On June 26, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, became the Democratic party’s nominee for the 14th District of New York. She ran against 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley, who was colloquially known as the “King of Queens.” Ocasio-Cortez won with a 15-point lead — and she’s just getting started.
Throughout her campaign, she advocated for Medicare for all, a federal jobs guarantee, and criminal justice reform. She refused to accept money from corporate sponsors, lobbying groups, and the like. Many political consultants said she couldn’t win against a party favorite, especially Crowley, who was believed to be California representative Nancy Pelosi’s probable replacement as House minority leader.
But she ran anyway. And if elected this November, she will be the youngest woman ever to be in Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez is someone with stories to tell. She grew up in the same Bronx that elected her. Her father was born there, and her Puerto Rican mother moved to the borough to raise her daughter. As a teenager, Ocasio-Cortez attended Yorktown High School. At the time, she tells Teen Vogue, she was incredibly cognizant of the fact that “public schools in the late '80s and early '90s were a total mess...we felt that if I was going to have a good educational option in my life, I would have to go to a public school district that actually served its children,” she says. Though very young, she was already aware of inequality in a city like New York.
In high school, Ocasio-Cortez was very invested in the sciences. She even won second place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which awarded her with the naming of an asteroid: 23238 Ocasio-Cortez.
She went on to study economics and international relations at Boston University. During her time there, she interned in the immigration office of Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), where she first started to grasp the influence money has in politics. She says her experience led her to “realize that people that had the opportunity to run for office were often beneficiaries of dynastic politics or had access to networks that were extremely affluent.” This was deeply troubling for Ocasio-Cortez, and prompted her to move away from politics and toward community organizing.
During her sophomore year of college, her father passed away. She continued her studies, but she started waitressing and bartending while doing community work, all to prevent their family home from foreclosure. She didn’t have the ability to just focus on her community organizing, but refused to let economic obstacles deter her from pursuing her true passion: helping others.
After graduating from college, she returned to the Bronx. She worked a job at a taco shop/bar while simultaneously serving as education director for the National Hispanic Institute. In 2016, she volunteered for Senator Bernie Sanders’s (D-VT) presidential campaign, an experience she found incredibly inspiring. She says that the campaign led her to see “an opportunity to not only get money out of politics, but in the process allow working class Americans to have a role in our democracy again.”
After the painful loss that came in the spring of 2016 when Sanders lost his bid for the Democratic party nomination, Ocasio-Cortez didn’t give up on advocacy. She traveled to Standing Rock in North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“At Standing Rock we experienced first hand people coming together in their communities and trying to use the levers of representative democracy to try and say, ‘We don’t want this in our community, we don’t want this in our backyard,’ and corporations using their monetary influence to completely erode that process,” she says. “It was really my experience at Standing Rock that was pretty pivotal for me because I saw how corporations were literally militarizing themselves against American citizens so that they could kind of maximize their profit margins on fossil fuels.”
Shortly after her trip to North Dakota, Brand New Congress, a political action committee founded by former Sanders supporters, reached out to her. They urged her to run in New York’s 14th District, which includes parts of Queens and the Bronx, and is made up of primarily Latinx and Asian people.
“This is a national crisis and it is not unique to any party. It has taken over both sides, and we need to be able to hold ourselves to a higher standard if working class Americans are going to have a shot in our future. And so I said yes and I eventually launched my campaign,” she says.
She immediately learned how difficult it is to run a clean campaign, free from corporate donations. “Campaigns are so much more expensive than people think they are. Just to keep the lights on is several thousand dollars a month,” Ocasio-Cortez says, noting that she still worked another job while running. “[Money is] a compromising factor in helping people run for office.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign refused donations from corporate sponsors and lobby groups altogether because they wanted to be held accountable to their constituency as opposed to the highest bidder. In the end, it’s part of what she believes made her campaign so successful.
But Ocasio-Cortez’s radicalism is not viewed well by all. On MSNBC, Steve Schmidt compared her policy platform to the “extremism” of President Donald Trump. Schmidt, a Republican public affairs strategist best known for a key role in Senator John McCain’s bid for the presidency in 2008, went on to call her policies “dishonest” and claimed that many of them can’t be paid for. But Ocasio-Cortez’s political brand is one that is commonly held by young people across the nation; it emphasizes the community more than the individual.
From Ocasio-Cortez’s perspective, the win doesn’t belong to her. It belongs to the community. In the past few days, she’s reaffirmed that her entire team accomplished the “impossible.” Volunteers for her campaign came from out of state. They came from different lifestyles, beliefs, and socioeconomic backgrounds. “We received help from so many people. People who could only speak one non-English language, people who weren’t old enough to vote, and other disenfranchised groups of people,” Ethan Luna, a volunteer for Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, tells Teen Vogue.
At 18, Ethan is the youngest organizer on Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. He has played a big part in the group’s effort, and the group has done a lot to inspire him. He says the campaign taught him that “just because someone might not be old enough to cast a vote, doesn’t mean they are powerless in politics.”
But perhaps what is most inspiring about Ocasio-Cortez is her dedication to and passion for the cause. She refuses to adhere to tradition. For her, the past “tradition” tries to keep our representatives looking, acting, and voting a certain way. But “if we don’t allow ourselves to be intimidated, we can fight these fights and win them,” she says.
Interview conducted as a part of the Dear America story project.
This article was first published in Teen Vogue and can be read here.