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I arrived just as Cynthia Nixon started a TV hit, the camera’s bright lights blazing through the doors of the Park Billiards Bar and Cafe. In a dimly lit pool hall in the Bronx, the Sex and the City star turned New York gubernatorial candidate was basking in a surprise political victory alongside regulars from the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, several reporters from The Intercept, some of the Democratic Party’s biggest critics, and — most importantly — a galaxy of leftist activists from organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America.

They were all there to celebrate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28 year-old Bronx native whose victory over longtime incumbent Joe Crowley had just rocked the political world. Her upset win had left the pundit class breathless and prognosticating about the future of the Democratic Party, but progressives in the Bronx were downing shots and ordering buckets of Coronas. They didn’t need to discuss the future of the party because they’d already seen it for months, canvassing across the Bronx and Queens. They knew Ocasio-Cortez’s unique magnetism and raw political talent. They’d featured her on their podcasts and websites. They’d knocked on doors and phone banked for her campaign, creating the movement that downed Crowley’s once-mighty “Queens machine” — and the national democratic establishment he represented.

That night, their candidate became a national media star. One of the most exciting Democrats to enter the national political arena since Barack Obama walked onto the stage at the 2004 Democratic Convention and proclaimed there was no red America or blue America. Fourteen years and one Donald Trump later, there’s obviously a red America and a blue America, and Ocasio-Cortez speaks for the bluest corners of the country, clearly and with force.


While Obama’s rise came with vague aphorisms about hope and change, Ocasio-Cortez won her primary last night with a message about systems and power. As she said in her viral campaign video, “This race is about people versus money.” Ocasio-Cortez didn’t ask her voters to send her to Washington to “change” things. She asked them to send her there to abolish ICE, enact Medicare for all, and establish tuition-free public universities.

It was that message — as much as its messenger — that attracted Carlos Jesus. A 20-year-old activist wearing a Colombia national team jersey, Jesus met with Ocasio-Cortez last year and got his organization, the Young Progressives of America, involved in her campaign early. Though he was celebrating, what he really wanted was to talk about his efforts to abolish ICE. Of course, he was thrilled for Ocasio-Cortez’s win, but he was happier that someone who shared his ideals would start introducing bills in Congress that would force centrist Democrats to take principled stands.

While the Democratic Party has spent many breathless months trying to figure out how to operate in a media environment where Trump absorbs all available oxygen, it turns out one way to win is to be direct, bold, and clear. Watch Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign video, produced by a few DSA members on a shoestring budget. It possesses the authenticity that breeds political stars in 2018, including both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Even voters who disagreed with those candidates never doubted the sincerity of their messages or felt that their campaigns were the products of K Street focus groups.

Voters want to believe in the message and the messenger, and Ocasio-Cortez possesses both. It’s why she was able to talk to The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald one day and give a nuanced definition of socialism in Vogue the next without moderating her message.

Her authenticity is clearly present in her social media presence. While Hillary Clinton’s campaign would spend hours fine-tuning the language of tweets, Ocasio-Cortez can be found broadcasting live on Instagram as she walks down the street. She speaks directly into white Apple earbuds, her face filling most of the frame, offering a running monologue that floats between righteous anger and genuine excitement for the support her campaign is receiving.

I was even more astounded at some of the unguarded moments she posted online. In one of my favorites, an overweight English bulldog lick attacks her on a conference call. It’s funny and deeply human, but it’s also the kind of moment that Hillary Clinton spent an entire career running away from. Unlike Hillary, Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t feel like she needs to be more polished than her male colleagues to be taken seriously as a female politician. She just needs to be a good politician.


There are skeptics. Some look at Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy and think: though it may have worked in the Bronx, it will never work in Boise. They contend that although she defeated a powerful incumbent in Crowley, he was also a 56-year-old white guy who represented a majority minority district and didn’t take his primary challenger — a progressive, young Latina woman with a powerful message — seriously. Elsewhere around New York and around the country, some progressive challengers lost their bids against established incumbents. It’s reasonable to think that a national party shouldn’t make wholesale changes based on 27,658 votes cast in New York City.

It’s fair criticism, but it ignores the broader energy that surrounds her candidacy, and — more importantly—her message. Though democrats will need some centrist in purple districts if they’re going to retake the House this fall, it will be candidates like Ocasio-Cortez that point towards the party’s future — a future that is young, diverse, idealistic, angry, and ready to fight. Ocasio-Cortez motivated young people to actually care about politics again, which is a rare, powerful, and wonderfully dangerous capacity when used effectively.

As I got home at around 3 a.m., I kept thinking about one campaign activist I’d met earlier, Dan Zimberg. He’d led Ocasio-Cortez’s ultimately futile outreach to labor unions in the district. Daily, he called and cajoled every local in the district to support her candidacy, but every single union endorsed the establishment pick, Crowley.

I asked him about what he’s going to do tomorrow to celebrate, and he didn’t miss a beat. He’s going to start calling unions and asking for their support.