During their only televised debate, the candidates in the Democratic Party primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District House seat, incumbent Joe Crowley and challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, were offered the opportunity to ask each other one question.
Ocasio-Cortez asked Crowley if he would step down as chair of the Queens County Democratic Party, an implicit challenge to his dual role as boss of the Queens machine and elected member of Congress. He declined, going on to awkwardly name the people of color he had helped place in office.
Crowley, meanwhile, pledged to Ocasio-Cortez that he would support her in the general election if she beat him in the primary and asked if she would do the same.
Both his question and her answer were revealing. Ocasio-Cortez told him that her support of him wasn’t up to her, that she was part of a movement, and she was happy to take his request back to the people who made up that movement. They would decide democratically whether to endorse him. It was as radical an expression of the process of democratic socialism as has ever been expressed on NY1, New York City’s local news channel.
Crowley didn’t need Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement to win in November. Why, then, did he ask about it?
Crowley’s request, however, said even more than that. The winner of the primary in Queens and the Bronx automatically wins the general election — there is no serious Republican opposition — so Crowley didn’t need Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement to win in November. Why, then, did he ask about it?
The answer is simple: It was about Crowley’s race for speaker of the House. Even as he faced an existential threat to his political career, his focus was upward, not downward. Crowley, long spoken of as an heir apparent to California’s House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — should she be ousted or step aside — had been planning for years to run as a progressive alternative to Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, Pelosi’s longtime No. 2 and a more conservative Democrat.
Ocasio-Cortez was screwing that plan up by showing just how little support Crowley had with national progressive groups. She had drawn endorsements from a host of them in the run-up to the vote, including MoveOn and Democracy for America, which joined Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, and Democratic Socialists of America.
So Crowley didn’t need Ocasio-Cortez for his general election in the district: He needed her in his presumed upcoming bid for speaker of the House, hoping that he could point to her endorsement and say, “Yes, we faced off in a primary, we debated, but we came away allies.”
Even if Tuesday night had gone differently, that was never going to happen. The media may focus on Ocasio-Cortez’s Hispanic identity as it attempts to come to terms with Crowley’s loss, but during her campaign, she always took pains to link class and race as inextricable elements of identity. The difference between her and Crowley was largely about how each was powered, she argued, and what that meant for who they would listen to. “This race is about people versus money,” she said in her viral campaign ad. “We’ve got people. They’ve got money.”
For Crowley, there will be no race for speaker of the House, and his reign as the “king of Queens” has been brought to an abrupt end — though the rusting hulk of the machine itself will no doubt creak on for some time.
For Democrats in the House, in the Senate, and on the presidential campaign trail, Ocasio-Cortez’s win signals that things have changed. Maria Urbina, political director for the Indivisible Project, which rose up after the 2016 presidential election to challenge Donald Trump, put it bluntly: “A new political era is dawning — and the rusting and reluctant political establishment will wake up or be woken,” she said.
Power is as much an illusion as a reality. A politician with millions in the bank and the support of every local Democratic Party chair may be exposed as just a guy with a few rich friends. Politicians are nothing if not savvy about survival, and they have read the meaning of Tuesday night’s upset. They can lock down every big donor and every key endorsement and they can still be beaten, because people still vote — and there is still some democracy left.