(by special correspondent David Attewell)
As many of you have no doubt read, New York politics saw a major shock last week as 28-year old democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset Joe Crowley, one of the most powerful Democratic incumbents in the House. Canvassing in Astoria on Election Day, the takeaways were varied. (Full disclosure: I was a johnny-come-lately, only making calls and then canvassing on the day).
The result showed decisively that the path forward for the left is through Democratic primaries—if it can be done in NY-14, it can be done anywhere. At the same time, it’s clear that the system works deliberately to suppress rather than maximize democratic participation. I talked to dozens of people that couldn’t vote because they were registered independents, because they had missed an insane 9-month registration deadline, or because they had felony records and hadn’t received any notice that they were eligible to register. I can’t overstate how insane it is that this is even a thing in a Blue state like New York. I currently live in North Carolina, where a GOP supermajority in the state legislature has been engaging in incredibly brazen and racist anti-democratic hardball for years. Incredibly, it’s still markedly easier to vote in North Carolina than in New York.
Nonetheless, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign was able to overcome these obstacles. Was descriptive representation key to her victory? Yes, clearly, interacting with Latinxs voters in the district you could feel the excitement at a chance to vote for “una de las nuestras.”
Was the message attractive? Also yes. Every voter I had an actual conversation with reacted positively to her lack of corporate money, support for abolishing ICE, and Medicare for All. (The exception was an old Greek guy who told me HE came to the country as an illegal immigrant, but, y’know, not the welfare-stealing kind. He announced he was leaving the Democratic Party after 40 years because it’s turned into “the party of blacks and homosexuals.”)
Whatever the cause, Ocasio-Cortez’ victory is already having aftershocks in New York politics at the state level. Crowley had not only been not only a mover and a shaker in Congress, but also the boss of the Queens Democratic Party and one of the most powerful players in city and state politics. Showing that the machine can be beaten in its own backyard has torn up the rulebook about what is politically possible. The air of fear and inevitability that it runs on has disappeared and opened up new pathways of contestation.
Prior to AOC’s run, a power axis of Governor Andrew Cuomo and powerbrokers like Joe Crowley looked to have kept progressives at bay. Cuomo’s astute combination of carrots (passing a $15 an hour minimum wage) and sticks (“leave the WFP or you can lose my number”) succeeded in getting the unions to leave the Working Families Party after its endorsement of Cynthia Nixon. The Independent Democratic Conference, which previously handed power in the State Senate to Republicans, agreed to come back to the Democratic caucus—with the crucial condition that the Democratic Party stand by them and refuse to support any primary challengers. This accord left anti-IDC challengers with little money and airtime and virtually no institutional support.
But Crowley’s loss means that one of the major enforcers of that pact is gone. Last Wednesday, the New York City Comptroller and future Mayoral hopeful Scott Stringer broke the accord in endorsing anti-IDC challengers Jessica Ramos, Alessandra Biaggi, and Robert Jackson. This opened the floodgates.* Several days ago, Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council also held a press conference to endorse the full slate of anti-IDC challengers. Minutes later, Hector Figueroa, president of the influential SEIU local 32BJ also came out against the IDC on Twitter, despite having previously sided with Cuomo in leaving the WFP.
This dramatically changes the picture for the September primaries. Before Ocasio-Cortez’ victory, the situation was one in which individual IDC challengers with little support except the WFP’s were running against heavily corporate-financed incumbents backed by the entire NY Democratic Party. Today, the lines of conflict look much more like NYC Democrats vs. Cuomo and the IDC. This slate of progressive challengers, including another DSA member in Julia Salazar, will likely benefit heavily from the assistance of the GOTV operation activated by Ocasio-Cortez. The battle for a progressive Democratic majority at the state level is still to be won. But the situation is unrecognizable compared to just a week ago.
*Note: Aside from the impact on the state legislature, the changing dynamics may also have implications for the governor’s race. On Sunday, former City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito endorsed Cynthia Nixon for governor, one of the first big name Democrats to have done so, at the same time as she endorsed the IDC challengers.