An Interview With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Young Democratic Socialist Who Just Shocked the Establishment

We spoke with Ocasio-Cortez last month about her grassroots start, immigration, the #MeToo movement, and foreign policy on the Intercepted podcast.

Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, talks to people at her neighborhood in Bronx,  New York, Saturday, April 21, 2018. (Photo: Andres Kudacki)
Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, talks to people at her neighborhood in Bronx, New York, Saturday, April 21, 2018. (Photo: Andres Kudacki) Photo: Andres Kudacki for The Intercept

Many Tuesday night were asking, “who is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” after her stunning primary victory over the No. 4 House Democrat Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th District. The New York Times called her a “Democratic dragon slayer.” MSNBC’s Joy Reid admitted on Twitter to “doing an Ocasio-Cortez crash course.” She didn’t have a Wikipedia page until last night. A year ago, she was working as a bartender in Manhattan. She is young. She’s working class. She’s a New Yorker who has been immersed in community-based leadership, organizing, and service work.

Ocasio-Cortez is one of the most progressive, uncompromising candidates to make it to the general election as a Democrat and the fact that she beat an entrenched machine politician has propelled her to instant national recognition. She’s also spoken out on Israel’s crimes against Palestinians, labeling a recent massacre for what it was, putting her at direct odds with much of the institutional Democratic leadership.

After earning her degree from Boston University, Ocasio-Cortez moved back home to the Bronx, and was working long hours as a waitress to support her family in the aftermath of her father’s untimely death. Her dad, like many working-class people, died without a will, and so Ocasio-Cortez and her family found themselves fighting a nasty, cold bureaucracy that featured legal vultures who carved off parts of her father’s estate for profit as she and her family struggled to make ends meet.

She said she never planned on running for office, but after traveling across the country — from Flint, Michigan, to Standing Rock, asking Americans about the issues they were facing in the aftermath of the Trump’s election — the progressive organization Brand New Congress got in touch asked if she’d be willing to run for Congress. Her defeated primary opponent, the powerful Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley, is current chair of the House Democratic caucus and he has been trying to position himself as the successor to Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the Democrats and the future speaker of the House.

This district where Crowley is a congressman is one of the most racially and culturally diverse in the United States. It spans parts of Queens and the Bronx. The district also includes the notorious Rikers prison and is home to Trump Golf Links. Crowley has held that seat since 1999 and he had not faced a primary challenger since at least 2004. Clearly, he and his re-election campaign underestimated the often nameless “young progressive challenger.” Now everyone knows her name.

We spoke with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last month about her campaign’s grassroots start, immigration, the #MeToo movement, and foreign policy on the Intercepted podcast. What follows is the audio of our conversation as aired on Intercepted and the full transcript of the unedited interview.

The interview begins at 15:10

JS: I want to start by talking about the way that ICE has evolved since its creation. You’ve been tweeting a lot in response to this ACLU report that came out, with 30,000 pages or so of documentation of how families, children, civilians are treated under the ICE program.

How has ICE’s actions changed from Obama to Trump? Is there anything that’s markedly different?

AOC: There are things that are markedly different. I would say that the basic infrastructure of ICE, its legal structures are the same, but the latitude and rather the extent to which the Trump administration is really bending these rules is at an absolutely new level. This idea of, most recently, separating children from their parents in order to kind of force the state to take over their custody is just an extremely different and draconian level to which ICE enforcement is now being taken.

The Trump Administration is changing these policies at a breakneck pace. So even the most prolific immigration lawyers in the country can barely keep up with the changes that they’re making here, and we’re seeing things that started in the Obama Administration — you know, ICE showing up at courtrooms and things like that — are just starting to become much more regular and commonplace.

JS: What’s your understanding of this policy that ends up separating parents from children? Like, where was that born?

AOC: So, basically the United States had a standing policy for minors who showed up at the border. And what that was originally designed for was occasionally you would have teenagers, mostly — people who were 14, 15, under 18, but old enough to kind of navigate the world on their own — and they would show up at our borders, and we kind of previously saw this hit a crisis when we had this wave of young people and children showing up at the borders of South Texas after the regime change in Honduras. And so we had a standing policy for when a minor showed up at the border unaccompanied — the U.S. government would intervene, there would be child custody services and things like that to help that child navigate that system. That is what we were initially dealing with.

