Why Ocasio-Cortez Won: From A Lifelong NY14 resident
To put last night’s progressive victory into context, I’ve been voting at my old elementary school for centrist Democrats since I moved back to NYC for graduate school in 2007. At 4:45pm, I was voter 59, and that was pretty good for a midterm. As a lifelong constituent of the NY-14 district (from 1985-now, with time off for college and good behavior), I couldn’t be happier that the fiery upstart Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be my Democratic candidate for Congress. The district needs her leadership, and as someone who was almost voting age (industry-killing millennial here) when Crowley arrived, I’d like to explain why Ocasio-Cortez won, as boots on the ground, as the rest of the New York & mainstream media scrambles to understand the difference between Astoria & Jackson Heights, Morris Park & Parkchester, and how the hell we figure out who to vote for without polls. Even though the district is the place where All in the Family was set, its demographics have shifted over the years, and that means a more diverse population than the Astoria I knew growing up. To be fair, not much more, as it’s always been a community of immigrant & working families.
Three things separated her campaign from Crowley’s which (in my humble, constituent opinion) made all the difference in the world:
1. Standing For Something, not By Something
After she announced her candidacy, in what seemed like minutes, Alexandria was connecting on the ground with my fellow constituents, who by and large felt pretty disconnected from Joe Crowley. After being hand-picked by the incumbent Thomas J. Manton, Joe settled in as largely a centrist/Sid & Nancy liberal, coasting on inertia and the occasional bit of identity politics or public works development to get by. Crowley always seemed to be adjacent to something, whether it was a park, or a parade, or a podium, or ripped papers. Many of his constituents have forgotten (never knew?) that he voted to create ICE way back when, and that he voted for the Iraq War.
New arrivals, the existing working class residents, and the parts of my district that the Tech & Real estate boom left behind, have struggled against the tides of gentrification that the neighborhood has absorbed since its revitalization in the mid-90's. While the now relatively well-to-do Shallow Queens/East Bronx residents may have started out poor, over the years, a lot of the people that you might picture in your head when you think of Queens, have moved up. Either deeper onto the Island, back over the rivers to Jersey, or along a Metro-North corridor. Ocasio-Cortez came out swinging in support of issues that resonate with the community that lives there today. Not the community that lived there when I was threatening to phone bank for Rick Lazio when I hit my rebellious phase at Bronx Science (Stuy Sucks!).
When the Crowley campaign began to realize they maybe didn’t have this in the bag, they tried to connect, but I don’t think they know how to. A lot of the ossified Democratic machine simply has no idea how to connect with those struggling to deal with the fear their family members might get black bagged on the way home. Middle class liberals who bought property before the waves of gentrification landed on the shores of Queens and the Bronx simply don’t have the problems that Ocasio-Cortez was speaking to, directly and daily. They have health insurance, they aren’t feeling stretched by their monthly living expenses, and the members of their families that immigrated illegally have all been naturalized for years, if not decades. This was immediately recognizable in the way that Ocasio-Cortez framed every conversation her campaign participated in. Which leads to the second thing that she did right:
2. No PAC Money
Crowley took in almost $1.5 million in PAC money, and less than $27,000 in small dollar donations. And given that midterm turn out in NY-14 hovers somewhere around 3%, it was never going to be about spend, it was always going to be about apathy. Which my district has so much of, that if we could burn it, we’d sell it to Con Edison to use in the power plants near Astoria Park & the Queensbridge projects.
Once word got out that Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t taking cash from big donors, and Crowley was in the process of accepting $300k from real estate developers and $280k from finance guys, it’s got a lot harder for Joe to pretend he was the champion for the little guy. Alexandria’s ability to win without PAC money while being out-raised 10–1, should be a wake-up call for every lazy, unchallenged incumbent. Because if she could do it with no poll support, no national coverage, and no real endorsements, every single DSA, Indivisible, and progressive left candidate now knows they can too, without centrists.
The optics on Crowley’s war-chest got worse and worse as the campaign went on. The cinematic parallels between the establishment Dem in DC doing $1000 a plate lunches with a lobbying firm that represents Raytheon, Eli Lilly & Huntington Ingalls, and his scrappy upstart opponent getting $27 donations, pounding the pavement getting signatures and shaking hands with the people grumbling about the N train, couldn’t have been better directed if it was done by the Russo Brothers. The New York Times didn’t cover her at all, they just documented Crowley deciding to skip a debate, which went over just swimmingly. And, the $27 donations came from people who would ostensibly remember to show up and vote, because they gave the change out of their pocket. Even if they were busy, Ocasio-Cortez’s team had one last advantage:
3. Non-Stupid Outreach that wasn’t Allergic to Digital
We see the barest of technical literacy around these parts. NY14 has neither the money, the technical workers looking to nest, or the youthful demographics for digital team outreach to be effective, traditionally. There was something so very poetic about seeing an elderly, well-to-do woman with a painted face and pearls, unsure of how to engage with “the young people,” while Ocasio-Cortez’s team of volunteers wore casual, accessible clothes, struck up conversations and got people info no matter who they were voting for. It’s quite a thing to watch someone get excited about the democratic process when they’re engaged with someone voting for the other guy. I told a member of Crowley’s team who I was voting for when she asked, and she turned her nose up at me like I’d been dragged in by her cat who probably eats better than I do. But their outreach effectiveness wasn’t just limited to the ground.
Crowley’s team sent my roommate and I the same color bi-fold matte fliers, and they arrived at the same time of the week, every week, for 7 weeks. Ocasio-Cortez’s team sent personalized texts, emails, and phone calls. All with clear opt-in/out policies and hell, they even spelled my name right. But what was most impressive was the fact that their digital strategy adapted to my answers. I got a text asking me if I wanted to donate, I told them I already had, and I never got a text asking for money again (still got emails, but no texts). I got a phone call from a volunteer asking me to phone bank, I told them I didn’t have the time, and they never asked me again. When they texted me to ask if knew where my polling place was, and I told them I did, the text I got today asked if (since I knew where my polling place was) if there was any way I could help others get there. I don’t know who is responsible for this, but I want to nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Conversely, I got 1 phone call from the Crowley team 2 months ago, and when I told them I was supporting Ocasio-Cortez, I heard a mortified cry that can only be described as “the sound of a monocle dropped into a champagne flute,” they hung up on me, and…doubled the number of identical mailers I was getting every week.
But, I will give the man credit. He’s supporting Ocasio-Cortez, and I hope he’ll keep playing bard for the new crop of progressives, because we’re going to need all the help we can to take down the Donny John & the Deplorables.