further left,” Democrats more authentically embracing the values that the party’s detractors would say mainline Dems have all but abandoned over the years, particularly in defending the working class and organized labor from attempts by the GOP to erode their influence.
While comments to downplay Ocasio-Cortez’s and other progressives’ influence reflect poorly on Pelosi, it also is worth mentioning that one upset victory does not a party takeover make. This is not meant to throw water on the fire of young candidates on the rise, but rather to underscore the magnitude of the opposition others like Ocasio-Cortez will face from Democrats (esp. firmly-entrenched incumbents) and Republicans (esp. in red-leaning areas) alike.
Following Ocasio-Cortez’s win, candidates like Ayanna Presley in Massachusetts and Kerri Harris of Delaware have seen an uptick in their donations. Primary results still matter, though, and much work has to be done by their campaigns to build on their compatriot from New York’s success. In short, while there is momentum building, this is not to say that democratic socialism in the United States has truly arrived.
Still, that we’re even having this discussion about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the future of the Democratic Party means that we can’t rule out Presley’s or Harris’s chances, and that the discussion about whether platforms like theirs can be adapted to succeed in jurisdictions like the Midwest where the GOP possesses an advantage is a meritorious one. Seeing various reactions to Ocasio-Cortez’s win characterized by sheer bafflement, this only reinforces the idea few were ready for the eventuality of a liberal progressive gaining traction. Thus, while it’s too early to say what exactly this upset means, it’s highly intriguing to see people so “shook” over it.
Here’s hoping for a little more shaking-up before the 2018 election season is done.
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