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Why Incumbents Are So Hard to Defeat, and What It Means That a Working Class Latina Candidate Might Just Do It to One of the Most Powerful Political Bosses in the Country

We all say that we hate politicians, and it must be true, since only 12% of Americans say that they trust Congress quite a lot or more. Tell anyone these days that most politicians are awful, that they lie, cheat, and fail to look out for their constituents, and they’re likely to agree. So why do we keep reelecting these same politicians we claim to hate? Well, a large part of it, unsurprisingly, has to do with that lying, cheating, and failing to look out for their constituents.

In my time working and volunteering for political campaigns, I learned why 97% of incumbent politicians won re-election in 2016. I want to go into this phenomenon, noting every advantage incumbent candidates have, at least the ones that I’ve noticed, to underscore how dramatic the odds that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is facing are, and how historic a win by her would be. The support she’s gotten is already close to unheard of.

For those of you who don’t know, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a progressive organizer challenging Joe Crowley, a centrist potential candidate for speaker of the house, in New York’s 14th district, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx (though Crowley tried to get lobbyists to remove the Bronx from his district because it was too Latinx). Her campaign video does a great job laying out both her background and her message:

What Money Buys

We all know incumbents bring in big money. Before Joe Crowley’s votes on big issues, he’ll often rake in huge windfalls from industries with interests in them, before happening to vote their vote. Before voting on a bill to open up New York real estate to foreign investment, increasing record NYC rents even further in the process, donations from real estate developers to him surged. When votes to repeal Great Depression era regulations that prevented banks from becoming “too big to fail” came up, he saw spikes in donations from Wall St., sometimes just hours before he voted their way.

When Crowley, in his role as Chair of the Queens Democratic Party, picked the candidate for speaker of the NYC City Council, money from real estate supportive of pro-development Councilman Corey Johnson poured in to Crowley’s coffers at dramatically higher rates than they had in other years. In exchange for his favor, fundraising, and grace with the judges who determine who does and doesn’t get on the ballot (those judges recently booted 3 female city council candidates challenging Crowley’s preferred candidate from the ballot), the Bronx and Queens delegations fell in line, giving him power to select the speaker. Crowley chose Johnson.

When people die without a will in the district, as Alexandria’s father did, Crowley appoints the lawyers that fight for their estates, and profit off of them handsomely while their families suffer. Meanwhile, his Queens machine partners require all judge candidates to donate to the county organization, then come before those same judges that they put in power to process foreclosures, raking in even more money. Through it all, Crowley vacuums up cash from the corporations and their PACs that surround his dealings, and make up 99% of his over $3 million campaign stash.

That money buys advantages that other candidates must earn through a compelling message and organizing, like paid canvassers from a company to replace the volunteers you’re not attracting, or things that other candidates just can’t access, like polling to adjust your strategy, persuasion calls disguised as polling, and advertisements everywhere. And in races like those in New York, where three separate elections and a rule barring anyone who wasn’t registered as a Democrat a year before the primary mean low turnout, just using that money to spread your name a thousand times more than your opponent can be a huge hurdle to climb. It gives the candidate a sense of legitimacy, influence, and inevitability that makes endorsers and voters want to jump on before they’re left out of the victory party. It also means that while your opponent is spending half their day either dialing donors or setting up $50-a-ticket fundraisers, you can focus on other things. While Alexandria was working at a restaurant in between handing out flyers from her grocery bag, Crowley had the time for more interviews, and cars to ferry him around while Alexandria was stuck on the subway again. With enough money to run your campaign, or even your constituent office, by remote control, you can even live in Virginia instead of your New York district, like Crowley does.

Congressional Faces

Of course, why pay for advertising when you can just send out a housing guide with tax payer dollars with your face on it? Or give your most rousing campaign speech on the Capitol floor? Or Meet the Press? Why pay for a mailer about your record when you can just show up at every ribbon cutting in your district, with politicians and groups eager for the press a Congressman provides?

The money that flows to politicians like Crowley is also a great way to reward friends. Money you raise can be donated to other campaigns, and that allows politicians like Crowley, who until now, hadn’t seen a primary challenger in his deep blue district in 14 years, to play kingmakers in closer races, like when he helped pro-life, anti-immigration candidate Dan Lipinski win his closely contested primary against a pro-choice, progressive woman. It can also be spent on things like a $70,000 campaign office, rented from his brother at a location outside the district that may never have even been used or $10 million for a group his brother’s law firm represented.

Just being in office wins you friends at levels high and low, who will work to earn your favor come election time. Incumbents love to endorse each other, and as Ro Khanna showed us, they often won’t even research a race if they don’t think it will be competitive (remember when I said that money overloads a candidate’s message and makes them seem inevitable, especially in the months before most voters are paying attention?). If they, or unions and other organizations, do examine a race, they’ll often try to bet on the winning candidate, sometimes even endorsing Republicans in the (often misplaced) hopes that they will at least pay them back. We know how Cuomo told any union that supported groups that don’t endorse him to lose his number and is now trying to crush the WFP out of existence for going against him. In my time in politics, I’ve seen both candidates threatening to vote the other way if they don’t get an endorsement and unions going for candidates they clearly like less so that they’re at not left out of the likely victory party. In this way, the mere position of power means a ton of allies, and the voters that look to them, are already locked up.

