NOT HERE FOR PROGRESS: Meet the Tea Party-esque insurgency seeking to “rebuild the Democratic Party from scratch”
Hostile candidates and shady PACs are posing as progressive Democrats in the 2018 election, exploiting DNC voter data and driving party division — it’s a burn-it-to-the-ground strategy that foreign cyber attackers are all too eager to assist with
Over a few short months, a media blitz has transformed little-known Bronx congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into the fresh new face of progressive politics in America. However, independent research into her background and funding has revealed “Democratic Socialist” Ocasio-Cortez is neither a progressive Democrat nor a good faith candidate. And for someone with an economics degree — one of the only claims on her resume that checks out — the 28-year-old candidate has a lot to learn about campaign finance and election law.
At any other time, Ocasio-Cortez’ myriad red flags — her unlikely victory, antagonistic rhetoric, national amplification, and shady funding — would beg media scrutiny. After all, the pattern eerily follows that of the Tea Party movement that began in 2010 as a “conservative” backlash to Republican losses. This new breed of supposed “progressives” — with their radicalized, anti-establishment fervor — appear to have more in common with that far-right insurgency than either group has with mainstream American politics.
But we are not living in ordinary times — a situation Ocasio-Cortez and her “progressive” posse are all too willing to exploit to accomplish their destructive goals. As natural as any evolution, the “Bernie or Bust” influence operation that infected our 2016 election is alive, well, and adapted for survival. It’s new useful idiots are Ocasio-Cortez and the murky entanglement of two new Political Action Committees (PACs)— founded by The Young Turks’ scandal-plagued host Cenk Uygur and a group of tech-savvy ex-Bernie campaign staffers.
Who vetted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
There are only three qualifications to become a Representative in the United States Congress: be at least 25 years old, a citizen for seven years, and reside in the state at the time elected. Still, Americans have come to expect a certain level of professional accomplishment from their candidates. A fact check of Ocasio-Cortez’ biography reveals that much of her background as a “young entrepreneur” appears entirely contrived.
For instance, Ocasio-Cortez lists herself as Founder of “Brook Avenue Press” on Financial Disclosure Reports. In media coverage, the company is described as a publishing house that develops urban literature for children. In reality, the venture was an idea then 22-year-old Ocasio-Cortez had in 2012, when she rented a $195/month workspace from the now-defunct Sunshine Bronx Business Incubator. The corporation was dissolved or annulled in October 2016 due to inactivity, the web domain is for sale, and no published literature by the company could be found.
In her Boston University alumni bio, Ocasio-Cortez also bills herself as Lead Educational Strategist for GAGEis. A study of this Delaware LLC is a pandora’s box of bizarre revelations. The company is owned by Cheni Yerushalmi, an Israeli “serial entrepreneur” who also owned the failed Sunshine Bronx Business Incubator. According to Yerushalmi’s LinkedIn profile, the self-described “visionary” leads a “collective of professionals, entrepreneurs, artists and students of life” who gather on a commune in Bridgewater, Vermont called “The PYNK Community.” The town newspaper reports that Vermont locals have not been thrilled with the “party house,” which “sits on 21 acres and has four bonfire pits, a house they call ‘the Cabin’, a giant 22-foot ‘sacred’ teepee and a separate farmhouse. The property is worth about $825,000.” While her association with Yerushalmi suggests Ocasio-Cortez is a disciple of this business “guru”, it is unclear what real work GAGEis does — the website archives to an error and his $30/hr Upwork profile has no hours billed.
The inconsistencies don’t end there. In Ocasio-Cortez’ New York City Campaign Finance Board profile, she claimed to have been a “Foreign Affairs & Immigration Liaison” for Ted Kennedy, who died in 2009 when Ocasio-Cortez was 19 years old. This has been described elsewhere as a college internship. She also lists previous occupations as “Microfinance Practitioner and Maternal Health Study— Niger, West Africa” and “Metrics & Social Design — The Purpose Economy; Imperative”, both of which appear to have been undergrad experiences.
The only claim that does check out is Ocasio-Cortez’ work with the National Hispanic Institute. She lists herself as an “Educational Director” on her Financial Disclosure with a 401K but no reported income. Recently, she was named “2017 Person of the Year” by the organization. A feature article on their site suggests she has had a relationship with the organization since high school and that her position is a volunteer one.
All said, Ocasio-Cortez only earned income from her food service positions in 2016 and 2017, totaling around $43,000 and $27,000 respectively.
