Two days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called a meeting admonishing her caucus to stop publicly criticizing each other on Twitter, the official House Democrats Twitter account launched a public broadside against a staffer for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
The tweet itself is a cheap smear, the strain of context-free character assassination deployed by 4chan-dwellers and alt-right agitators, assailing a prominent liberal with a snippet of an old Twitter conversation. Two days later, party leaders are hoping everyone will forget the whole thing, and President Donald Trump’s racist rant targeting Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) has sucked up most of the oxygen in Washington.
But the House Dems’ tweet carries a symbolic power that a turn of the news cycle can’t erase. One of Pelosi’s top lieutenants, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the caucus chair, effectively declared war on Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti on Friday night. Nobody in leadership has apologized for it, recanted or publicly rebuked anyone. The tweet is still live. Not since Anthony Weiner’s sexual misconduct scandal in 2011 had the Democratic Party leadership targeted one of its own with such ferocity. Divided over how to oppose Trump and his agenda, party leadership attempted to purge its own ranks, and only eased up when the president himself attacked the same members that leadership had been blasting for weeks.
On Sunday ― the same day as Trump’s Twitter rant ― Axios published selective results from a whites-only poll that some Democrats were circulating in an attempt to discredit Ocasio-Cortez. Axios didn’t say who was pushing the poll, or even who had conducted it, or what questions were asked ― only that “some of the most influential Democrats in America” were giving it a look, and some of the numbers didn’t look great for Ocasio-Cortez.
The divide between Ocasio-Cortez and Pelosi represents just about every split in the modern Democratic coalition ― generational, ideological, race, class, strategy, values, all of it.
But beneath it all is a simple struggle for power. House Democrats and their agenda have been hijacked by the corrupt machine politics of New York state.
From the governor’s mansion to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, New York is a political patronage system designed to insulate corrupt elites from public accountability. The reason the subways don’t work even as the state government devotes seemingly endless amounts of money to the problem is because corruption taints every contract the government signs.
Though often described as a liberal state, New York exhibits all of the horrors Democrats typically associate with right-wing rule. It has the highest income inequality of any state in the country, its police officers rape and kill citizens without facing criminal consequences, and the state imposes nakedly racist restrictions on voting. Each of these outrages has its own distinct characteristics, but they all share one thing in common: corruption.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and his office have aggressively sought leniency in cases involving elite offenders. Vance declined to prosecute Harvey Weinstein, despite a mountain of damning evidence, after receiving campaign contributions from Weinstein’s lawyers.
In 2012, Vance decided not to pursue what looked like a slam-dunk criminal fraud case against Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. after the Trumps’ lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, donated $25,000 to Vance’s campaign. Vance’s office even pressed a New York judge for leniency with convicted underage sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Vance’s coziness with New York’s power elite was so flagrant that the New York Attorney General’s office began investigating him for misconduct ― only to have Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) personally intervene to crush the inquiry. Cuomo’s campaign got a check from Weinstein’s lawyers after the probe was called off.
Ocasio-Cortez represents a greater threat to this machine than Trump, which is why Democratic leadership in Congress is now diverting time, attention and resources to defend the machine’s turf, instead of focusing on the president. Her primary defeat of then-Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) in 2018 challenged this system. This year, she endorsed Tiffany Cabán in a race for Queens district attorney. On election night, Cabán ― a queer Latina socialist ― appeared to have narrowly defeated machine-backed candidate Melinda Katz. After a controversial accounting in which thousands of ballots were rejected, Katz now leads Cabán by less than two dozen votes.
A fair accounting might vindicate Cabán, and it might vindicate Katz. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the rest of the machine don’t want a fair accounting. New York state legislators are blocking a voting rights bill that would requalify many of the ballots thrown out in the Cabán-Katz contest. The legislature actually passed the voting rights bill earlier this year ― they’re just refusing to send it to Cuomo’s desk after several conservative Democrats lost their seats to more liberal challengers in 2018.
After Ocasio-Cortez ousted Crowley, House Democrats selected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) as caucus chair, the fifth-ranking slot in House leadership. Jeffries has a modestly liberal voting record, but he’s a dedicated machine man with a more conservative record than his opponent in the leadership contest, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). True to the New York machine playbook, Jeffries courts large campaign contributions from wealthy individuals and corporate Political Action Committees. And his district, like Ocasio-Cortez’s, includes parts of Queens.
Jeffries controls the @HouseDemocrats Twitter handle that attacked Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff over the weekend. His spokesman Michael Hardaway confirmed to the Daily Beast that the tweet was not an accident, but the caucus did not respond to an inquiry from HuffPost. The contours of the situation are clear. Threatened by Ocasio-Cortez’s national rise within the party, her opponents in the New York machine are trying to take her down ― whatever the consequences for Democratic policy priorities.
Chakrabarti, the Ocasio-Cortez staffer Jeffries attacked, co-founded Justice Democrats before joining the New York congresswoman’s office. Justice Democrats exists to pull the Democratic Party left by primarying corrupt or conservative Democrats in safe seats. The bluer a district, the more likely a candidate is to face a Justice Democrats-backed challenger, and the bluest districts in America are in New York.
A competent House speaker wouldn’t allow party energy to be squandered this way. But a speaker in firm control also wouldn’t set caucus-wide rules of conduct ― stop criticizing other Democrats on Twitter, say ― only to see them flagrantly violated by the chair of the caucus itself. Nancy Pelosi may look like she’s in charge of the House majority, but the New York machine is running its own show.