Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Transforming the DNA of Congressional Battles
For the upcoming issue of the annual print edition of NHI Magazine, we interviewed New York City native, Congressional candidate, 2017 NHI Person of the Year, and 2018 Northeast CWS co-Education Director Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. An excerpted version of this interview will appear in the magazine, but we thought this valuable enough to share the entire interview online.
(Photo credit: Corey Torpie)
“Everyone matters and has something valuable to offer. We also aren’t afraid to ask tough questions, demand more from each other, and push to achieve more. That DNA is magnetic and much more inspiring than the desperate fear and negativity that has traditionally run so many other political campaigns.”
As you continue to engage with the community over the course of the campaign, how has your view of the race evolved?
I think that especially coming from an NHI perspective there are so many of these principles that we learn with the Institute, whether its community-based entrepreneurship, or even, most especially, community equity building. We hear these terms and I think we understand a broad stroke of what it means — investing in ourselves and increasing our own capacities, so we can build and prosper within our own communities, instead of looking elsewhere and outside for solutions. In running this campaign, I’ve really seen what that means in action. For example, a lot of people in New York and in our community typically don’t have skills in organizing. And I don’t think this is just our community, I think most Americans in general.
A lot of other campaigns hire professional organizers to knock on doors for you, but we’ve done the exact opposite. We go into communities and we train people ourselves in how to organize and then let them do it and organize their own communities on their own blocks. Doing that, on many other different levels and working with people to build those skills so that they can use them in their own communities, has been really game-changing for us. A lot of that is not being scared to take policy views that no one else has ever taken before. To me that’s a post-partisan, or even a non-partisan, point of view. We’re just trying to experiment with new ideas, and while I may be running as a Democrat in New York, I really do believe some of these ideas are something everybody can get behind. We’re smashing that idea that you have to be on one side or the other, or you have to be on one team or the other.
Do you believe your understanding of leadership in the 14th District evolved?
100%. For any NHIer, once you throw your hat in the ring and decide you’re going to do something unprecedented, whether it’s launch your own project, or start your own business, or decide you’re going to run for office without machine-backing, you really learn how to liberate yourself from a lot of the existing paradigms of the world as it is. In New York, the existing rules (and one of the big reasons I initially, previous to this experience, I never thought politics was for me) [say] you need to work your way up, you need to know the right people, you need to get this guy’s permission. We haven’t done any of that. There have been a lot of rules that we’ve broken. We are running this campaign pretty outside of this system, outside the status quo. We are saying things that are not usually talked about. I have no problem advocating for the Latino community very expressly in my campaign. A lot of people say you can’t talk about one specific group or another specific group, but I’m a Latina. We have no Latinas in Congress. There are like six out of 435. We need to talk about these issues, we need to normalize them. I think electorally, we need to realize that we are a force and we have the capacity to make demands of our public officials without playing by the usual rules. I think a lot of Latinos that aren’t within the NHI paradigm get a little tokenized by their party. There identity is being used by somebody else, instead of us taking control of our identity in who we are and our leadership in our own community. Learning to embrace that has been a big evolution, even learning to take risks even more so than before. I am much more outspoken now then even when I started this campaign. I really think that after a couple of months, I really started to find my voice in my advocacy in this process.
You have express your excitement to work with Brand New Congress candidates Cory Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin, and Anthony Clark. What cultural changes in Congress do you anticipate with the introduction of individuals who confront policy without considerations of special interests?
It’s a total game-changer. We have forgotten what truly authentic leadership looks like in Congress. We are so used to candidates that are controlled by consultants and brand managers. We’re used to very corporate leadership. We actually just had the Texas primaries yesterday [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in March]. We had four Brand New Congress or Justice Democrats campaigns that broke through last night, without the billions of dollars usually required from special interests to pull through. I think that when we have this leadership that’s accountable to no one but the communities, we are going to see people more willing to work together than before. It’s not reaching a critical mass of those types of individuals.
As a participant in the 2005 National LDZ, you have been able to experience a congress full of NHIers. How could national political discourse be transformed through the asset-based thinking and community social entrepreneurship values in NHI philosophy?
