Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s impressive victory over the House’s fourth-ranked Democrat Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th district Tuesday evening continues to create ripples across the media and political climates. National news outlets are beginning to decipher the “upset” victory and assess the “unexpected outcome” by this 28-year-old political newcomer in New York City. To be more critical, however, we should start by deflating the inaccurate perceptions surrounding political power and how it is attained.
In conventionally speaking political terms, Ocasio-Cortez’s win is declared an upset in the eyes of seasoned politicians, experts and pundits. Ten-term incumbent Joesph Crowley outspent his opponent by a margin of 10–1, held the backing of numerous elected officials and labor unions and was reportedly angling to succeed Nancy Pelosi as new House Democratic leader. You could not have handpicked a more-groomed and powerful politician from a grab bag that says “Most Influential Members in Congress” written on it. By nearly every account, according to these aforementioned factors, Crowley was the clear favorite to win re-election in his district, but was blindsided when he lost by a 15% margin, or by 4,136 votes out of 27,658.
These results are to suggest that power is not limited solely to fiscal exponents. So then why are the measurements of money, endorsements from elected officials and proven incumbency all being issued as barometers for political power? Is the public supposed to conform, accept and legitimize the idea that the combination of money and political power is the only way to win an local congressional election? Or are we finally beginning to acknowledge that a functioning democracy is possible when enough people are informed, engaged, and show up to vote for candidates, particularly the ones who are bringing new and bold ideas to the drawing board, like Ocasio-Cortez.
“I’m an educator in this community, an organizer, and I knew the people who lived here,” said Ocasio-Cortez to Chris Hayes on MSNBC’s program All In. “I knew our community and I knew that in this election, our main task was to educate and expand the electorate.”
Ocasio-Cortez did not just have the appeal of her working class roots and charismatic personality. Her campaign was organized effectively around the issues of other local progressive coalitions and formed alliances with many local chapters. Her authentic messaging combined with her staff’s relentless organizing successfully resonated with voters. She tapped into the community’s most drastic needs like affordable housing, universal healthcare, guaranteed employment and safety from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, all while pushing to decriminalize poverty and reform a broken criminal justice system which directly impacts her 70% majority-minority district.
An election result of this magnitude should show voters that political power does not exclusively exist for wealthy corporate donors and lobbyists. The most significant takeaway from Crowley’s defeat should show people that they hold political power and they can tap into it by registering to vote and turning out to vote. The Ocasio 2018 campaign had concise messaging, attainable objectives, impactful organizing, and trust from a community to depend on a young, inspiring and authentic candidate.
Among New York City’s Congressional candidates featured on Tuesday’s ballot, Ocasio-Cortez received by far the most small contributions of any delegate, equaling 70% of her total funds according to the Center for Response Politics. Crowley’s percentage of small contributions, however, did not account for 1% of his campaign funds.
Another Open Sources report found that Crowley has taken in a total of $12 million from “Wall Street, real estate, lawyers, lobbyists, communications and health and defense companies,” the most among all candidates in New York City who ran on Tuesday. Ocasio-Cortez on the other hand has not taken a dime from corporate donors, publicly pledging to “not accept any corporate PAC funds.”
A veteran file-and-rank Democratic politician who was gaining political traction in a midterm year was out-canvassed, out-worked and out-numbered by his younger cohorts who took the streets and knocked on doors of the community. Crowley failed to connect to the people of his district who have not had an alternative option in fourteen years, ten of which were after the 2008 financial crisis. Crowley only recently ran to the left on policy after Ocasio-Cortez stepped in to challenge him with radically popular ideas among the people in the district.
The last time Crowley faced a primary challenger was in 2004 when he belonged to the 7th district prior to the 2011 redrawing of the congressional maps. In that race a low turnout propelled the Congressman to a 44% margin over Democratic New York State Senator Dennis Coleman. But Tuesday night’s victory is the result of an energetic grassroots effort working tirelessly to connect the concerns of the district to those of the people living and working there. In a district where 25.6% of people 25 or older did not receive a high school diploma, compared with 14.8% for New York state and 14% for the nation, members of the district grew sick and tired of the insufficient and out-of-touch establishment politics that Crowley proposed on the campaign trail.
The Ocasio-Cortez campaign struck a vein in its constituents: the working-class families of the Bronx and Queens, along with other voters who were enthusiastic enough about the issues she ran on — not only in opposition to President Trump as most run-in-the-mill Democrats politicize — but in stark opposition to the Republican and Democratic status-quo that money is more powerful in politics than people.
Tuesday’s results proved to local and national political establishments that winning an uncontested ballot can be accomplished no matter how rich or powerful the opponent or incumbent is. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s grassroots campaign will be used as the shining example of a winning formula for democracy. That is, to empower others to use their civic tools of organizing and campaigning to give voters a reason to go into the voter booth.
The somehow radical notion of running a campaign by addressing the community’s most dire needs and then building on its proposals with a foundation of coalitions, organizers and voters, is the most logical and sustainable way to create and maintain trust among your constituents. Ocasio-Cortez won over her community’s trust by speaking truth to power and embodying what a bright and bold future in America can look like even in uncertain times.
This election result should not be defined as an upset victory but rather as a new barometer for measuring democracy in action.
The political revolution is here.