Now what’s happening is parents who show up with their children at the border are getting separated from their children, and that has never happened before. Before, those families would be processed together. And now we are seeing things — I believe it was on MSNBC — where we’re actually seeing cases of a 53-week-old infant in court on their own separated from their mothers.

And many of these children, you know, have yet to see their parents ever again. And some of these children don’t even have legal defense. So this is beyond the pale. This is just totally beyond the pale.

JS: Jeff Sessions — at least for now — the attorney general, in defending this policy, said the following in a series of speeches in Arizona, which is known for its really harsh, draconian position on immigration, as well as in San Diego, California, which is in Southern California, this is Sessions.

”It’s an offense to enter the country unlawfully. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then will prosecute you for smuggling. If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you. And that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring him across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.

JS: Your response?

AOC: Well, first of all, we are seeing people showing up claiming refugee status. You know, we have this very clear case of this Congolese woman who showed up, refugee status, and if you are fleeing persecution in your home country, the United States refugee policy is that you can show up to our borders, claim refugee status, say, “I’m a refugee” and be classified as such.

We’ve had generations of Americans that have come from things like the Rwandan genocide and regime changes in Latin America show up and claim refugee status and we are doing this to those people too, so that’s the first thing.

But then the second thing is that when you have undocumented people show up in our border, usually what you do is turn them away, you know? That has been the historic policy of the United States — people who show up undocumented without a visa, we turn them away at our borders. But the idea of prosecuting anybody who just shows up at a checkpoint is an expansion of what we are doing in this country and in fact we are taking these people in and we’re putting them into this black-box detention system that we have allowed ICE to create.

And I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that ICE is now the second largest criminal investigative agency in the United States, second only to the FBI. And the fact that they operate without the accountability of the Department of Justice is extremely concerning to us all. There are threads here that stretch all the way to warrantless wiretapping and other forms of overreach. This is squarely in the category of civil rights abuses.

JS: When you say there’s no oversight from the Justice Department, what do you mean?

AOC: So basically, ICE operates under the Department of Homeland Security. And, in my opinion, to have a criminal investigative agency that is not housed under the Department of Justice is so backwards, especially when we see that the Department of Homeland Security was just created in 2003. And so this is not an agency with the institutional knowledge or support or structures to handle such a large operation. And it’s very clear that we see, you know, while the Department of Justice, at least towards the end of the Obama administration started winding down its systems of for-profit detention, for example, for-profit prisons, ICE has just had an expansion. As a matter of fact, ICE is the only criminal investigative agency, the only enforcement agency in the United States that has a bed quota. So ICE is required to fill 34,000 beds with detainees every single night and that number has only been increasing since 2009.

There is the acknowledgment that these things did start with the Obama administration, but, again, that is always the danger of creating governmental structures without accountability under the premise of: Just trust us, this guy, this one President is fine, we can trust this one president. Because when we do have draconian administrations like the one we have now, we see exactly what happens.

JS: Well, and you know people, a lot of times say, “Well, why do you criticize the Democrats? The only game in town right now is opposing Trump.” And I’m certainly sympathetic if you’re looking at what are the greatest risks to democratic society, civil liberties, global peace — yeah, this is a very dangerous administration.

On the other hand whether it’s drone strikes or borderless wars or immigration policy, I feel like you would be omitting an essential part of the context if you don’t talk about how Obama, in his eight years, created systems that were dependent on trusting in him rather than, hey, here’s the rules for how this is done.

AOC: Right.

JS: And, you know, I think a lot of people that didn’t pay any attention to these issues, particularly immigration under Obama are now waking up because it’s Trump, but like when are we going to break that cycle where we — you’re confronting the Democratic Party establishment in your race for Congress.

AOC: Yes.

JS: You’re going up against a long-time member of Congress who there’s discussion he may one day be the Speaker of the House or the leader of the Democrats in the Congress. But the role that the institutional elite or the mainstream of Democratic Party politicians play in creating the ground for Trump to do something like this.

AOC: First of all, the idea of immigration as a partisan issue, the idea of war as a partisan issue, the idea of certain issues that should be galvanizing around social, economic and racial justice, that all of us should be agreeing on are now becoming partisan. And so what’s concerning to me about saying, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” or “GOP! GOP! GOP!” is that in the history of the United States, particularly the modern history of the United States, immigration has never been a partisan issue. In fact, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, not to defend or evangelize their administrations, but they were actually known to be quite liberal on immigration. You know, Reagan had his amnesty policy. You have George W. Bush that was actually very welcoming in both his rhetoric and many of his policies towards immigrants, despite the creation of ICE.