There are so many politicians that view the world through either a deficit-based mentality or a zero-sum mentality, which is that one community’s gain is another community’s loss. There are a lot of people out there that think that the Latino community gain is somehow interpreted as their loss. When you shift to an asset-based point of view, you realize that more communities that are better off in this country, the better off our whole country is. It’s not a zero-sum, its about growing who we are, including assets everywhere that look different everywhere that are diverse, but always substantive. I think by having an asset-based mentality and eliminating these notions that somehow embracing immigrant populations is going to make us worse, it’s the exact opposite. It makes us better, it makes us stronger, it makes us more diverse. It could really be the key to unlocking so much for communities that haven’t had access to the traditional strengths of power. That’s the big shift. If people can see a campaign like ours succeed, or even do well, it will fire people who had previously thought the political process was closed for them to maybe enter the ring.
You have spoken to great extent on the need for there to be a leader that understands the community and represents it accordingly. As you approach a year since you announced your candidacy, how do you believe your campaign has transformed the relationship between elected official hopefuls and voters?
What’s interesting is that New York is a very solidly blue state. Many people live in communities that are very solid on one category or the other. A lot of people live in very solid Republican communities and others live in very solid Democratic communities. The issue with that, whether you’re happy with your party representation or not, is that it’s easy to get stagnant. So when your community is voting for the same party over and over again, it becomes very easy for that party to lose its accountability to the community, even if it’s what the community wants. My community doesn’t happen to want to be represented by a Republican. That doesn’t mean that any Democrat should do. I know there are a lot of communities where Republicans have been doing that to their constituents too. It’s a post-partisan problem. As these communities get drawn to be more partisan, the actual folks in charge have to answer less because they usually don’t have primary challenges and the general election is always a landslide every time. Just by me, going out into the community and knocking on people’s doors, people are blown away because no one has ever knocked on their door before. No one has ever tried to engage them before. Our campaign is pursuing a strategy that no other campaign is willing to pursue. The status quo thing to do is to only knock on the doors of what are known as “Triple Prime Voters,” people who have voted in every election, every primary. The traditional strategy and traditional wisdom says only talk to those people, only talk to the people who vote all the time, don’t talk to young people, don’t talk to communities of color, don’t talk to low-income people because they don’t vote, don’t waste your time. We’ve done the exact opposite. We are having those conversations with typically invested individuals, but at the same time we are talking to young people, we are talking to low-income families, we are talking to Latino communities, black communities, Bangladeshi communities. NY-14 is one of the most diverse districts in America. By us rejecting that initial notion and choosing to win by educating and expanding the electorate itself, I think we can transform how politics work in this community.
The Alexandria Ocasió-Cortez campaign has been named the most serious challenge to Joseph Crowley, who has been largely unchallenged since his appointment. In what aspects is the campaign formulating innovative methods to organize voters and mobilize talent in the 14th District?
I think one of the big things that we’ve been doing is floating really innovative policy positions that really capture people’s attention and start a conversation. It’s one even about agreeing or disagreeing. It’s about saying, “Hey, let’s consider something we’ve never done before.” For example, we have what are now widely known ambitious progressive policy proposals like improved and expanded “Medicare for All” and tuition-free public college and we’re also looking at really big things like a federal jobs guarantees so that we could have full employment and no one is ever without opportunity in this country, or ever without the ability to reinvent themselves in this country. I think that policy and advocacy like that really set us apart. I think our voice and our messaging really sets us apart. We’re not the button-up political campaign that needs to be PC every single time and isn’t careful. We’re always careful to be respectful, but we’re also unafraid. To run an “unafraid” campaign is actually pretty new. People are used to campaigns that are constantly focused-grouped and a sure thing. We’re not afraid to fall on our face sometimes and take a stand and have people respond and start a conversations.
Win or lose, what community mobilizing structures will stay long after the campaign to facilitate leadership in every citizen, ensuring a future of diverse representation and community investment?
That’s really the question that you should be asking every single elected official because far too often people run for office and then all the organizing that they did they just give up on. That is not a sustained movement. It’s really a shame because, “win or lose,” you’re doing really great work to mobilize and educate the community and the idea that stops is a waste of time and money, frankly. If you’re not preserving that structure and you’re not preserving that change, even if you’re not necessarily on the head of it, what’s the point of running? A big thing of what we try to do is that we are, as we run, educating people that volunteer on our campaign on the essential skills of community organizing, so that they themselves can run for office or help the next person. We build relationships between people, drawing connection between communities that have previously been more siloed off. Our campaign is profoundly intersectional, it’s very grassroots. We work with every group form Our Revolution, to immigration activists, to Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, to ensure that we understand that our destinies our tied and that these issues impact all of us. This is how we make sure that we find a solution that works for everybody. We do that through training through the hard skills and also building the relationships to move forward.