House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ignited a furor among progressive activists in July when she dismissed objections about a border funding bill from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the three other members of the “Squad.”
“They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got,” Pelosi said, explaining why protestations from the progressive group of freshman legislators did not faze her.
Ocasio-Cortez is trying to change that calculation. On Tuesday, she became the first sitting House member to endorse Jessica Cisneros, an immigration attorney challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Texas Democrat, from the left. She’s also endorsed Marie Newman, the progressive challenging conservative Democrat Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois.
“If we’re not going to pass ‘Medicare for All’ unless the [House Democratic] caucus changes, then I need to be a part of changing the caucus. That’s just how it is,” Ocasio-Cortez said, adding that her ambitious goals for climate action also require a different kind of Democratic Party in Congress. “I don’t want people to die, and I want to cut our carbon emissions by 50% in 10 years.”
“If we want to pursue an ambitious agenda that delivers for working-class America, the Democratic Party has to change who they answer to. And they have to answer to working-class people.”
Without ever mentioning Pelosi, she added: “And it’s not because of something I said. It’s because of something everybody else said: ‘You don’t have the votes, people here aren’t going to support that.’ Then we have to change the people who are here if we are serious about delivering for working-class people.”
Ocasio-Cortez, of course, came in with a reputation for taking on incumbents. As a political newcomer, she launched a long-shot bid against Joe Crowley, the powerful Democratic congressman from New York’s 14th Congressional District who was considered a future leader of the party. Her win shook up national politics, setting off a firestorm in Washington as party leaders grappled with what they had missed in the mood on the ground.
But the victory didn’t do much to endear her to some of her new colleagues. Ocasio-Cortez told HuffPost this week that she isn’t afraid of making new enemies by opposing Cuellar, Lipinski and potentially others ― because the ones who will be mad at her probably weren’t her fans anyway.
For one thing, Ocasio-Cortez maintains that many House members likely to take issue with her involvement in the race wrote her off from the moment she walked in the door.
“The reception that I got here was very chilly, and that was before I did anything,” she said. “There are folks who just weren’t going to work with me, and nothing I could have done would have changed that ― unless I fundamentally changed who I am.”
Realizing there is little she can do win over some of her fellow Democrats has freed her to pursue her vision of change with less fear of political blowback on the Hill, according to Ocasio-Cortez.
“If anything, it almost created more breathing room for me, because it ... was really clarifying,” she said.
From the beginning, Ocasio-Cortez has pursued an “inside-outside” organizing strategy. She joined a climate change sit-in in Pelosi’s office on her first day on Capitol Hill, but she also recognizes that she needs to have allies in the halls of Congress to move her agenda forward.
She counts it as a sign of progress, for example, that the creation of a public health insurance option is now the default position of many of her moderate colleagues. And Ocasio-Cortez is quick to downplay any past differences she had with Pelosi. Ocasio-Cortez’s former chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, left shortly after his tweets about other House Democrats escalated a spat between members of the Squad and party leaders.
“The whole idea that there’s a conflict was very overblown,” she said. “It’s about what we can accomplish given the limitations of a Republican Senate and Trump as president. People are pretty pragmatic and they’re open-minded.”
I think it’s a pretty modest proposal, a pretty modest ask that we consider a D+20 district to be grassroots-supported, divested of lobbyist money, to support 'Medicare for All.' Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)
Still, the New York congresswoman’s allies privately wonder whether her independence has cost her some legislative victories.
She introduced two amendments to the defense spending authorization bill in July: one barring the Department of Defense from sending U.S. troops to the border with Mexico, and another prohibiting the detention of undocumented immigrants in DOD facilities. Both amendments failed, with over 50 Democrats voting against them.
Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez and is now sponsoring other challengers, acknowledged that the lawmaker is still figuring out the best way to calibrate her inside-outside strategy.
“AOC navigating her inside-outside strategy will be one of the defining questions of not just her political career, but of the entire progressive movement,” Shahid said. “It’s an incredibly difficult path to navigate, but few have done it as well as she has with less than a year in Congress.”
Tellingly, perhaps, Ocasio-Cortez has yet to endorse Justice Democrats’ entire slate of challengers. Even her endorsement of Cisneros came days after the establishment-minded group EMILY’s List, which backs female candidates supportive of abortion rights, got behind Cisneros’ candidacy.
Ocasio-Cortez told HuffPost that she is limiting her involvement in primary challenges against her colleagues to heavily Democratic districts where she believes that members of Congress do not have the excuse of justifying centrist positions as politically necessary. She is fond of noting that Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump in Cuellar’s district by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016.
“I think it’s a pretty modest proposal, a pretty modest ask that we consider a D+20 district to be grassroots-supported, divested of lobbyist money, to support ‘Medicare for All,’” she said. “This district is almost as progressive as mine. So why is there such a huge difference? Why is it so conservative?”
Cuellar is frequently ranked as one of Congress’ most conservative Democrats. As of this Congress, he had an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association for opposing tougher gun regulations (though he has since voted to tighten background checks). He received a score of 15% from NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2018, having voted for legislation that would legally treat fetuses as people. And Cuellar has received over $5.5 million in corporate PAC contributions over the course of his career.
“If this is a D+20 district, what room do we give to people in a D+1 district?” Ocasio-Cortez asked.
With that in mind, the New York representative said she is equally interested in elevating Democrats in swing seats ― those in the party’s “frontline” program for vulnerable incumbents ― who have taken progressive stances that expose them to political risk. She singled out for praise Rep. Mike Levin, a California Democrat who unseated a Republican last November. Notwithstanding his “frontline” status, he is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a co-sponsor of “Medicare for All” legislation that would create a single-payer health care system. Levin is one of three vulnerable freshman Democrats for whom Ocasio-Cortez raised $30,000 apiece in an end-of-March fundraising appeal on Twitter.
“I’m very, very committed to not just Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, but transformational majorities in the House and Senate,” she said. “That’s where I want to dedicate a lot of my time.”
While Ocasio-Cortez said she is a “team player,” one thing she has no plans to do is pay the sum of $150,000 in “dues” that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee asks of rank-and-file House members.
“When I talk to frontliners about what they need, they just prefer that I give them the money,” she said.
Without so much as lifting a phone to call donors, Ocasio-Cortez has raised nearly $3.4 million for her reelection campaign. She may have to spend some of that money dispatching with local competition: She has already drawn 11 challengers ― eight Republicans and three Democrats. However, the prospects of another Democrat, let alone a Republican, prevailing in the heavily Democratic district where she is a household name remain scant.
Ocasio-Cortez declined to go into more detail about how she would use her financial resources to support people like Cisneros and Newman. A candidate’s campaign can, for example, directly transfer up to $2,000 to another campaign each election cycle.
“A lot of those decisions are based on evolving dynamics,” she said. “How much help would a given candidate need? Where can we expand the movement?”
Rather than setting her sights on 2020 or 2021, Ocasio-Cortez said she is trying to figure out how to shape what the country will look like in 2050.
“One of the benefits of being a younger member is that I have the luxury of looking at things in terms of decades. How do we turn Tennessee blue again? How do we turn West Virginia blue?” she concluded. “These are questions that seem impossible to some people because perhaps they are impossible in a cycle or two. But I think about the changes that I want to see in my life.”