Is Ocasio-Cortez really from the Bronx?
It’s difficult to confirm more about Ocasio-Cortez’ background since the candidate’s previous twitter account appears to have been deleted, her LinkedIn profile is essentially blank, and web archives for her campaign show a changing story over time. But residency information can be gleaned by fact-checking her current campaign bio against prior statements.
Ocasio-Cortez has claimed to be a “third-generation Bronxite” from a “working class” family. An enormous part of her aggressive rhetoric against incumbent Joe Crowley concerned the 10-term congressman living outside his district. Yet in the profile Ocasio-Cortez used to launch her candidacy, she wrote: “we started our journey in the Bronx, but were forced to leave our neighborhood in search of public schools with more to offer than a 50% dropout rate.” She graduated from the predominately white Yorktown High School located in Yorktown Heights, NY, where the average household income is $141,254 and average household net worth is $1,192,838.
In 2016, Ocasio-Cortez was quoted in a Think Progress article where she was described as a “Westchester County voter.” The article referenced a Reddit post where she wrote of her 2012 post-Hurricane Sandy voting issues: “I was stuck in NYC and voted outside my precinct, and apparently when I signed that affidavit my party affiliation was waived.”
It is also uncertain whether running in the Bronx 14th district was Ocasio-Cortez’ first choice. Her initial Statement of Candidacy submitted to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) listed her running in the 15th. It was amended shortly thereafter.
So who vetted Ocasio-Cortez?
After serving as a volunteer field organizer for Bernie Sanders 2016 Campaign, Ocasio-Cortez was recruited by Justice Democrats — a hostile and shady PAC launched in January 2017 by The Young Turks’ scandal-plagued creator Cenk Uygur and Saikat Chakrabarti, the former Director of Organizing Technology for Sanders’ campaign. Justice Democrats are closely affiliated with Brand New Congress, another PAC launched by Chakrabarti in April 2016 alongside former senior Sanders adviser Zack Exley and former Sanders campaign coordinator Corbin Trent.
Both Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress were founded with the goal of harnessing the momentum and fundraising muscle of the Sanders campaign. A review of the core staff reveals significant crossover and a musical chairs of board members between the two. Ocasio-Cortez assumed a leadership role with Justice Democrats sometime in 2017 — thereby effectively vetting herself for the role of candidate.
Keeping it in the family — two new piggy bank PACs
“The solution is not unity with the corporate-backed Democrats…It’s time to rebuild the Democratic Party from scratch.”
Operationally, the PAC sought to recruit, train, and run candidates across the country to primary incumbent Democrats — not because they themselves were Democrats, but because “it is next to impossible for a third-party candidate to win a national election.” Justice Democrats website includes the disclaimer it is “not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.” Yet Ocasio-Cortez held legal control over the dubious fundraising entity while simultaneously running as a PAC-endorsed candidate — even filing her Statement(s) of Candidacy from their Knoxville, TN address.
Brand New Congress, the PAC we now see Ocasio-Cortez criss-crossing the country helping to promote, has the perplexing mission of “attempting to recruit Congressional candidates to run as Republicans in red districts.” And while Ocasio-Cortez’ has been criticized for her post-primary national campaigning, that appears baked into the strategy with Brand New Congress. In a 2017 interview, Trent explained:
“our goal is to nationalize those races and to really frame a narrative around these representatives that they aren’t just representing their district, which is a very big part of it, but they’re also representing the rest of America with their votes. So I think that our ability to organize…and distribute in an effective way is going to allow us to nationalize more effectively.”
Where did all the money go?
The national spotlight may be great for fundraising efforts, but may prove unwise for a group of political novices inexperienced in federal finance regulations. An analysis of FEC filings shows that their network of PACs, LLCs, board and staff navigate in the same legal and ethical grey area their entire “anti-dark money” platform is based on combatting.
Beginning with Justice Democrats, the PAC has raised $2,100,399 over the course of the 2017–2018 election season. Yet over that same time period, the PAC has made zero independent expenditures in support of any candidates. In fact, dozens of candidates have instead made payments to Justice Democrats.
A review of disbursements reveals that of the $2,026,298 spent to date, over $600,000 for “strategic consulting” services was directed to Brand New Congress LLC — a business entity controlled by Chakrabarti. Another $1 million in contributions has been directed to ex-Bernie staffers or their firms. This includes $222,000 to Middle Seat Consulting LLC, run by Brand New Congress co-Founder Zack Exley, and about $800,000 in salaries and payroll costs. Because those LLCs have not disclosed financial reports, the public has no way of knowing what that money was used for.
