Friday night’s primary debate between 31-year elected official Rep. Joseph Crowley and 28-year-old progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a contest between establishment and outsider, old guard and upstart, experience and progress, status quo and change. It marks only the third primary challenge Crowley has faced since moving from the state Assembly to Congress — and his first since 2004.
At times during the debate, his relative campaign inexperience showed, while Ocasio-Cortez presented as a well-studied newcomer with natural talent: delivering a summary of her agenda in a manner which was confident and sharp, if not effortless. The theme of her remarks was clear: “Not all Democrats are the same.”
Despite what she described as Crowley’s “adaptations” — meaning shifts leftward in response to her more progressive campaign — there are real differences between the two, said Ocasio-Cortez, who is challenging Crowley for the seat representing the 14th District, which encompasses parts of Queens and the Bronx.
Unlike Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez said she has rejected all corporate money, and is the only candidate in the race who supports “improved and expanded ‘Medicare for All,’ a federal jobs guarantee, tuition-free public college, and the abolition of ICE.”
By contrast, Crowley’s first remarks were those of a professional who felt confident enough to not prepare — and who realized too late that he should have.
His opening pitch was also direct. This race, to him, isn’t just about local politics: He is running against Donald Trump.
But according to Ocasio-Cortez, “It’s not enough to fight Trump. We have to fight the issues that made his rise in the first place.”
The differences between Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez aren’t actually that significant, he argued, but his superior ability to effectively challenge Trump on the national stage makes him the better candidate. Unspoken, but well understood, is the fact that Crowley, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, is anticipated to be the next House Democratic leader or speaker should Nancy Pelosi step aside or be ousted by her colleagues, meaning that his efficacy on the national stage would, in fact, come into play.
“We’re here to fight against Donald Trump,” Crowley affirmed, calling him the “No. 1 threat against us all.” But despite Crowley’s national focus, he also explained that he understood the “meat and butter” — a jumbled phrase that betrayed some of the nervousness underneath his outward expression of confidence — of what his constituency wants: “good paying jobs … affordable health care, they’re hoping that they can send their children to college and get a higher education … retirement security.”
In very broad strokes, Crowley might be right: The candidate’s positions don’t, as he put it, have much “daylight” between them. But Ocasio-Cortez’s stridency and urgent framing highlighted the difference between lip service and substantive change, between a movement powered by small donors and a politician funded by Wall Street and luxury real estate developers. Whereas Crowley framed issues in terms of what he thinks his constituents want, Ocasio articulated them as goals she could deliver.
Crowley’s nod to “affordable health care” and the “hope” of higher education sounded anemic next to Ocasio-Cortez’s demand for guaranteed jobs and free public college. And where Crowley emphasized his support of Barack Obama while underscoring how many thousands in the district are helped by the Affordable Care Act, Ocasio-Cortez’s focus was on getting more for her constituents in the form of “Medicare for All.”
Crowley was strongest when making a case for his experience and strength on a national level. Emphasizing that he’s a “proven leader,” and that “what we need right now is experience,” he declined to agree to Ocasio-Cortez’s request that he resign as Queens County party chair — a position she said amounted to a conflict of interest. Crowley defended his role, saying he is “very proud of the work I do nationally. As a congressman, I’d be helping Democrats in my boroughs, in the Bronx and Queens, anyway. But I also take it on the road to nationally helping Democrats win, because I think it’s critical, facing what we are today with this president, that we win back the House of Representatives at all costs. We have to win, because if we don’t, serious damage will be done to our democracy.”
Ocasio-Cortez is hoping that her personal experience with the community where she lives and has held working-class jobs is perceived as equal to, if not better than, the experience Crowley has accumulated over his three decades in office.
Crowley’s experience and power in Washington are only useful for Queens and Bronx residents if he uses that power to benefit them as opposed to his high-end donors. Crowley’s promise to provide affordable housing felt empty, given that housing has only become more expensive during his long tenure — especially since, as Ocasio-Cortez has pointed out repeatedly during the campaign, Crowley’s coffers have swelled with donations from luxury real estate developers. One exchange that was damaging to Crowley came when he defended a major development project by claiming that the local community board had been in favor of it. Ocasio-Cortez, however, had been at the vote and protested the development, and she corrected him: The board in fact voted overwhelming against it.
And although Crowley has joined Ocasio-Cortez in using impassioned language when talking about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and even attempted to commit civil disobedience this week against the agency, calling out the agency as “fascistic,” he declined to call for its abolition. He cited Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and her rationale that abolishing ICE does nothing to strip power from Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a stance which drew a sharp rebuke from those who believe that ICE presents a special danger because the agency is not effectively subjected to judicial oversight.
