Saturday 15 December 2018

Cocktails to Congress for candidate leading Democrats' new wave

Actress Cynthia Nixon joined Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her victory celebration. Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images
Actress Cynthia Nixon joined Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her victory celebration. Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images

Ben Riley-Smith in New York

A little over a year ago Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was serving tacos and cocktails at a trendy Manhattan night spot.

Today, the 28-year-old left-winger is in line to become the youngest woman ever elected to the US Congress.

The 28-year-old left-winger has left Washington reeling after her shock defeat of Joe Crowley, a congressman since 1999 who was seeking renomination, in a Democratic primary in New York City.

A former organiser for Bernie Sanders, the independent who fought Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, Ms Ocasio-Cortez unashamedly based her strategy on grassroots campaigning.

She is the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother, an immigration backstory that chimed with the 14th congressional district of New York, where more than 80pc of the population are from ethnic minorities.

"Women like me aren't supposed to run for office," Ms Ocasio-Cortez said in an emotive campaign video that went viral before the vote.

"I wasn't born to a wealthy family 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."

The aspiring congresswoman's roots are solidly working class.

Her mother was a bus driver and cleaner and her father a small business owner. His death shortly after the 2008 economic crash put their family under intense financial strain.

She earned a degree in economics and international relations from Boston University, graduating in 2011 before bartending and waitressing to help her mother out with money.

After dabbling in politics - working for the late Democratic senator Edward Kennedy, on immigration - and starting a children's book publishing company, Ms Ocasio-Cortez joined the Sanders 2016 presidential campaign.

A card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, she helped organise for Mr Sanders before he was eventually defeated by Ms Clinton.

After that, she continued her interest in community work, remaining close to a string of organisations on the Democratic Party's left fringe.

Her decision to challenge Mr Crowley, a 56-year-old white man tipped as a future leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, came after lobbying from fellow left-wing campaigners in spring 2017.

Not even old enough to vote when Mr Crowley last faced a primary challenger 14 years ago, she was given little chance of success.

Her opponent had been in office for 10 terms and had hopes of becoming a future House speaker.

Articulate and passionate, Ms Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on a series of left-wing policies, some of which had been championed by Mr Sanders.

She called for universal Medicare - the national health insurance programme - free university tuition and federal jobs guarantee.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez also backed the abolition of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which oversees deportations and has been heavily criticised by Democrats, particularly since its activity has escalated under Donald Trump's presidency.

Indeed she raised eyebrows when, as the race entered its final stages, she left New York to protest against Mr Trump's child migrant separation policy in the South.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez was an avid user of social media, coming across as passionate and engaged in a way that underlined the generational divide with her older rival.

"The child detention camps are here - I confronted the border officers myself," she wrote in one tweet alongside a video of her protesting.

"Using their names, I told them exactly what they are responsible for. One of them made eye contact with me. I spoke directly to him. I saw his sense of guilt. We can dismantle this."

In another tweet, Ms Ocasio-Cortez mocked Mr Crowley for failing to attend a debate and sending "a woman with slight resemblance to me" in his place.

His failure, twice, to turn up for debates prompted a rebuke from a 'New York Times' editorial.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez saw her race as an attempt to reshape the Democrats, echoing other left-wing candidates seeking to oust incumbents before the 2018 mid-term elections in November.

She was joined at her celebrations by actress Cynthia Nixon, who is also seeking to challenge a Democratic party heavyweight in her first run for office.

The 52-year-old 'Sex and the City' star is taking on New York governor Mario Cuomo in a primary.

Ms Nixon called Ms Ocasio-Cortez's victory a win "for progressive Democrats over corporate Democrats".

Irish Independent

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