A little more than a year ago, I was sitting across from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a Queens diner for an interview. She had just qualified to be on the ballot in her race against one of the most powerful Democrats in the country. This was before anybody outside of her immediate community in New York City knew her name. Nobody wanted a selfie with her. Most Americans hadn’t spent much time thinking about the idea of a Green New Deal, a 70 percent marginal tax rate, or an obscure congressional budget rule known as pay-go. She wasn’t the target of death threats and conservative hate-thirst, and up until two months before I met her, she was still going by “Sandy” and working at a Union Square bar.
I was there to talk to her for The Intercept’s initial profile on the race, “A Primary Against the Machine: A Bronx Activist Looks to Dethrone Joseph Crowley, the King of Queens.” A few days after the story ran, Ocasio-Cortez posted her first campaign video online — a year ago today — and it went instantly viral.
That day in Queens, she ordered scrambled eggs, scrambled well; whole wheat toast; and hash browns, and I copied her order. At 11 a.m., the diner was bustling and the background chatter was loud enough to be interesting but not distracting. We immediately jumped into her working-class origin story; her policy platform; the depredations of the Queen’s machine, which enriched Rep. Joe Crowley’s inner circle while hammering local residents; and everything in between.
In my experience, Ocasio-Cortez was already more knowledgeable than many sitting members of Congress.
We talked about the role Wall Street played in Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Bernie Sanders’s tweet about Cardi B. From time to time, Ocasio-Cortez interrupted herself to coo at a baby staring at us from the next booth. When the baby cried, she stopped herself mid-sentence. “It’s very true and it has very, very real consequences — Hi mama, qué pasa, qué pasa, you OK?” I was struck by her deep understanding of different policy issues. In my experience, Ocasio-Cortez was already more knowledgeable than many sitting members of Congress.
At the time, Crowley was maneuvering to become the next speaker of the House and fundraising for Democratic candidates and the party’s campaign arm to win back the chamber. So I asked if Ocasio-Cortez ever came across voters who would continue supporting him because of his national clout, specifically his chances of taking the speakership.
“Americans, they hear the name Joe Crowley and they say, ‘Who?’” she replied. “And that’s been out of his playbook this entire time. If you look at his career as an assemblyman, people were like, ‘Who is this guy?’ He really had no legislative triumphs as an assemblyman. He was kind of like a shadowy figure; he never came out in support of anything bold.”
“Then all of a sudden, he became chairman of the Queens Democratic Party,” she continued. “So he’s literally taking his local playbook and trying to apply it on a national level by purely purchasing his influence through fundraising. That’s all he has.”
I’d be lying if I said I knew for certain at the time that Ocasio-Cortez would pull off the most consequential political upset in years, or assume the overlapping roles of activist, legislator, and global celebrity upon entering office. But it never felt impossible. On the contrary, I had never met a congressional candidate I could actually relate to.
“Even if he does win, even if he does, which, I believe that we can win this race, but even if he does win by the skin of his teeth, if he wins by less than 60 percent, if he wins with anything less than a decisive victory — do you really want to make him speaker of the House? Someone who just barely hangs onto their seat?” she said.
One year ago today, I was a long-shot candidate for Congress that debuted this video.— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 30, 2019
We had no news coverage, virtually no elected officials had endorsed us, and by Election Day we were outspent 10-1.
But what we did have was the power of the people ?? pic.twitter.com/aqKMjovEjZ
We met not long after Ocasio-Cortez turned in her petition signatures to get on the ballot, a massive achievement in itself, so she noted that she was already exceeding expectations by submitting almost five times more than the amount of signatures she needed. Because of New York’s complicated ballot access laws, it’s usually too much work for candidates to organize a grassroots effort themselves. Instead they spend on election lawyers, political consultants, and paid petitioners, which can cost upward of $50,000 altogether. “All of those things that money in politics buy, we’re doing ourselves,” she said.
“We also have people who are in-kinding or volunteering their services and –¡Hola! ¡Hola, mi amor! ¿Cómo estás?” she asked the baby. “And so they’re in-kinding services, or maybe not in-kind, but we’re organizing outside of this political industrial complex or like this electioneering industrial complex.”
It was her friends out in Brooklyn, not high-priced political consultants, who designed the now-iconic purple and yellow campaign posters. “People are freaking out over these posters, and I’m getting like all of these texts and emails from political candidates like, ‘What firm did you use? Who was your consulting group that came up with your political identity?’”
From a reporter’s standpoint, Ocasio-Cortez’s case was solid. Primaries are low-turnout elections, so the actual number of votes she needed to win wasn’t as daunting. Crowley was ideologically out of touch and not representative of the diverse, working-class district, which he didn’t even live in. Above all, Ocasio-Cortez had the people and organizing skills to put up a good fight, and Crowley had neither.
“I think the longer they underestimate me, the better off I am.”
From an individual standpoint, I believe I took her more seriously than other political observers did, in part because of my identity. Why would I, a young, working-class Latina, underestimate a young, working-class Latina? Take the fawning profiles and interviews with Democratic presidential candidates Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg. White men with connections to elite institutions are behind most of the coverage, the same white men obsessed with “electability.”
I asked if Ocasio-Cortez thought people were underestimating her, though I suspected I already knew the answer. “Yeah totally, totally,” she said. “But I’m OK with that. I think it’s kind of a good thing. I think the longer they underestimate me, the better off I am.”
Campaign cash, name recognition, and high-profile endorsements are no longer good indicators of a candidate’s viability or an incumbent’s immunity. The result of an election is entirely contingent on the organizing that does or does not happen in the lead-up. Ocasio-Cortez understood that without the “organizing juice” behind progressive policy issues, the positions are just slogans. “It’s good to have those policy commitments,” she said, “but in a way, it’s even more important to have the organizing capacities on the ground to translate it into wins.”
Media coverage that treats Ocasio-Cortez as a personality or presents her racial identity in a vacuum only serves to obscure the lessons from her election. There’s no denying her charisma and talent, but talking about Ocasio-Cortez the individual misses the point. Watching the trajectory of the 28-year-old Bronx activist who was running for Congress, I can’t help but wonder about all the other perfectly capable, largely invisible workers still at their bartending jobs.
As we parted ways, she repeated the excitement of getting on the ballot, adding that their next step is to “communicate to the national progressive community that this is a race of national importance.” I told her that I hoped our story helps.
“Yeah! I hope so! I hope so! Because that would be huge, that would be huge,” she replied.
I can’t imagine either of us, sitting in that diner, could have predicted any of what ensued. But Ocasio-Cortez could dream. At one point, in talking about the lack of diversity in Congress, I mentioned that I work out of the Capitol on a daily basis. She stopped me. “Oh, wow,” she said, more to herself than anyone else.