And so, historically, immigration has not been a partisan issue until the rising racial resentments of the Trump administration and what we have recently seen in perhaps the last five years. Issues that are just morally right and wrong are now starting to be hijacked by both parties as partisan issues, which should be very, very concerning to all of us as American citizen.

Moreover, the fact that the Democratic Party has not been the party of immigrants.

And 10 years ago I had worked in Ted Kennedy’s immigration office and he, to his credit, he had one of the best immigration constituent service offices in the country. And I would be handling some of these cases, and women and families would call me in a total panic because their husbands were scooped off the street in the middle of the day or they came home and there are literally stories of people coming home to their front doors open, and you know their stove flames are still on and their families are missing. And our incumbents created that system. Everyone who voted for it is responsible. Period. And they need to be held accountable and if they’re not actively calling for the abolition of ICE, then I don’t want to hear it. This idea that we’re going to fight Trump without taking hard committed stances is just a farce and it’s a media play and I do think that our Democratic establishment has to take ownership over the mistakes that they have made in the past — and they either, they should either acknowledge their past actions as mistakes and commit to a course correction or, if they don’t acknowledge that their actions were a mistake, frankly, they need to go.

JS: You dropped a little mini-bomb in there that I want to rewind and examine. You said that you’re calling for abolishing ICE.

AOC: Mhmm.

JS: I think, maybe not people who listen to this show or are supporting you on your campaign, but a lot of people in America I think would listen to that and think: “So what does she want? She just wants people to pour in here?”

You’re running for Congress, so explain from a policy perspective how you can have that position, “Let’s abolish ICE” and be running for Congress in the United States.

AOC: Yeah. For sure.

Well and a little bit of context to the community that I’m running in. My community, New York 14, it’s half in Queens, half in the Bronx, it’s half immigrant. So our communities are very, very familiar with U.S. immigration policy. If you are not an immigrant or naturalized U.S. citizen yourself, you either are part of an immigrant family or you are very close to immigrants. And so I do think that if any seat should be calling for the abolishment of ICE, it should be New York 14 — among others, there are several others.

And yeah, that’s always the question. Like, what do you expect? Are you an open borders fanatic? Like, all of these things. And people forget that ICE was established in 2003, in the post 9/11, frankly, authoritarian crackdown, where we saw the Patriot Act, the Iraq War, the AUMF, and then, of course, you have the establishment of the Homeland Security which included the establishment of ICE. And that’s when we first started seeing, again, this enforcement agency that does not answer to the Department of Justice.

Before ICE we had the INS. So we had the Immigration and Naturalization Services. There are very intense operations that we do need to monitor. We have to keep tabs on human trafficking, child sex trafficking, child pornography and, of course, just standard immigration in and out. And so the INS had handled that before. And so criminal investigations will get forwarded to the Department of Justice which had the infrastructure to kind of handle those proceedings, and then there are other investigatory arms, either within the FBI or within Health and Human Services that would handle those different pockets.

Now when the Department of Homeland Security was established, it concentrated and centralized all of those things into one. And those operations in and of themselves can continue. You know, you can have Border and Customs do the things that they have always done.

The one line that I do want to draw is that when I started talking about this over the weekend it kind of recently blew up, and I’m starting to see, particularly, other congressional candidates say: “Let’s return to the INS.” And that I want to make sure is not correct either.

This is not about going back to the INS. This is really about, in some ways, we need to go all the way back to the root of our immigration policy to begin with, which the very first immigration policy law passed in the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1800s, and so the very bedrock of U.S. immigration policy, the very beginning of it was a policy based on racial exclusion. And I think that we need to really reimagine our immigration policy based around two things like I had said before, foreign policy and criminal justice and additionally our economic goals as well. And we really kind of need I think to reimagine our immigration services as part of an economic engine, as part of an accommodation to our own foreign policy aims and, where necessary, enforcement of serious crimes like human trafficking and so on.

So abolishing ICE doesn’t mean get rid of our immigration policy, but what it does mean is to get rid of the draconian enforcement that has happened since 2003 that routinely violates our civil rights, because, frankly, it was designed with that structure in mind.

