Get to Know Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Who Could Become the Youngest Woman in Congress - Pacific Standard

Get to Know Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Who Could Become the Youngest Woman in Congress

Pacific Standard spoke to Ocasio-Cortez about how she got to where she is and why it matters that young women and women of color are running for office.
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates with supporters at a victory party after upsetting incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowley on June 26th, 2018, in New York City.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates with supporters at a victory party after upsetting incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowley on June 26th, 2018, in New York City. 

On the evening of June 26th, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez learned that she'd won the Democratic primary for New York's 14th Congressional District. The 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez unseated Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, who'd been in office for nearly 20 years and unopposed in his primary for 14 years.

Ocasio-Cortez, who is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, is vying to represent a district covering the Bronx and Queens, where nearly half of the residents are immigrants. When Pacific Standard spoke to her last fall for a story in our March/April issue, she described her upbringing, how she wound up in this congressional race, and why it's important for women to run for office. Here's an excerpt from that interview.

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Why did you decide to run for office?

Growing up in the Bronx, it was in some respects a rough place to be. There was no real educational opportunity for a kid going to a public school. My parents felt like I was born in a place where I didn't have a shot. I grew up aware of the fact that the zip code that I lived in had a disproportionate impact on my destiny, on my family's destiny.

[In college] I worked for the late senator Ted Kennedy. There was this initial real love of what this country is capable of—what we, when we organize, are capable of. But I also felt like the role of money in politics made it hopeless for working-class Americans to have a [voice] in our legislative bodies. If you came from a working-class background, which I came from, you just didn't have a shot.

My father passed away from lung cancer during the recession. Suddenly we're in a single-parent household. My mom is a bus driver, she cleans homes, and we were on the brink of foreclosure. I started waitressing to help make ends meet. We were just a normal, struggling, American family. And I really saw just how far gone our elected officials were from this reality. They knew that people were hurting, but they didn't know what it meant to hurt.

When the [2016] election happened, a lot of people were really distraught, but I found myself more fired up. I started driving with some friends and talking to people across the country. I went to places like Flint, Michigan, and I went to Indiana, and that eventually led me to Standing Rock. I stood there with water protectors.

When I got back, Brand New Congress reached out to me and said I had been nominated to run for office, and they wanted to know if I would be interested. Part of me felt like I was being told by something beyond me that this was something I should pursue. No matter in what capacity or in what way, if you're not doing something in this time in this country, then you aren't part of us moving forward. And I want to be part of us moving forward, and championing our future.

What is Brand New Congress?

During the [2016] primaries, there was a group of organizers that started to realize that, no matter who won the presidency, money in politics was going to continue to be an existential problem for our democracy. Brand New Congress started with a general mission that they wanted to support a post-partisan movement to support congressional challengers that don't take big money. You sign onto the platform and you agree not to take any corporate PAC [political action committee] funds.

All of us [candidates who have signed onto Brand New Congress] are ordinary people. All of us have day jobs, for the most part. You learn how hard it is to run for office as a normal person. This system is not set up for ordinary people to participate—campaign finance, election laws. If it wasn't for this overall structure that Brand New Congress assisted with, there's no way I'd be able to run.

How are you funding your campaign?

We're an entirely grassroots campaign. I've been funded entirely by small dollar contributions; my average campaign contribution floats between 10 and 15 bucks.

Especially for women and women of color, what is really intimidating about entering this process—and why I never thought about entering it before—is economic access. I was like, there's no way I can raise a hundred thousand dollars. Half my family has been in prison; the other half floats along the poverty line. The idea of me running for office is a joke.

You don't run for office because you don't think you have the money for it. You don't have the money for it because there have been a lot of structural and historic barriers to opportunity. Our district is about 70 percent people of color. We've never had a person of color represent us in American history.

If you win in November, you will be the youngest woman to serve in Congress. Does your age give you a different perspective?

These issues that affect this country affect Millennials arguably the most. Boomers, the generation largely represented in Congress, used our generation as a credit card. They put every war on us, they put every soaring cost of college tuition on us, they put a boiling planet on us. And they have no incentive to fix it because they are not going to experience the world that they are wrecking.

We're the ones that are going to experience extreme climate. We're the ones that are already struggling with having children, buying homes, finding a good, dignified job. It's not only that it's important for young people to run for office—it's really only going to be young people who are going to fight as hard as possible for the solutions that are going to turn this ship around. Our culture only changes when our representation changes.

Why do you think it's important for women to run for office?

People need to get used to seeing young women and women of color on the ballot. People need to get used to seeing people across the gender spectrum on the ballot. They need to get used to talking about these issues being mainstream.

These [political] machines are built on vestiges of power. The traditional holders of this power have been men. The resistance, the movement forward, is really being led by women. Women haven't been included in the process. Women aren't part of the machine in the way men are part of the machine.

We find almost accidentally that women are leading the charge in running for office. They fight with the ferocity of mothers. They talk about how these are their children that they're fighting for. It changes our discourse. It's somewhat disarming as well. Frankly, [political] machines aren't used to running full-scale campaigns against women. It's a novel challenge for the establishment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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