Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat one of the US Democratic Party old guard, Joe Crowley, in an internal party election, a primary, earlier this week. She was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, a social-democratic party with ties to the Democrats.
Philip Henken is the press officer from the Electoral Working Group from the Queens, New York City, chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). He spoke to Socialist Worker about how the campaign was won, and what it means for the left in the US.
What is the significance of the victory? How do you think this can be rolled out by the DSA in other electoral contests?
This is a huge moment for the US left, and we may not yet even have a full picture of the significance. This is also a big win for DSA, our first Federal [national political] level contender in some time.
All over the country, democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez are winning by placing the needs of the many above the profits of the few.
This is only the beginning. Every corporate politician—Democrat or Republican—should be scared.
Secondly, we also unfortunately have to put this victory in the context of a steady stream of bad news from the US Supreme Court. In addition to handing down a series of anti-worker, anti-democratic judgements, it is poised to represent still another right-wing power bloc at the Federal level.
So this is not about one person, this is a movement. The work is not done, and, in reality, it’s only just starting.
The media has called this a “stunning upset,” but we’re not stunned. We know that the time for sell-out centrists is past. Now is the time for democratic socialism.
Could you go into a little detail about the campaign? What, if anything, did you do differently? For instance, was there an effort to hold mass meetings?
DSA endorsements are not given out lightly, even to a candidate who’s a member of the organisation, so there was a vetting process starting with the Electoral Working Groups of our Queens and Bronx/Upper Manhattan branches, going up to citywide in New York, and ultimately National.
Ocasio-Cortez was asked to come to multiple meetings and address our membership and pitch her platform. We organized several special meetings and votes for the process.
Ocasio-Cortez has said our endorsement and participation in her campaign was one of the most meaningful, because we make candidates work for it.
DSA brought a take-no-prisoners field operation that cut turf identifying registered Democrats and knocked more than 11,000 doors and in Queens and the Bronx to identify supporters. They’ve been on canvasses, phone banks, and tabling events nearly every day since the endorsement was confirmed 23 April, and were able to mobilize with a broader coalition of progressive organizations.
Did Ocasio-Cortez get trade union locals (branches) backing her?
While Ocasio-Cortez tried to get union local endorsements, in New York City there is a third party called the Working Families Party (WFP) that often acts as a clearing house for large-scale union endorsements.
Crowley was able to use his institutional connections and concerns regarding loss of Congressional funding if he wasn't re-elected to push the WFP to endorse him.
That said, there was extremely broad rank-and-file union support for Ocasio-Cortez both via DSA, on whom she relied heavily to inform her labour policy platform, and organically via the main campaign apparatus.
Minutes after Ocasio-Cortez officially defeated Crowley for the Democratic Party nomination, the WFP announced they had changed their endorsement to her.
How did Crowley being such a clear establishment figure influence the outcome?
The statistic is being batted around that Crowley outspent Ocasio-Cortez 18 to one, we don’t have the exact numbers available right now but Crowley had an approximately £3 million war chest.
What we’re seeing both here and in the 2016 US election is a referendum on establishment Democrats. They feel that being well-funded and being part of a “recognisable political brand” are substitutes for having to actually speak to working-class people about their concerns.
They think the limit of what they have to offer is a rainbow-colored neoliberalism.
It’s also important to remember that Crowley, partially through his control of the Queens Democratic Party machine, hadn’t faced a primary challenge in 14 years.
He was rusty about campaigning and overconfident from his political clout and massive funding. He also failed to acknowledge that the restructuring of his own district put him at a disadvantage as a fifty-something white male.
NY District 14 is now 70 percent of people of colour so there was a disconnect between the constituents and who was representing them. Crowley drew on funding from luxury developers, Wall Street billionaires, and even Republican donors.
This victory proves that Democratic voters know when someone’s selling them out and are ready to fight for candidates who truly represent them.
Medicare for all was Ocasio-Cortez’s number one campaign point. Was this reflected on the doorstep? What issues cut the most with people in your experience?
While it was one of the first main planks of the Ocasio-Cortez campaign, it was co-opted by the Crowley campaign very early on. It didn't end up being much of a point of difference.
Universal health coverage is by its nature is a popular cause in the US due to our dysfunctional and unaffordable healthcare system.
While it’s a great all-inclusive issue for socialists, it’s also easy for liberal centrists to get on board.
In truth, Crowley’s support was dishonest. We've seen time and again how establishment Democrats like him take in hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the health industries.
Then they find a way to weasel their way out of supporting these plans when it comes to voting.
The biggest issue was probably Ocasio-Cortez's very early commitment to the Abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) campaign.
Crowley couldn't bring himself to support this, likely because he was trying to maintain the support of his donors as well as his more conservative supporters like the police.
The recent (and overdue) US media attention to the abuses of ICE including images of children being ripped from the arms of their parents and put in cages.
Ocasio-Cortez's principled stand to dismantle the state agency responsible for these crimes resonated with parents and decent people in general throughout the district.
How did you go about raising the funds for the campaign?
There was a porous border between DSA as an organization and the Ocasio-Cortez campaign.
The campaign itself raised approximately £230,000. 69 percent of that was small individual donations in increments of £38 to £4.
As for DSA’s parallel fundraising, for a significant amount of time we were operating on a £0 budget and working to comply with Federal funding regulations by spending as little as possible.
How can you work to make sure the Democratic old guard can’t mobilise against this rise of the left within the party?
We need to remember that Joe Crowley remains chair of the Queens County Democratic Party. They have a history of, among other things, patronage within the party and disqualifying potential primary challengers to Crowley’s House seat before they could even get on the ballot.
House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s quoted response to this phenomenal upset even sounds like something a Hunger Games villain would say about an uprising.
“The Democratic Party is increasingly younger, more female, more diverse, more progressive. Should the Democratic House leadership look that way?” a reporter asked her.
“Well I’m female, I’m progressive, I’m—and the rest. So what’s your problem?” Pelosi said. “Two out of three ain’t bad.”
Obviously the old guard of the party doesn’t see a disconnect between their stated social justice goals and being beholden to a donor class.
Ultimately though, this victory is proof that Democratic voters are ready for new, working class voices with bold democratic socialist policies. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez woke up what had been the lowest turnout district in the country by offering voters more than just “resistance.”
DSA locals and national will need to stay on the march doing what we do—organising, activating, mobilising, and training new members and new leaders.
We want to promote a vision for a hopeful future where politics serves the needs of the many.
The elites have money, but we have the numbers, and we have the people power.