JS: Just to change gears for a moment, Joe Crowley, who is sort of the self-declared King of Queens, is obviously from Queens, represents Queens. Trump is from Queens. The governor of New York, Cuomo, is from Queens. Talk about the sort of men of Queens and not just the political machine that you’re fighting in the Democratic Party, but the sort of culture of politics in the part of the area where you would represent.

AOC: Yeah. I mean, it’s a trip. It’s a trip, because, excluding Trump for a moment, all of these guys really love to engage in performative solidarity.

I’m going, maybe get in trouble with this, but like you know Cuomo recently had this whole speech where he literally stands up on the stage and he says, “I am a black woman. I am undocumented.” And I think that the real mistake here is just that there’s a lot of talking about these communities, but, at the end of the day, their grip on power causes them to refuse to actually give these communities a true seat at the table. And when these communities want to run for office or when these communities want to have real teeth in our legislative and political processes, they only allow those whom they give permission.

And so it’s a real systemic problem. People think of New York as a liberal state. People think of New York City as liberal politics. And it’s not. New York state is responsible for some of the worst voter suppression in the United States. You have for example, folks like Cuomo and Crowley where they will call for voter reform, but they don’t fund it. They don’t fund it. And so it’s just a press release. So what they’ll say is, “We have stood with immigrants forever. We have stood with women. We have co-sponsored this bill.” But then you have someone like Joe Crowley who loves to talk about how he’s the third most powerful member of Congress — who is putting all of these articles about how he’s the heir apparent to Nancy Pelosi. And the only transformative and impactful legislation that he’s passed in the last five years was FIRPTA which was the deregulation of foreign real estate developers in the United States, which has created this epidemic of shady LLCs, many of which are tied to campaign finance issues. So they co-sponsored these bills to high heaven, but when you actually see the bills that they’re passing, they are just to empower Wall Street. And these communities themselves, the furthest they’ll go is endorse someone with a Hispanic last name but there is very little beyond that getting done. It’s a real problem. There’s a personality thing going on here.

And then also you look at New York State, New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the United States where 56 percent people of color were majority female. And in that city, our governor, our mayor, our city council speaker, the chairman of our state party, and Crowley himself, who’s the chairman of the Queens Democratic Party are all one gender and one race. They are all white men. And that is statistically almost impossible.

So that is not done by chance. That is the systemic concentration of power. And the systemic concentration of power that falls along historical lines, falls along the empowerment and the concentration of power that that tends to be along men, that tends to be along, you know, white Americans and that is how, you know, if the most diverse city in America can’t get a person of color or someone that’s not a man to have high office then how can we have that hope for any other place in the United States.

JS: One of the things I noticed on your Twitter feed is you’ve been intimating, and at times, describing directly the sexism and misogyny that you’ve experienced as you’ve run your campaign for Congress against a white man who’s been around for a long time. Talk about being you and being in this campaign and what it means to be a young woman of color challenging an establishment Democrat.

AOC: Yeah. I think it’s amusing because they start, a lot of people start losing their minds when I talk about this. “Oh, she’s making this about identity — this term — identity politics.” And it’s really funny because when I just talk about who our community is, when I just say, “Hey, New York 14 is 70 percent people of color, we’re 60 percent Hispanic, we’re 40 percent primarily Spanish speaking. We’re also overwhelmingly working class. We have a lot of white brothers and sisters out here, too, right in the same boat as us, making $47,000 a year on average in New York. In New York City.” People really start losing their minds.

You know, people in the opposite camp have been saying, “She’s making this about race.” And, you know what? It is about race. And it is about education. And it is about our incomes. And it is about wealth inequality. Because this campaign is about our issues. And what is infuriating I think a lot of people in New York’s political establishment is that I haven’t asked anyone for permission.

And there’s always this go back to, “Who is she?” And, I mean, when I look upwards, and even when I try, like if I hypothetically wanted to “do it the right way” and ask for this permission and work through these channels, there’s no people up there that would help me. There are no women in power in New York City, in like, an authentic — you know, we’ve got some borough presidents, we got some folks out here, but we don’t have, we have no people of color that are a city council speaker right now. We have none of that. We have very few working class Americans as well.

