It was December 2016, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had just left Standing Rock — the Native American-led protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline — when she got a call from a newly formed organization called Justice Democrats. They wanted to know if she’d be willing to run for Congress in New York’s 14th District. The 28-year-old former bartender had been a field organizer for Bernie Sanders, phone-banked for Barack Obama and worked in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office as a college student, but Ocasio-Cortez was jaded.
“I wasn’t sure if our democracy and its electoral politics were really salvageable in the interests of working-class people,” she says. Even if it was, she wasn’t sure she was the person to do it. “I had always thought in order to run for office you had to take big money.”
Sanders’ presidential bid, though, helped change her mind. When she got the call, she took it seriously, especially after Standing Rock: “To see how a private corporation essentially militarized itself against the American people — I really felt like I had to do more.” She began quietly laying the groundwork for her campaign, collecting signatures and anticipating the different ways her opponent in the primary, Joseph Crowley, the longtime head of the Queens Democratic machine, might try to knock her off the ballot and out of the race.
But the closer they got to Election Day, the more she realized he was barely campaigning against her. “Sexism, I think . . . informed a lot of the way this political machine reacted to me, and I used it to my advantage,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “ ‘She’s uninformed, she’s young, she’s naive, she’s nothing to worry about’ — I was ignored for 99.9 percent of my campaign, and I liked it that way.”
Ocasio-Cortez, of course, ended up blowing Crowley out of the water — winning the primary by 15 points. She’s now likely to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
“I lean into the misconceptions,” she says. “[It] plays strategically to your advantage when you’re running a campaign, because other folks will take you less seriously. But my constituents took me very seriously.”