Unions and candidates in turn mobilize their people and connect you with their expertise. Many voters follow the endorsement of their union or their favorite politician, and many unions have volunteering expectations or organizer training programs for their membership. They introduce you to the local organizer, the well-known community figure, the beneficiary of their latest project, the pastor, and the talented potential staff member. They tell you where they rented their former campaign office and offer their offices as a staging point for you. They share the data of everyone who supported them and was against them, what policies they support, what rallies they showed up at, and knock on the doors of their most devoted supporters and volunteers with you. Many will give their staff days off or just make them show up on the weekend with not just the expectation but the direction to show up and help get their endorsed candidate out to vote:

Through these connections and the way they can present themselves as the face of every infusion of government cash or services into the district, they build up an absurd level of control. Landlords connected to Crowley made sure that shops in their buildings put up signs supporting him. Appointed leaders in charge of schools and libraries make such a fuss that I remember conversations worrying that members of groups that endorsed Alexandria and worked in schools or libraries or any other public institution, were risking their jobs. I still remember when the people of Corey Johnson, Crowley’s handpicked speaker candidate, had their access to city offices revoked for roaming around offices to ask non-partisan city employees who they were supporting for speaker and left furious, threatening emails.

Many incumbents hold dual roles while in office (after all, being a Congressman qualifies you for whatever other role you choose), leading to conflicts of interest that they can exploit if even this massive infrastructure fails to deliver them what they need. Crowley is also Chair of the Party that picks polling locations in his district. His office recently worked to move polling sites away from concentrated minority areas in his district, against the protests of residents and condemnation by the courts. Definitely not a conflict of interest.

The Loyalty Food Chain

The way each level of elected office, local leader, and volunteer relies on the support of those above them to thrive and advance, especially in one party towns like NYC where close to 1/3rd of state senate and assembly candidates were appointed by local parties, not elected, makes it very costly to break loyalty. District leaders, local leaders of the party who often lead their democratic clubs as well, are often made or broken by local politicians, who carry their petitions to turbocharge their operation and guarantee them a spot on the ballot, and bring their people out to campaign with them. Since mostly the party faithful show up or even know about these extremely low turnout elections, the endorsement of the head of the party or local elected leaders is gigantic. District Leader is a position that you’ll most often see running for City Council or State Senate, and when elected, those former district leaders will repeat that cycle. The most devoted volunteers in those Democratic clubs, those who have put in their time campaigning for their candidates, will likely replace them. Every politician at every stage is feeding from this system, and giving themselves to it in exchange for rising higher. That’s why Democratic clubs not only almost always endorse their incumbents, they even tell those who question their choices to “find another club”.

Through this natural chain, those who pledge their support to power, or just happen to be near it, move further up, while anyone who breaks loyalty is locked out from even the base positions needed to get the experience that most people expect in a candidate for office. Or if you’re in the right position, you leapfrog even that part. Crowley knows this well, having been appointed into both his Congressional seat and the Chair of the Queens Democrats. So does Cuomo, who got a job as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development after palling around on his dad’s campaign, writing campaign slogans like “Vote Cuomo, not the Homo”. That experience in turn qualified him for Attorney General and Governor. These credentials that voters see as earned are often gifts, bestowed on friends, family, and maybe then on their most loyal, by politicians.

For this reason, progressives are far less experienced than establishment loyalists. They have to earn almost every position they get by taking out the overwhelming power of incumbents, which as you can see now, is an amazing feat.

Cracks in the Machine

But this machine runs on fear at every stage, and when enough people speak out, it can begin to break down in ways that can never be repaired. When Alexandria first sought the endorsement of a Queens Democratic club, they rushed to endorse Crowley to avoid the reprisals that would come against them for even speaking to her and granting her that notoriety. But then clubs started allowing her to meetings and debates, brave members risked their careers to support her publicly, and volunteers and organizations that were never a part of this system started to build an alternative. Groups like Democratic Socialists of America started developing their own expertise by training leaders in campaigns for city council, direct action in the streets, and persuasion campaigns for Medicare for All and Universal Rent Control. This parallel community, driven by nothing but volunteer work from passionate cores, has brought an unprecedented movement to Alexandria’s campaign.

And that movement, with the help of Crowley’s insensitive moves like endorsing members of the Independent Democratic Conference, who run as Democrats but give Republicans a majority by joining them once in office and skipping debates held by local clubs, finally started to crack the forced unity of the Queens Democratic machine. They inspired a Democratic club to cross that big red line and endorse her over the head of their party. Crowley will likely try to crush them, but if he doesn’t, it may only be the first part of the Queens machine to start thinking for itself. With each vote Alexandria wins, another party member might have the courage to question Crowley, and chart their own course. Even Congressman Ro Khanna co-endorsed Alexandria after pressure as a way of making up for endorsing Crowely. Media outlets have not only started noticing Alexandria, but they also started noticing Crowley’s corruption that had previously drifted underneath the headlines. And Crowley is panicking, showing his true colors by running to fundraisers hosted by a former head of the Republican Party and top Trump fundraiser companies that profit from ICE detention centers and opioid pill manufacturers, in search of any cash he can get to save his race.

The power of incumbency is still very much with Crowley, but the momentum, and the total grip of fear, is no longer his. It might never be again. If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes the coalition she has founded, and the message that is clearly resonating in this district, and knocks out this candidate for speaker of the house with it, it will be an upset of massive proportions.

And she can do it.