In-kind contributions directed towards PAC-endorsed candidates were found to total less than $29,000 for services like Facebook ads, phone banks, operating costs, and communications software. Yet at the same time, about $35,000 was paid to Justice Democrats by these candidates and registered as either “other receipts: operating costs” or “offsets to operating expenses: reimbursement of operating costs.”
Due to this lack of independent expenditures to candidates, the FEC rejected the PACs filing for Multi-Candidate Status at the end of 2017. In its letter, the FEC alleged Justice Democrats had erroneously claimed contributions to five candidates in Texas.
A review of Brand New Congress PAC filings demonstrate a similar movement of fundraising donations into the pockets of ex-Bernie “consultants”. Of the $477,688 raised, no independent expenditures to candidates were made, yet $261,000 was paid to Brand New Congress LLC and over $100,000 was disbursed as salaries or payroll costs.
Ocasio-Cortez’ campaign committee filings show disbursements to Brand New Congress LLC and Justice Democrats, alongside other serious issues. On July 19th, the FEC sent a letter to Ocasio-Cortez’ campaign committee treasurer outlining multiple accounting inaccuracies and requesting “information essential to full public disclosure of your federal election campaign finances.” The FEC has requested response by August 23rd and is considering “audit or enforcement action.”
What’s the bottom line?
The entire premise of the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress anti-establishment platform is a drive to remove corporate, lobbyist, and dark money from politics. The PACs blame the “corporate wing” for “breaking” the Democratic Party. Every candidate is asked to take a “No Corporate PAC Pledge.” But this conveniently obfuscates another problem related to money in politics — scam PACs that use fundraising as a vehicle for personal profiteering.
Open Secrets, a non-profit organization that tracks money in politics, recently wrote about the incidence of scam PACs that claim to raise money for political campaigns but spend little to none of the proceeds to that end:
“A scam PAC would be a political committee that raises funds with the purpose of supporting candidates or a particular cause, but then instead of spending the money raised to support candidates or causes, the political operatives running the PAC pay themselves,” Brendan Fischer of Campaign Legal Center said.
The parties profiting from Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress are not naive to the perception issues their use of funds has created. For this reason they’ve sought to clarify, in increasingly convoluted ways, the tangled financial structures and relationships between the PACs, LLCs, board, and staff. Their explanation can be generally summarized as this: the groups structured themselves as a PAC in order to fundraise, but with the intention to operate as a campaign vendor to avoid working with the DCCC.
“By creating a scalable infrastructure that candidates can use to run their campaigns, we are able to start creating a party-like infrastructure that not only endorses and fundraises for candidates, but also provides them with the tools and people necessary to run a successful campaign.”
Which begs the question — if the goal is to create a “party-like infrastructure”, what is the purpose of running as Democrats in the first place? It appears access to voter data is the primary motivator.
What really happened in the Bronx?
Ocasio-Cortez has talked a big game about her “upset” victory over Joe Crowley, a ten-term congressman on the short list to become next Speaker of the House. In reality, she capitalized on an extremely low primary turnout to eek out a 57% vs. 43% (15,897 vs. 11,761) victory. And while it is true that the young candidate deployed an impressive grassroots canvassing strategy, the devil is in the details— including dirty local politics, vitriolic campaign rhetoric, far left agitators, and an intensive Facebook advertising blitz in the lead up to the primary.
Part of the local controversy revolved around the involvement of disgraced ex-Queens politician Hiram Monserrate. A domestic abuser who spent time in prison on a corruption conviction, Monserrate has feuded with Crowley for years. During their contentious primary, Crowley accused Ocasio-Cortez of seeking support from the ex-con, even speaking at an event held at a Democrat Club he runs in Queens.
In her trademark racial identity politics offensive against Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez denied the accusation, saying she had sought the support of the club “not Hiram Monserrate” and “was at the only Latino Democratic Club in East Elmhurst and Corona. That’s where I was.” Yet after Ocasio-Cortez secured the nomination, Monserrate told the New York Post “there were a group of us, in the (club) and other community activists I have been working with for years who understood that we would do our part to get rid of Joe Crowley…We were in support of Alexandria’s campaign.”