And so what you see as well is that this machine has been overwhelmingly male for so long that the misogyny becomes the political culture of New York City politics. The emails I get — like I will have never spoken to someone before in my whole life — and I’ll get a message that’s like “you have failed to contact me.” I think it’s just a reflection of how off base it is. No one wants to talk about how painful it was to have someone like Eric Shneiderman have the explosive allegations that he did. For a lot of people — it hurt me, that hit very close to me, because you see some of these folks, and you’re like, “that guy is fighting for us” and in many ways he was, legislatively —

JS: Just to clarify for people who aren’t from New York, Eric Schneiderman, until very recently, was the attorney general of New York and was, I think, generally thought of as being aggressive, and a fairly progressive guy. I mean, he certainly came into office pledging to be a social justice oriented AG and now has gone down under allegations that he was extremely physically and sexually abusive to a number of women.

AOC: Yeah and so, there are a lot of folks who are in the camp of saying, “Ignore his private life, look at what he did with his lawsuits,” which he did! His lawsuits were very much focused on social justice and the idea that we should kind of just ignore all of this other stuff — but when you think about: those guys are mini-kingmakers in their own right. And you think about how they protect each other and how they elevate their protégées, which for many of them, are just people who remind them of younger versions of themselves so they’ll amplify those folks. You think about how many, for example, future female AGs have been cast aside with people like that at the helm. So you look at New York City Council — record low number of women sitting on New York City’s council. You have the Queens Democratic Party, which is overwhelmingly male as well. So we have to look at who’s actually in power in New York City and not just what press statements they’re releasing or what bills they’re co-sponsoring. 

JS: Harvey Weinstein recently was quote-unquote arrested and they put on this show — it was like a Weinstein film where he looks completely disheveled and hollowed out and he was briefly filmed in handcuffs. But the reality is that the whole thing was a negotiated, prearranged show and he was in and out almost instantly. I have a friend who is a lawyer that works with very, very poor people that was actually in the court room and he chronicled how Weinstein was basically in and out and then the person that came after him was someone who could not afford their bail, didn’t have cash, and was totally unable to pay, and then goes away and is going to be held in prison just because they don’t have resources. But someone like Harvey Weinstein, who was accused of raping and abusing many, many women, can pop in and out and just have a little mini-perp walk as part of the negotiations.

AOC: Yeah, absolutely. And then you have someone like Manafort who is literally accused of treasonous acts and that guy gets to walk around with an ankle bracelet. And then you get a kid in the South Bronx that jumps a turnstile because he doesn’t have $2.75 for a MetroCard and that guy gets thrown into Rikers prison because he can’t afford the $400 bail to get out.

JS: In fact, your district encompasses Rikers. What has Joe Crowley, given that he’s a powerful Democrat, done on Rikers and the issues of abuse there, the conditions, women being assaulted?

AOC: I wish I could say something. He’s co-sponsored some bills, but as the third most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives of the United States of America, nothing’s been passed. I could understand the argument of, “Oh, I’ve co-sponsored this I’ve co-sponsored that” if you’re just a normal rank-and-file member — but the heir apparent to Nancy Pelosi can’t deliver on Rikers? I mean he stands out for the “close Rikers” campaign, but mostly that advocacy came out after the mayor already agreed to shut it down in 10 years. Now the fight is to shut it down closer than that but also he accepts money from folks like Bloomberg who created stop and frisk that stuffed those jails up to the brim. Again, it’s more about the actions and what this power is being used for, because we should just support the powerful because they already have power I think is a farce. We need to support those who use their power to really transform our structures of racial and economic and social justice. 

JS: You’ve been endorsed by Black Lives Matter as well as the Democratic Socialists of America. And you mentioned earlier, stop and frisk. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York — who is a Republican but transformed himself into an independent because he was flirting with the idea of a presidential run — he has been hosting fundraisers for your opponent. One fundraiser that he hosted at his home in Manhattan on May 2 suggested contributions of a $1,000, $2,700, and $5,400 dollars. Why is Michael Bloomberg backing your opponent in the Democratic primary?

AOC: Because Joe Crowley creates and advances policies both in his capacity as a congressman and also in his capacity as the chairman of the Queens Democratic Party to pad the pockets of luxury real estate developers and private equity groups of which Michael Bloomberg is the king. It’s total quid-pro-quo. The idea that special interests give money to candidates as a form of charity is laughable. Or the idea that you can maintain independence while you depend on those same lobbies to get re-elected is also laughable.

JS: That was one of the things I loved about Trump’s sort of schtick on the campaign trail is he was openly talking about how he would bribe politicians. 

AOC: Yeah.