While Crowley highlighted his relationship with popular party figures like Obama and Harris, Ocasio-Cortez made clear her allegiances were not to any party, but to a people. In one tense moment, Crowley pledged to support Ocasio-Cortez if she beat him in the primary. Crowley’s promise was noteworthy, as he is running on both the Democratic Party and the Working Families Party lines. If Ocasio-Cortez defeats the steep odds and manages to upset him, he would be eligible to run in the general election on the WFP line, though his pledge Friday night, if followed, would rule that out.
But Crowley wanted the same promise of support from Ocasio-Cortez, which he wouldn’t need in a general election — he would win easily if he makes it through the primary — but her endorsement would help rehabilitate him in his bid for House leadership. But Ocasio-Cortez made no promises. “I represent not just my campaign, but a movement,” she said, smiling, explaining that she might endorse him eventually, but she would have to consult with the people and organizations who are part of that movement first, and that it wasn’t simply up to her — a subtle, if radical, expression of democratic socialism rarely seen in city debates broadcast on NY1.
If Ocasio-Cortez sees herself as representing a movement, Crowley made it clear that while he considers himself to be a “very progressive congressman,” he’s “a proud Democrat, first and foremost.” For voters fed up with leaders more committed to the Democratic machine than progressive ideology, that — “first and foremost” — may prove to be the problem. For those resentful of challenges to entrenched Democrats, preferring instead that all energy be directly solely at Trump, Crowley presented himself as their candidate.
Election night on June 26 will determine if residents of the 14th District perceive Ocasio-Cortez’s choice not to commit to endorsing Crowley as principle or bad sportsmanship, but her answer is a good example of the way progressive ideology has shifted the standards of debate. While quid pro quo endorsements were once the name of the game, something has changed: Just this past week, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., was pressured to offer a “dual” endorsement of both Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley, after his solo Crowley endorsement proved a backlash.
A young, progressive person of color himself, Khanna’s choice to endorse Crowley was too great a hit to his progressive bonafides. Whereas once, Crowley’s party influence would make up for any ding to Khanna’s reputation, today, given social media and the power of the progressive movement, the balance of power isn’t so clear.
That the debate happened at all reflects that shift. Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t even expected to make it on to the ballot, but a surge of national attention has pumped nearly $400,000 in small donations into her campaign — enough that she may be able to begin airing TV ads in the final week of the contest. Crowley, meanwhile, has been forced to spend heavily to fend off the suddenly viable challenge.
Viewers looking for a spat about identity politics in the wake of The Intercept’s recent report that Crowley accused his opponent of making the race “about race” were disappointed. Issues of identity barely surfaced from Ocasio-Cortez, who mentioned the diversity of her district and the importance of representation, but left the identity-wrangling to Crowley, who, in a clear effort to fend off accusations that he’s insufficiently diverse, sounded off a list the names of all the people of color who, as machine boss, he’s helped get into office. Her response: “This isn’t just about gender and race, but class.” And without missing a beat, she pivoted to a controversial zoning issue in the district which she says was approved will displace working and disproportionately immigrant families to the benefit of luxury real estate developers.
In fact, from her opening statement, Ocasio-Cortez made it clear that she wasn’t just an “identity” candidate. “In a district that is 85 percent Democrat, overwhelmingly working class, and 70 percent people of color, we deserve a working-class champion,” she said.
It’s possible that Ocasio-Cortez simply understands that her relationship to the community she hopes to represent speaks for itself, as was apparent when the candidates answered a question about their favorite restaurants in the district. Crowley offered “Dazies on Sunnyside,” an Italian restaurant.
“Taqueria Tlaxcalli,” Ocasio-Cortez answered with a smile, pronouncing it perfectly. Crowley looked nervous, perhaps wishing he were at Dazies that very moment.
The district has changed from the time when Crowley, who proudly touts his Irish immigrant roots, grew up in it. The question became, regardless of identity, whether Crowley is sufficiently in touch with the neighborhood to meet its evolving needs.
Perhaps the most uncomfortable moment in the short debate occurred when the moderator asked Crowley a question which Ocasio-Cortez has raised consistently throughout her campaign: Why do he and his family choose to live outside the district, in the Washington, D.C., area? Crowley explained that, in his view, he was elected by the taxpayers to represent them in the capital. “And that’s what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m a lifelong New York City resident. … My dad was a police officer, my mom was an immigrant,” he said, skipping over how his father also went to law school and became a partner in a firm. “I love this city. I went to school here,” he said. “I went to [Queens College]. This is my borough. This is my city, and I love it very much.”
Ocasio-Cortez followed: “If a person loves their community, they would choose to live here. … They would choose to drink our water and breathe our air. It takes away fundamental understanding of our community when they’re raised somewhere else.”
Crowley struggled for an answer. “It’s very hard to raise a family,” he said. “I’m just doing the best that I can, quite frankly, as a father.” He seemed to come close to admitting the fundamental issue underlying Ocasio-Cortez’s point: It’s hard to raise kids in New York City. But it shouldn’t have to be.
Correction: June 18, 2018
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Dazies restaurant. It has been updated.