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Can Justice Democrats Pull Off a Progressive Coup in Congress?

The crop of new progressives arriving on Capitol Hill are ready to shake things up

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, photographed in August 2, 2018.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, photographed on August 2, 2018.

EUGENE GARCIA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Last week, as a freshman class filtered through the halls of Congress for orientation, Fox News sounded the alarm about four of the elected members and the “radical new Democratic ideas” they’d come to advance: free health care, free college, the abolishment of ICE and an infrastructure project designed to address impending climate catastrophe that they’re calling the “Green New Deal.”

Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are emblematic of a midterm election in which more women, more people of color and more progressives were elected than ever before. All four also happen to be Justice Democrats, a group that’s quickly gained currency under the leadership of a handful of determined alumni from Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign.

And now the group (technically a political action committee, but one that doesn’t accept corporate donations) is getting even more attention for announcing its intention this past weekend to challenge even more incumbent Democrats during the party’s upcoming primaries.

“We need new leaders, period,” Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff and one of the chief architects behind Justice Democrats’ success, said on a phone call with reporters this past weekend. “We gotta primary folks.” Entrenched leadership in Washington has recoiled in horror at the group’s blunt declaration, but it should have surprised no one. This is exactly what many progressives have been saying for the last two years — and it’s the reason Ocasio-Cortez is in Congress at all.  

The three leaders of Justice Democrats — Chakrabarti, Alexandra Rojas and Corbin Trent — met back in 2015, when the only thing they had in common was the fact that they each dropped everything they were doing and went to work for Sanders not long after he declared his candidacy. “I wasn’t entirely sure he had all the right solutions but I knew he was talking about the right problems,” Chakrabarti tells Rolling Stone.

Rojas was a community-college student working three jobs in Costa Mesa, California, trying to gain residency so she could qualify for in-state tuition. Chakrabarti was in tech, an early employee at a multibillion-dollar startup in the Bay Area, growing increasingly disillusioned with the industry. Trent had a couple of food trucks in Tennessee that he’s started after watching his family’s furniture-parts business devastated by NAFTA.

All three ended up on the Sanders campaign’s “Distributed Organizing Team” — they were the ones responsible for harnessing any and all of the volunteer energy that existed beyond the early primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada). They traveled around the country helping stage barnstorms (“Bernstorms,” in campaign parlance) — volunteer-led events meant to hype supporters up to hold their own phone-banks and canvasses afterward. And everywhere they went, this question of how Congress would react to a Bernie Sanders presidency dampened the optimism about his chances.

“At barnstorm after barnstorm,” Chakrabarti remembers, “people would say, ‘How’s he going to get anything done? We just saw what Congress did to Obama for the last eight years, they’re gonna do the same thing to Bernie and he’s going in not just as an enemy of the Republicans, he’s going to be an enemy of the Democrats too.’”

The idea for Brand New Congress, which the three went on to found in the spring of 2016, sprung directly from that idea: recruit 400 like-minded folks to run for Congress, by asking people to nominate individuals from their own communities. It didn’t matter if they were Republicans or Democrats, they just had to want to work toward the same things: a world in which everyone had health care, made a living wage and money didn’t rule all in politics.

Brand New Congress ultimately ended up with 12,000 applications. Just 12 of those applicants turned into actual candidates, and only one won a seat in Congress this year: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

A single win? “I’d describe it as an abysmal failure from our original plan,” Trent says.

It’s only a failure, though, Chakrabarti says, if you’re thinking about politics the old way. Caring too much about a win ratio is part of the reason he believes the Democratic Party would never have recruited Ocasio-Cortez. “We’re OK losing 90 percent of our races, if it means that the ones we win cause the kind of shift in thinking about what’s possible — like Alexandria’s race honestly did,” Chakrabarti says. “So that’s a different way of measuring success.”

Trump’s election, though, did change the way the team that started Brand New Congress thought about what they were trying to achieve. Gradually, in early 2017, Rojas, Chakrabarti and Trent transitioned away from Brand New Congress and toward Justice Democrats. (The brand, brainchild of YouTube stars Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks and Kyle Kulinski of Secular Talk, already existed at that point, and their large platforms helped spur recruitment early on, but Uygur and Kulinski are no longer affiliated with the group.)

Justice Democrats ended up endorsing and supporting the bids of some 70 candidates — Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib and Pressley among them. Now they’re focused on helping hammer out the details of their progressive agenda.

At the top of their list: the creation of a Green New Deal. Trent describes a Green New Deal as a “huge multitrillion dollar economic expansion that hopefully will jumpstart our economic engine in this country and then hopefully put people in a meaningful way back to work and generate tens of millions of jobs.”

It might sound like a heavy lift for a few freshmen representatives, but Chakrabarti says of Ocasio-Cortez, “That’s part of her motivation, and why she ran at all, was to get that big stuff done.”

And that’s also what Rojas, Chakrabarti, Trent and Justice Democrats as a whole are turning their attention to: creating an entire system to support the candidates they’ve helped elect as they pursue these big, ambitious projects.

“We want to recruit candidates, we want to train candidates, we want to recruit campaign and Hill staff, we need better think tanks — there’s this whole infrastructure that the establishment has right now that perpetuates the current status quo and that’s what’s not working, right?” Chakrabarti says. “There’s a whole pipeline for where people recruit current Hill staff from and it’s people who go through a kind of ideological training that’s incorrect, I’d say, and so there’s a lot of work to do, and Justice Democrats is trying to figure out where it fits.”

At the end of the day, Rojas says, it’s pretty simple: Justice Democrats is just “a brand — a vehicle that we’re using to keep people accountable.”

In This Article: 2018 Midterms, Congress

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