Is there anyone who had more life-changing 2019 than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bronx native who spent her year as the youngest freshman in Congress introducing landmark environmental legislation, applying press-ons in her Amtrak seat, tweeting in between viral C-SPAN hearing appearances, and stumping for Bernie Sanders?
AOC has been in office less than 365 days, but it feels much, much longer. The 29-year-old has become the most prominent progressive voice — not just on Capitol Hill but on social media, on late-night talk shows, and in popular culture — so much so that it can be difficult to encapsulate just how radical it is to have someone like her in Congress, and to even recall all the moments that defined her rise as a legislator. (To wit: One of her first newsworthy moments after she won her election — when she joined Sunrise Movement protesters in Nancy Pelosi’s office — occurred before she was actually sworn in.)
These are the seven events that mark the evolution of AOC as a political figure, from when she started out in January as a brand-new employee of the federal government, to someone from whom the top Democrats running for president were jockeying for an endorsement.
The right tries to smear AOC as … a dorky dancer.
The day after she was sworn into Congress on January 3, an anonymous user uploaded a video of Ocasio-Cortez at Boston University, at which she was known as “Sandy,” dancing with her fellow student government officials to “Lisztomania” by Phoenix. Instead of embarrassing her, it made her even more endearing, and she actually uploaded her own dance video outside her new office in response. It was our first inkling that critics would constantly be scrutinizing both her current work and past life to try and trip her up — and that it would be much harder than they thought.
AOC has to teach her colleagues how to be good at Twitter.
It seems like there was never a time when Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t routinely responding with eloquent and funny rebuttals to all manner of Republicans, pundits, and the president himself on Twitter — but if we go all the way back to January, AOC’s preternatural social media talents were downright shocking to her older colleagues, who worried she would “mean-tweet” them … and who also asked her to give a casual seminar on good Twitter practices. And they say millennials are selfish!
D.C. gets a new power uniform.
All eyes were on Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive cohort, including fellow freshmen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, when they attended Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in February. AOC went with sexual-assault survivors as her guests, and along with her fellow Democratic congresswomen, sent another message with her all-white wardrobe, a nod to the suffragette movement.
AOC makes her viral C-SPAN debut.
Ocasio-Cortez’s first splashy congressional hearing appearance was a big one: Michael Cohen testifying in front of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on his alleged role in covering up the Trump campaign’s payout to Stormy Daniels in 2016. Along with Tlaib, and fellow freshmen reps Ayanna Pressley and Katie Hill, AOC was unflinching, delivering succinct and pointed questions to Cohen. It was one of many, many moments in which Ocasio-Cortez has demonstrated how good she is at using her five moments in hearings to make us actually pay attention, in this case by getting Cohen to make the case himself that Trump should be compelled to release his tax returns.
“Concentration camps” draws ire and sparks a huge wave of outrage over border conditions.
In June, comments from Ocasio-Cortez that inhumane conditions in ICE detention camps at the US-Mexico border were akin to “concentration camps” created huge controversy. While some members of the Democratic establishment joined the GOP in condemning her language, other progressives stood with AOC, and her refusal to stand down eventually inspired a highly-publicized trip by members of Congress to detention centers in Texas. She was instrumental in stoking public outrage at ICE, and it made her a target; a Facebook group joined by Border Patrol employees was later found to contain violent messages about her.
The Squad takes on Trump.
When Donald Trump tweeted in July that Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley should “go back to where they came from,” among other messages directed to the congresswomen, they were forced to address him as a group — and “The Squad” became known nationally as a foil to Trump and the white supremacist right. The foursome endured heightened threats that echoed Trump’s nativist rhetoric, including a racist, Islamophobic billboard put up by a gun store in North Carolina — but fought back. “You are angry because you can’t conceive of an America that includes us,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter.
AOC goes home to Queens with Bernie Sanders.
Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement was extremely sought after by the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the congresswoman displayed friendly relations with both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It seemed up for grabs until late in the year, when Sanders suffered a heart attack in October, and Ocasio-Cortez chose then to endorse the senator, for whom she once canvassed in 2016.
Her introductory speech at Sanders’s October rally in Queens cemented her reputation as a skilled public speaker, and was almost as much of a draw for the crowd as the candidate himself was. She also took a moment to reflect on what she’d learned from her own political career: “I’m in the United States Congress now,” she said from the podium, “a long, long way from being a sexually harassed waitress in downtown Manhattan one year ago. The halls of Congress are no joke.” It was not just a warm-up to Sanders, but a glimpse of the future.