The 28-Year-Old at the Center of One of This Year’s Most Exciting Primaries

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo: Samantha Burkardt/Getty Images for SXSW

The battle over the future of the Democratic party is alive and well in New York’s 14th Congressional District.

Meet Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Bronx-born Latina socialist and former Bernie Sanders organizer who’s running to unseat 56-year-old Joe Crowley, a longtime incumbent who has his own ambitions of becoming Speaker of the House. They’re fighting to represent a district comprised of parts of the Bronx and Queens, is 70 percent people of color, and has a large working-class population.

Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy has made the race one of this year’s most buzzed-about primaries, even if she didn’t have political ambitions until recently. “I counted out that possibility because I felt that possibility had counted out me,” she told the Cut. “I felt like the only way to effectively run for office is if you had access to a lot of wealth, high social influence, a lot of high dynastic power, and I knew that I didn’t have any of those things.”

And while she may be running a long-shot progressive campaign against a powerful old-guard opponent, she’s determined to run on her own terms. The weekend before the Democratic primary, for instance, Ocasio-Cortez opted to fly down to the U.S.-Mexico border to address the Trump administration’s child-separation policy instead of doing last-minute campaigning.

Ahead of the June 26 election, Ocasio-Cortez spoke to the Cut about her experience at the border, what it’s like talking socialism with voters, and her dual endorsement with gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon.

You opted to go to the border the weekend before your primary election. When and why did you decide that was a priority over campaigning?
Voto Latino and RAICES Texas — a coalition of immigrant and Latino activist organizations — reached out to me earlier last week. This was right when the child-separation policy started to really kick into full gear. For me, it really merited an immediate response. We cannot afford to wait to respond to something so extreme, and if we allow something as heinous as child separation to happen because it happens at an inconvenient time, I think that things will only get worse.

I know you’ve been critical of how the Democratic party has handled immigration. What do you think they’ve been getting specifically wrong and what would you want to do instead?

You have to look at the establishment of ICE. There were many Democrats who voted against the creation of ICE at its inception in 2003. We knew back then that, in the post-9/11 push of authoritarian legislation — the Patriot Act, the authorization of the Iraq War — that the systems that were being established in this time were extrajudicial. They do not meet the tests of our Constitutional right to due process in the United States, in my opinion. If we are going to have justice in this country, ICE is not designed to meet that standard. In terms of what the party is getting wrong, we can’t be afraid of being strong. We cannot fear clarity. We shouldn’t have to fear strong moral positions with real teeth and real concrete commitment for change.

What’s happening with ICE is not an accident. Child separation is a barbaric new iteration of what is going on, but for a very long time, ICE has had a documented history of sexual assault, of unaccountable deaths, of unethical practices happening in their facilities. What we need to realize is that the Trump administration is taking an already unjust structure and pushing it to its most extreme. But that unjust structure has been there from the very beginning.

You’ve spent years working as an organizer and an activist, but when did you also know that you wanted to run for office? And what inspired you to do so in this particular moment?
I had worked for the late Senator Ted Kennedy years ago — actually, in his immigration office. I found it all to be incredibly fulfilling and satisfying work, but I never really saw myself running on my own. I counted out that possibility because I felt that possibility had counted out me. I felt like the only way to effectively run for office is if you had access to a lot of wealth, high social influence, a lot of high dynastic power, and I knew that I didn’t have any of those things.

The tipping point was was when I was at Standing Rock in 2016, and I saw how all of the people there — particularly the Native people and the Lakota Sioux — were putting their whole lives and everything that they had on the line for the protection of their community. I saw how a corporation had literally militarized itself against the American people, and I just felt like we were at a point where we couldn’t afford to ignore politics anymore. We couldn’t afford to write off our collective power in self-governance anymore out of cynicism. It was the day that I got off camp that a national organization, Brand New Congress, called me and asked if I’d be willing to run.

You’re a Democratic Socialist, and for so many years “socialist” was such a dirty word in American politics. But the tide is turning — recently in Pennsylvania, we’ve seen a handful of primary wins by socialists. When you’re campaigning, how do you go about talking about socialism to a potentially skeptical voting base?
For me, it’s all about leading with our values and leading with our issues. It’s really scary or it’s easy to generate fear around an idea or around an -ism when you don’t provide any substance to it. I believe that every American should have stable, dignified housing; health care; education — that the most very basic needs to sustain modern life should be guaranteed in a moral society.

You can call that whatever you want to call that. Legislatively, when I knock on a door, the way that it looks like is improved and expanded Medicare for all; it looks like housing is a human right; it looks like a federal jobs guarantee that guarantees a $15 minimum wage, paid family and sick leave, and health care. It looks like tuition-free public college, it looks like the exploration and expansion of federal student-loans forgiveness. When I knock on a door and tell people that that’s the world that I’m fighting for, it’s a no-brainer. In fact, this has almost been a non-conversation actually for voters. I was expecting it to be a bigger deal than it was, and people don’t even bat an eye.

I also feel like there’s this narrative that we only have a “white working class.” How are you working to dismantle that stereotype and address concerns in your district?
One of the really great privileges I have in running in my community is that it is like the epicenter for an intersectional argument for economic and social dignity. My district contains Rikers Island. I can not talk about the economic rights of families until those families are reunited by the separation of both our criminal-justice and immigration system. There’s this false notion that you have to separate and choose between issues of class and issues of race. What people do when they say that you need to separate class from race is that they are really just saying that people of color should come second. There is no such thing as talking about class without there being implications of the racial history of the United States. You just can’t do it.

Lastly, you and Cynthia Nixon announced a dual endorsement this morning. Can you talk about that a little bit more?
New York has one of the most oppressive political machine in the United States. Because New York votes blue in presidential elections, people think that it is a place of social and economic justice. It is not. New York has the second-lowest primary turnout in all of 2016, second only to Louisiana. We are one of the worst states in the country when it comes to voter suppression which impacts working-class people, the disabled, and people of color. We allow cash bail, and we jail the poor. We are progressive in some issues for sure. But we could be so much better if our electorate and the value of our electorate was actually much more closely represented.

The only way that you beat a machine is with a movement and the only way that this movement can sustain is if we start in good faith on shared values of a New York citizen. I think that is where Cynthia and I come together. I very much value the work and the impact that she has already made, due to the fact that she can go on The View and talk about abolishing ICE. What we can do is tag-team this message so that every community can hear it that needs to hear it. And I think that that kind of solidarity across lines is very, very powerful.

The 28-Year-Old in One of This Year’s Most Exciting Races