In a significant escalation of her activism-driven approach to politics, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has urged other progressives to mount primary challenges against some of the more conservative Democratic members of Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez delivered the appeal in a phone call on Saturday with some 700 progressive activists organized by Justice Democrats, the group of alumni of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid.
“Long story short, I need you to run for office,” Ocasio-Cortez began her remarks. “We all need to run at all levels of government, but I really hope that many of you join me here in Congress.”
Justice Democrats recruited Ocasio-Cortez to run and played a key role in her upset of Rep. Joe Crowley, a House power-broker, in New York’s Democratic primary in June. Ocasio-Cortez then easily won the seat Crowley has held since 1999 in this month’s general election.
The group is calling its new campaign #OurTime. The initiative asks Justice Democrats’ army of activists to help identify Democratic House incumbents who are “demographically and ideologically out-of-touch with their districts,” and identify people who might make good primary challengers to them.
Joining Ocasio-Cortez in backing the #OurTime initiative is Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
Justice Democrats’ inclusion of demographic criteria likely means that even some reliably progressive white Democrats who represent more diverse districts won’t be safe from such challenges in 2020. The group already showcased that approach with its support for Ayanna Pressley, a black Boston city council member who unseated progressive Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) in a primary in September.
“If I made people mad, they could have put me on the dog-walking committee or whatever. They still might.”
Ocasio-Cortez and leaders of Justice Democrats say they are driven by a conviction that most current Democratic members of Congress are not up to the task of enacting the radical solutions to address the country’s ― and the planet’s ― most pressing problems. The most urgent of those crises, they said, include climate change, widening economic inequality and persistent racial injustice.
“There are some good people who want to push for stuff, but they don’t have the backup right now to do anything big,” said Saikat Chakrabarti, a founder of Justice Democrats who is headed to Washington to serve as Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff. “So we need new leaders, period. We’ve got to primary folks.”
“If we don’t have folks who are mission-focused, and laser-focused on solving these gigantic problems, we just aren’t going to get them solved in time,” he added.
It is highly unusual for a member of Congress to support a massive number of primary challenges targeting party colleagues.
But over the course of last week’s orientation on Capitol Hill for newly elected lawmakers, Ocasio-Cortez demonstrated she has little interest in adhering to traditional congressional norms of comity and deference.
On Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez attended the Sunrise Movement’s sit-in at the office of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and endorsed the group’s call for a select committee to address climate change that is comprised solely of members of Congress who have not received fossil fuel industry money. The committee envisioned by Ocasio-Cortez and the group would be charged with drafting a Marshall Plan-style “Green New Deal” to have the U.S. powered entirely by renewable energy by 2035.
The committee idea has gained support from a handful of sitting House Democrats and newly elected ones. But the proposal and Ocasio-Cortez’s support for it also elicited some public opposition from veteran Democratic colleagues, many of whom have senior committee posts and claim that a new panel is unnecessary.
The investigative news site Sludge subsequently reported that each of the Democrats quoted as criticizing Ocasio-Cortez had received massive donations during the 2018 campaign cycle from fossil-fuel industry and electric utility political action committees and employees.
To Ocasio-Cortez, the negative response to the idea of simply creating a committee tasked with drafting legislation only strengthens the case for more primary challenges to veteran incumbents.
The resistance to the proposal “points to the role that fossil-fuel industry contributions play even within the Democratic Party,” she said.
In another sign of her independence, Ocasio-Cortez has not yet joined the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus ― which she is joining ― in endorsing Pelosi’s bid for House speaker. That gives Ocasio-Cortez some leverage in the bid to persuade Pelosi to establish the climate-change committee.
The 29-year-old democratic socialist said she is aware she may already face political punishment for her participation in the sit-in at Pelosi’s office.
“If I made people mad, they could have put me on the dog-walking committee or whatever. They still might. But I knew that it was worth it,” she said.
In her remarks to the Justice Democrats, Ocasio-Cortez invited activists considering running for office to take a similar leap in the faith that history would be on their side.
“Know that they will come after you and that that’s OK because at the end of the day, when you are on the right side of that long arc of history that bends toward justice, we will be able to tell our grandchildren that we fought for what’s right,” she said.
This story has been updated with Rep.-elect Tlaib’s support of the #OurTime campaign.