Pelham Bay Park — a 2,765-acre oasis of century-old shade trees and freshly mown ball fields, hemmed in by a pair of three-lane freeways — is about an hour by train from Midtown Manhattan, on a good day. This being an average day on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s MTA, it takes closer to two, and I’m late to meet Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Bronx. I’m anxious about locating her in a park she’ll later tell me, proudly, is the largest in New York City — more than three times bigger than Central Park — but she is easy to pick out of the crowd, surrounded mostly by preschoolers watching a puppet show in a gazebo. She’s here with her niece and nephew.
Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t had many free moments recently. In the weeks since the 28-year-old self-described Democratic Socialist handed a humiliating 15-point defeat to the powerful Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, her life has become a movie montage of instant fame: her name splashed across dozens of cable chyrons, an appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, a profile in the New Yorker written by the magazine’s editor, David Remnick.
“I’ve tried to have a very realistic assessment of what we accomplished without getting too overblown,” she says. Being back in the Bronx helps — she thinks of it as a totem. “You know, like in Inception? When you need to touch the thing to get back to what’s real? That’s how I feel in the district,” she says.
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By the time we meet in mid July, Ocasio-Cortez is deep in the inevitable backlash phase of the viral-fame cycle. In a television interview taped a few days earlier, she infuriated Zionists and leftist proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement alike by referring to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. (The former declared her ignorant ofthe “3,500 [year-old] relationship of Jewish people to Land of Israel;” the latter criticized her for affirming “Israel’s right to exist.”) Then there was her assertion, in the same interview, that “unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs.” (She later clarified that she meant wages are too low, driving people to take on side jobs to survive.) The remark was gleefully ridiculed by conservatives and lamented by centrist liberals such as Norman Ornstein, who declared Ocasio-Cortez “not ready for prime time, certainly not ready for Congress.”
It’s a lot, and Ocasio-Cortez will be the first to tell you that it has all caught her by surprise.
“As a field organizer, I knew that if I wanted to have a shot at winning this, I needed to knock on X amount of doors and have X amount of text messages.” (120,000 doors, 170,00 texts, she says.) Her field-organizing experience came from a stint with Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. ”The day of the election, I saw that we were hitting all of those numbers, but I still wasn’t allowing myself the luxury of imagining what it would be like to win,” she says.
In those fleeting moments leading up to the primary when she did entertain the possibility of winning, she says, “I figured it would be a big news story for two days and then life would go back to normal. And that is not what has happened.”
Now, when she stumbles — and even when she doesn’t — a dozen thinkpieces materialize from thin air asking what it could mean for the Democrats’ chances in November, or in the rust-belt, or in 2020. There’s an upside, of course. “I know that we have this huge bullhorn right now,” she says. “Whether people like it or not.”
Her outsize profile means she can give a boost to candidates like Brent Welder and James Thompson in Kansas, and Cori Bush in Missouri — politicians who refuse corporate money, who talk about universal, single-payer health care and tuition-free public college. And it offers her the ability to help bring conversations to the mainstream that had languished in obscurity on the far-left, most notably the idea of abolishing ICE.
It’s easy, given her present ubiquity, to forget that she hasn’t technically even been elected to Congress yet, and many want to keep it that way.
On the morning of our interview, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. The 76-year-old urged voters of New York’s 14th District to support, in the general election, the incumbent they overwhelmingly rejected in the primary. Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy, Lieberman warned, “hurts the party, Congress and even America.”
Much has been written about what Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise win means for Democrats, but nothing has distilled it quite like Lieberman’s piece. Here was an elder statesman of the Democratic party and longtime insurance industry crony — who, nine years ago, single-handedly stopped single-payer healthcare in the U.S. — telling mostly lower-income, majority brown and black voters not to support a candidate who eschews corporate money and has made Medicare-for-all her signature issue.
One of the earliest lines of attack against Ocasio-Cortez revolved around a grainy Google Earth screenshot of the house she grew up in — a modest single-story home with white trim — and a question of whether she had exaggerated her working-class background to win votes in the Bronx.
Ocasio-Cortez tells me her family had to sell the house after her father’s prolonged battle with small-cell carcinoma, a rare form of lung cancer. He died in the fall of 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis. “Twenty-five years of work wiped away in an instant,” she says. “You have medical debt, but you also have credit card debt for the things that the medical debt doesn’t cover. You have mortgage payments.”
Her dad had health insurance when he was dying, but in the years she worked in the hospitality industry, Ocasio-Cortez did not. She had to buy a plan off the Obamacare exchange. “Unlike most members of Congress,” she says, “I know what it’s like to be making $30 or $40K and have to pay almost $200 bucks a month for an $8,000 deductible.”
“I know what it’s like to have a toothache and ignore it because of your finances,” she says. “I know what it’s like to have my knee hurt and not be able to do anything because I can’t afford to go to the doctor. I’ve sat in a public clinic for three hours waiting for a resident to give me an examination …Not only do I know what that’s like, but I know that is way more common than a lot of folks are willing to admit, right?”