How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Changes Everything

Photo: Corey Torpie, Ocasio-Cortez Campaign

Is this the sound a dying political machine makes?

It was, apparently, as Joe Crowley, the 4th-highest ranked Democrat in Congress, belted out an off-key rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” in honor of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old organizer who throttled him in a primary Tuesday night. Crowley, who liked to play avuncular music man when he wasn’t gnashing behind the curtain as one of New York’s premier power brokers, suffered a defeat that rightfully seized national headlines but will matter just as much in the city he barely called home.

It cannot be overstated just how seismic Ocasio-Cortez’s victory can be within New York City politics and what a drastic reordering of power it represents, a jolt on the scale of Tammany Hall’s defeat more than a half century ago. Crowley used his standing as a House speaker-in-waiting to convince just about every elected official, staffer, and interest group in the state that he was someone worth paying deference to.

His tentacles were everywhere. They reached into the City Council, where his Queens Democratic Party crowned Speaker Corey Johnson and stuffed the legislative body’s central staff with patronage hires. They wrapped around the State Senate Democratic conference, where a consulting firm closely linked to Crowley, Parkside, does much of its business. They snaked into the Real Estate Board of New York, perhaps the state’s most influential lobby, which counted Crowley as a dear ally. And they effectively controlled one of the largest judicial systems in America, picking judges and enriching top allies in Surrogate’s Court, where the estates of those who die without wills are processed.

Just about every contender for higher office aggressively courted Crowley’s endorsement. Mayor Bill de Blasio fought for it in 2013 before it was handed to Christine Quinn. Carl Heastie quietly won it on his path to replacing Sheldon Silver as Assembly speaker in 2015, consolidating Queens’ sizable Democratic bloc behind him.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State Democratic Party was also a Queens County creation. Michael Reich, one of three lawyers who with Crowley’s blessing have controlled the Queens Democratic machine for 30 years, is the State Party’s longtime secretary. He is maybe best known for helping to snuff out any support for Bernie Sanders at a party convention two years ago.

And now it is Ocasio-Cortez, a former Sanders organizer, who is poised to replace Crowley and dismantle the Queens Democratic Party’s machine for good. In retrospect, “machine” was always too strong a word.

It was a vestige of a time when party bosses actually controlled votes, filling city offices with far more patronage than is available today while roping newer voters, particularly immigrants from Ireland and Italy, into the political process.

The old machines were anti-democratic but at least did the work of making politics relevant to the working class. The new machines, Crowley’s in particular, subsisted entirely on a smoke-and-mirrors operation: there was no “get-out-the-vote” effort, no clubs jammed with loyalists, no foot soldiers ready to ride into battle for their man Crowley.

When you opposed it hard enough, you beat it, but then Crowley always found a way to co-opt you. He excelled at turning former rivals into friends. Though he was handed just about everything in life — his mentor, Thomas Manton, bequeathed a congressional seat after the petitioning process so young Crowley would never know a real primary until now — he proved adept at the inside game, climbing the D.C. ladder while stoking the proper amount of fear so no one, until Ocasio-Cortez, rebuked him in a serious way.

There are generations of elected officials, operatives, and staffers who built their lives around utter servitude to Crowley, the ultimate paper tiger, and looked the other way as corruption swamped the borough. Gerard Sweeney, Reich’s law partner and a close friend of Manton’s, raked in millions from Surrogate’s Court as the counsel to the public administrator, profiting off those who die without wills.

The same law firm, Sweeney, Reich and Bolz, profited handsomely off foreclosed homes. Queens, especially the heavily African-American region in the southeast, was ground zero for the foreclosure crisis a decade ago.

With Crowley gone, the three law partners will likely lose their raison d’être. So entrenched was Crowley, so seemingly approaching political immortality, that no successors have emerged yet to replace him as county leader. (As an elected district leader, he can continue to chair the party, but with all his power gone, why would anyone listen to him?)

Crowley and Manton were known for whipping Queens council members in a bloc to vote for City Council speakers, and earned the unflagging loyalty of those they picked, like Quinn and Johnson. Those days appear over. So too may be the stranglehold of three white right-leaning Democrats on a sprawling legal system that largely serves people of color.

I write this as a proud supporter of Ocasio-Cortez. Her victory doesn’t only represent the downfall of a political dynasty but a return of a certain type of local politician that had appeared to have gone all but extinct: the unabashed leftist.

Before neoliberalism swept New York in the wake of the 1970’s financial crisis and the pro-big business consensus enveloped our politics — from Democrats like Koch to Republicans like Bloomberg — radicals roamed the firmament. A socialist, anti-war congressman, Vito Marcantonio, repeatedly won re-election in Manhattan. Bella Abzug, who nearly became New York’s first female senator, was a national leader in the women’s rights movement and something of a pop culture icon as she held down a House seat.

New York was once the city that guaranteed free college for all and an enormous stock of rent-regulated homes and businesses. Labor unions were unapologetically radical, and did not define themselves in relation to whatever elected official was simply most powerful.

In recent decades, New York’s Democratic class has grown increasingly tepid, lashed to a centrist consensus out of rhythm with the preference of voters. There are too many New York Democrats who, like Crowley, voted for the Iraq War. There are too many unwilling to confront the status quo. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a friend to real estate developers everywhere, serves as the totem of today’s progressivism, but as Ocasio-Cortez proved last night, we can go so much further.

She is now a national figure, but she is first a daughter of New York. There’s much work to be done. Replacing a frail, undemocratic Democratic apparatus is a nice start. Thanks to her, that is actually, finally possible.