JS: “Even Hillary Clinton — I was bribing her!” He really spoke openly about it — it was actually one of the refreshing things in a sea of horrifying, terrifying, neo-Nazi , white nationalism, nativism, horrible stuff. Trump actually told the truth occasionally and this issue was one of them where he basically said, “This is legalized bribery and I’m all for it.”

AOC: Yeah, and OK, here’s an ultimate irony: Trump Links is in our district. In that same scene overlooking Rikers, you’ve got Trump Links as you’re crossing over the bridge. 

JS: What is Trump Links?

AOC: It’s a golf course out there in Queens. The day that Trump Links opened, there’s a quote right there from Crowley singing the praises of the opening of this phenomenal development. I think it just goes to show: We really need to take a magnifying glass to some of these folks to see if they’re the real deal or if they’re performative. It’s important for us to follow that money.

JS: What do you think just going back a moment to the broader movement that’s been identified as #MeToo. What’s your analysis of this? You’re running for Congress in New York City, which many consider the kind of cultural capital of New York. And many powerful men who are residents of this city stand accused of pretty horrifying, despicable, disgusting crimes against women. But as you’ve run for office — what’s your position on these issues? How should we as a society respond to this?

AOC: Well, I think that when someone stands accused of very serious instances of sexual assault — first of all, I think we need to kind of shift our culture to giving these folks a fair hearing. There are some grey areas. There’s some aspects to #MeToo where it’s like, when one person makes an accusation, on one hand, we have to have to maintain the spirit of due process. I do believe that. But then when you have cases like, for example, Schneiderman, or cases like Weinstein, the fact that we have a culture that has to wait until a person is accused by 80 women, 50 women, 10 women —

JS: One of them is the president.

AOC: — for us to do anything about it is also equally very concerning. I think that we probably have some legal structures in place that are not particularly conducive to victims of sexual assault and sex crimes. And this is done sometimes in child cases as well — having to testify publicly in front of a court which opens people up to all sort of forms of intimidation. I think there are some legal ways we can look into this as well. But then culturally, we do need to measure — where we need to have a culture where we believe people when they say these very serious things, but we also need to make sure that due process is held. That’s a tough road that we’re all navigating right now. But I do think that having women at the table is very important in that process. You look at New York state? Oh my goodness. New York state — our state law, we just recently went through in the state legislature kind of a spate of more sexual harassment claims, and the folks who are generating the state sexual harassment policy were literally four men in a room. There wasn’t a single women at the table drafting the consequences for sexual harassment claims in Albany. And it is the biggest open secret in New York state politics that Albany is a toxic, toxic place of sexual harassment and the victimization of women as well as political corruption. We know that. In January, there were six public officials up for trial on corruption charges. I think for a long time we just take it as fact. We’ve taken for granted for so long how backwards and corrupt Albany is that we’re just like, “Oh, that’s the way it is.” We take this defeatist or fatalist approach saying, “That’s the way our government is.” I think we need to take a moment, especially in 2018: It’s not just about red to blue. This is about transforming our system into a system of justice overall. It’s not just about red to blue, it’s about cleaning up our backyard. It’s about making that crooked path straight.

JS: What is your relationship with the institutional Democratic Party like, you know, DCCC, the DNC?

AOC: My opponent is the institutional Democratic Party. So my relationship to them, in a formal sense, is pretty much non-existent. He gives the D-trip about a million bucks a year on average, some years and stuff.

JS: This is the Democratic campaign fundraising mechanism that’s used by the institutional party.

AOC: Right. Moreover, our community has been ignored by the national party — New York 14. So the Bronx and Queens. We talk about communities like Jackson Heights. We talk about communities like East Elmshearst and Corona, Woodside, Sunnyside. The national Democratic Party does not really have a footprint here.

JS: For people who are not from New York, these are some of the most diverse neighborhoods anywhere on the planet. If you go into parts of Queens, that are also included in your district, you can walk from one block to the next and it’s like you’re traveling through eight, 10 different countries.

AOC: What I think is unfortunate about that is I think it’s a lost opportunity because this district is 85 percent Democrat, then it’s like another 10 percent independent and unaffiliated, then you have a small sliver of Republican voters. So this seat is the opportunity to really champion some of the most ambitious and progressive legislation in the United States. Instead, we’ve been having middle of the road corporate policies coming out of the most diverse and working class district arguably in New York City, if not in the country. 

JS: Has the Democratic Party tried to stop you from challenging Crowley?