The sentiment to “get rid” of Joe Crowley was not just a local one, as far left agitators from across the country rallied online in support of Ocasio-Cortez. In fact, the vast majority of Ocasio-Cortez campaign donations have come from out-of-district and out-of-state. Of particular note is Blue America PAC, a “collaboration between the authors/publishers of DownWithTyranny.com, Hullabaloo.com and CrooksandLiars.com.” The PAC made an $11,000 independent expenditure in opposition to Joe Crowley, creating the website QueensAgainstCrowley.com.
While Ocasio-Cortez may claim this was an independent or unendorsed endeavor, her NYC Campaign Finance Board profile lists Blue America as an affiliated organization. The meme-heavy social media pages for the PACs various websites pushed out vitriolic blog and social media posts during the primary, using budget graphics with British-English copy to promote hashtags like #AbolishICE #Berniewouldhavewon and #MobBossCrowley. It could not be determined how much of this content was promoted through Facebook advertising to target specific demographics living in the 14th district.
And there is still the mystery of what exactly happened in the 15th district. As previously described, Ocasio-Cortez submitted her first Statement of Candidacy to run in the 15th. She was “shocked” to learn that two weeks after the New York primary, she had won the district as a “write-in candidate on the Reform line.”
Since the Democratic incumbent in the 15th faced no challenger, there is a legitimate question as to whether voters in that district were canvassed and/or targeted online as a backup strategy to losing the 14th. As it was, Crowley was confronted with what he described as “Trump-esque” accusations of election rigging in the lead up to and day of the primary.
‘What is the point of a blue wave?’
It is a question Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posed on Twitter in the month before the primary. It’s also a hauntingly familiar sentiment that echoes the hostile, anti-Democrat rhetoric that defined Sanders’ 2016 primary campaign. In a February indictment of Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the public learned in stark detail how the “Bernie or Bust” message was weaponized to divide Democrats and suppress voter turnout.
It’s a reality that Ocasio-Cortez and some Justice Democrat candidates seem intent on distorting. For instance, a supposedly “progressive” candidate for Governor in Michigan said in a recent interview:
“Bernie Sanders won his primary in Michigan. Then Hillary Clinton lost the general. All that shows is that our voters are interested in progressives and are done with the centrist moderate Democrat.”
This “Bernie would have won” revisionism has a toxic impact on voter’s understanding of what happened in 2016. It ignores the fact that Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by three million votes nationally. And it ignores the impact foreign cyber attackers had by using stolen Facebook data and agitating content to target individuals in specific states.
In 2018, there is no legitimate claim of ignorance for how foreign information warfare attacks Americans online. Millions of fake social media accounts amplify the extremes on both sides of the political spectrum to cause disruption and chaos. The goal is not to favor one party over another — it’s to topple our very democracy. Knowingly providing the type of propaganda fodder that foreign attackers can weaponize is negligent and destructive.
Yet much of Ocasio-Cortez’ divisive rhetoric appears to be doing exactly that. For anyone engaging with Ocasio-Cortez’ social media posts, the foreign bot and troll activity is noticeably synchronized and pervasive. There’s no better example than the #AbolishICE campaign she championed as her number one primary issue and has helped take national. Much of her social media content has focused on the “Abolish ICE solution” to immigration reform while accusing “Boss Crowley” and other Democrats of being “Pro-ICE”. In the one month lead up to the June primary, Ocasio-Cortez’ campaign spent over $80,000 on Facebook advertising — the largest of her expenditures.
Just last week, Mark Zuckerberg gave a private briefing to lawmakers on how Russian cyber attackers where exploiting the #AbolishICE campaign:
“Facebook said on Tuesday that it had identified a political influence campaign that was potentially built to disrupt the midterm elections, with the company detecting and removing 32 pages and fake accounts that had engaged in activity around divisive social issues.”
Ocasio-Cortez and the Justice Democrats believe “the solution is not unity.” Over the past month, national media has helped push their radicalized agenda into our mainstream discourse, hijacking what it means to be “progressive”. The days of reforming ICE are now #AbolishICE. The policy of public option healthcare is now #MedicareForAll. The true progressive platform of the Democratic Party is provided little exposure while critics from both the left and right amplify the message that the Democrats “have no message.”
With our media repeating these sins of 2016, and the Trump administration complicit in Russia’s cyber offensive, Americans must become more aware of the distraction and distortion tactics being waged against us. It’s not policy that’s on the ballot this November, it’s democracy itself.