AOC: No one has tried to dissuade me from running, and I think it’s because when I started this race I was so small potatoes. You know, my background, for those who may not know, I’m an educator, I’m an organizer — I have an academic background in economics international policy but I’m also very working class. I’m a first-generation college graduate and during the financial crisis, which like, eviscerated my family, I was bartending and waitressing while doing community work.

JS: Explain what happened with your family after your father passed away.

AOC: So, as the markets were crashing in 2008, my father died of lung cancer, a very rare form of lung cancer — he was not a smoker or anything like that — in the state of New York. So my father passed away without a will like many working class and poor families do. We entered something known as the surrogates court. Otherwise casually known as the “widows and orphans court.” What many people don’t realize is that machine appointments to the lawyers of the surrogates court is one of the most lucrative positions you can have. While we were in a different county, essentially the lawyers that Crowley appoints to the surrogates court are his friends and they’re the lawyers who politically protect him. So in exchange for that, they’ve made over $30 million off the New York surrogates court. 

JS: How do they make that money?

AOC: Being appointed as a lawyer to the surrogates court, you then rake in the legal fees for all of these families that come through ,whether they enter foreclosure, whether their family members die without an estate or a will. So, my father pretty much died with nothing. He left us almost nothing except we had a house and small things here and there. So when you sell that home and all that stuff happens, every time you go through that court, you get these legal fees kind of shaved off. And so there are standing lawyers in that court and those legal fees go to those folks.

JS: In the case of your family they were chiseling away at a family home’s value.

AOC: Right, or whatever was left that we had. So when you do that — obviously this is New York City — unfortunately, many people find themselves in this situation. It’s just kind of a piggy bank for this kind of stuff. Anyways, with my family we sold my childhood home. My mother was forced to move to Florida because she could no longer afford to live in New York City, remain in New York City. And I found myself, you know, while we were kind of on that brink, I started working a second job. And so when I first started this campaign, I started it out of a grocery bag, going to work, and I put my palm cards and my campaign banner in a grocery bag, and I put my change of clothes for the end of that day, and I would take it to a bar and I would hide it behind the counter. I would work my shift for that day. I would get out. I would change my clothes. I would go to community events. I would go to people’s living rooms and say, “Hey, we need to change our politics in America.”

And that’s how this campaign started. And it was such a joke, I think, to the establishment and it was so small potatoes that nobody paid attention and nobody thought of us as a threat, which I think is a fabulous place to be.

JS: Was it the personal experience that drove you to challenge Joe Crowley? The family experience that you’re describing?

AOC: The family experience that I just told gave me the strength and the resolve to do it. One of the big decisions though was that I was at Standing Rock in December 2016 and when I saw how corporations had literally militarized themselves to do physical harm to American citizens, in particularly Native peoples. And I saw what the Lakota Sioux and Native peoples were doing — putting everything on the line not just to protect their land but to protect the entire water supply of the Midwest United States, I really just felt like we had to have a turning point and that it wasn’t going to come from the Democratic establishment, that it had to be people. It had to be everyday people who were aware enough to know what was going on. The day after I got off camp, I was contacted by a progressive organization, Brand New Congress ,which was seeking to mount noncorporate candidates in the 2018 midterm. They said, “Would you be interested in running this race?” So, with the confidence of not doing this alone, paired with my own pained personal experiences on the local and national level — I think that I really felt like this was something that had to be done. We haven’t had a primary in 14 years in New York 14, so it was very clear that nobody else was going to do this. And so, in a way, in New York City to challenge a kingmaker, you have to do it from the outside, because everyone else is too scared.

JS: If you win the primary, it seems pretty clear then you would win the general election given the demographics of the district. So you walk into Washington, it’s not just going to be the issues that you are fluent on that you’re going to have to deal with. You’re also going to have to talk about and develop positions on things that you maybe have never considered before. I want to ask you a few foreign policy questions. To you right now, what is the single greatest threat that the people of the United States face in the world on a foreign policy level?

AOC: I think we’ve got two fronts. One, we have a reordering of global power right now. Because of that, its powered by economic developments and also geopolitical developments, as well. So you have two really big hotspots. You have the role of this multipolar power with China, Russia, and the United States as well as what you’ve got going on in Europe and the Middle East. You look at what’s going on in global trade, and first of all, the global concentration of power is destabilizing countries across the world. It’s not just happening in the United States, it’s happening in Europe, it’s happening in Latin America. That is the consequence of extreme global inequality. The consequence is basically mass social destabilization. 

So when people say you have to choose globally, internationally, or domestically, between issues of race and social justice, or issues of class, that’s why I reject that outright. So, we have the destabilization of countries around the world due to wealth inequality that has been historically powered by global trade deals that concentrate the gains of trade into multinational corporations as opposed to the workers who create that wealth. First of all I think that’s one huge one thematically.

So when you kind of drill down — one, we need to figure out how to approach trade in a way that creates more stable economic outcomes for families across the world. But then secondly, I think you have some of these geopolitical realities of — we now have Russia playing a very aggressive role in other nations. We have what we saw in Europe ahead of the French elections where, thankfully, they had planned for a cyberattack, but we have a lot of the destabilization of our political institutions as well. We see the role that Russia is playing in that. We see that, for example, because of the domestic role that the Trump administration is playing in this protectionist ante up ,we see China — this has been happening before Trump — but now especially during this administration, they are now starting to fill that vacuum of power that the United States formerly held. So I think that from our vantage point, within the United States we have to address those two things. Of course we have continuing developments in the Middle East. We have what just happened in Palestine, and so on. I think at the end of the day, a lot of this has to do with what’s going on with the global concentration of wealth. All of these things tie back to that. You look at what’s happening in these FBI investigations and the things we’re finding and lo and behold, it’s this petrol Russian oligarch is tied directly financially to what happened in the 2016 U.S. elections.

JS: Is there any U.S. military action since 9/11 that you would have supported if you were in Congress? Let’s go from September 11th, 2001, to today, as we speak. Bombing a country, drone strikes, snatching people off the streets, invading countries, surging as Obama did in Afghanistan —

AOC: In terms of aggressive military actions, no. I’m proud to have the endorsement of Common Defense which is a group of military veterans and their families that are trying to fight for social justice and economic justice and peace in the world abroad. So when I had these conversations — I think it’s important to echo that not all military actions are what you’re discussing. In terms of what you’re discussing, probably not. The only one that, I mean, even with the surge, with Obama’s surge, I think what he was trying to do was deal with this mess of going into Afghanistan in the first place. In a sense, there are some tough spots that you’re in where when you have boots on the ground, and you have those soldiers that are there, pulling out immediately sometimes isn’t the most stabilizing course of action. So I think there, maybe. But I don’t think that these drone strikes were just. I don’t think that essentially this blank check on wars that the AUMF provided that allowed us to go into places like Yemen and, so on, to essentially wage war that Americans don’t even know about — I think all of those actions are pretty reprehensible and they don’t serve to further stabilize communities and, in fact, we’ve pumped arms into a lot of these areas. We arm one rebel group and then that eventually becomes a destabilizing force five years on from that.

JS: Do you happen to know how many members of the House of Representatives voted against the AUMF?

AOC: It was a terribly low number —

JS: One. Rep. Barbara Lee of California. We had her on this show and she described how she and her family were recipients of many death threats. I always say, particularly to high school students, “Every single one of you should watch that speech that Barbara Lee gave on the floor just days after 9/11.” Do you think you would have the temerity to be the only one voting against an issue in the aftermath of 9/11 or some catastrophic thing because there were some really good lawmakers there who are generally on the right side of history, more or less, who did not have the spine that Barbara Lee did. It’s tough to make those decisions. 

AOC: Of course, and 9/11 was right here in New York City — I want to say yes. But more than just saying, “I want to say yes,” what I actually try to do in my campaign is prevent those decisions by just being made by me. My campaign so intensely relies on the communities that are issue focused that are anti-war, that are anti-criminal justice, that are anti-imperialism, and so on, that because I rely on them to organize our campaign to knock on doors, to win re-election, I would like to think that in the same way that many democratic establishment incumbents rely on their donors and make legislative decisions based on what their lobbyists tell them: that I try to rely on these movements to inform a lot of those policies as well. I also think again, my district is very different. My district has many people from Middle Eastern countries, from South Asian counties, many people from Latin America. We have very high populations from Venezuela, from Bangladesh, and so on, that I think our community is just a natural check to what tends to be mainstream public opinion. I would like say yes, not only because I think I’m a good person, whatever that may be, but because I think that is in line with our community as well. 

JS: Alexandria, thank you so much for joining us.

AOC: Thank you so much for having me.

Assistant Producer Elise Swain contributed to this story.

Join The Conversation