Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez learns to play the insider’s game
In Queens, she’s a storm-the-barricades political outsider. But back in Washington, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is working the system.
Ocasio-Cortez once again confronted the powerful New York Democratic machine this week and won — helping propel a little-known, left-wing candidate to likely victory in Queens’ district attorney primary, over an establishment pick backed by some of her own colleagues.
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On Capitol Hill, however, Ocasio-Cortez met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to reshape a contentious spending package for the southern border. And while the New York Democrat ultimately opposed the bill on the floor Tuesday, she declined to mobilize her army of social media followers against it or rile up the progressive base in a bid to tank it.
The freshman firebrand later said that she and her progressive colleagues were “holding out as long as possible” against Democratic leaders to build leverage, a move that she said helped secure key policy wins.
“We continued to hold out, and all of a sudden, what we were told was not possible was suddenly possible in order to secure these votes,” Ocasio Cortez said of the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ ability to change the bill.
“We didn’t necessarily have the votes to stop the House version, but I think that’s why it’s important for us to record our objections to it,” she said. “I think we were actually very successful.”
The latest episode over the border bill underscores Ocasio-Cortez’s approach to Congress six months into her hotly anticipated turn in Washington.
The progressive star has indeed begun to exert power — but subtly and not the way most people expected. Despite many predictions to the contrary, she hasn’t opted to torment leadership as the conservative Freedom Caucus once did to GOP leaders. Instead, she’s working with party elders.
It’s also a stark contrast from how she’s used her huge megaphone back home, where Ocasio-Cortez helped chase Amazon out of New York to the dismay of Democratic leaders and crown the next district attorney of Queens. And of course that’s after taking out former Rep. Joe Crowley — a potential future speaker — in a 2018 primary.
In the 48-hour flurry of negotiations leading up to a vote on the spending package, Ocasio-Cortez inserted herself into the Democratic caucus’ efforts to respond to the humanitarian crisis at the border. On Monday night, she was among the last Democrats to leave the room in a late-night meeting with Pelosi where leadership agreed to include more protections for migrant children in detention.
Some Democratic sources said that any role Ocasio-Cortez had in the border negotiations was minimal, noting that she did not personally secure policy wins and that Democratic leaders never counted on her to vote for the bill.
Still, Ocasio-Cortez held no impromptu news conference on the Capitol lawn. She refrained from a tweetstorm. In fact, she didn’t write a single post about one of the biggest immigration debates so far under the Democratic majority.
It’s a more tactical approach that stands in contrast to the bomb-throwing persona she and other freshman progressives have displayed on social media, where she’s directly challenged Democratic leadership and even called out some of her fellow colleagues by name.
Meanwhile in Queens, Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t been afraid to spend her political capital. In the closely watched primary race for Queens’ top attorney, the New York Democrat delivered an early endorsement and helped rally support for public defender Tiffany Cabán.
It was a direct challenge to the party favorite — Melinda Katz — who was championed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and House Democrats like Rep. Gregory Meeks, who was tapped to be chairman of the Queens Democratic Party after Crowley was defeated last year.
Several Democrats said they’ve seen a difference between Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter persona and the congenial, soft-spoken colleague they have come to know in the past several months. At the caucus’ regular closed-door meetings, she isn’t confrontational.
But lawmakers also acknowledged they’re waiting to see how Ocasio-Cortez handles the 2020 election cycle and whether she’ll work with progressive activists to try to oust some of her colleagues.
Justice Democrats, the group that helped orchestrate Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Crowley, plans to primary several Democratic incumbents. And several of Ocasio-Cortez’s New York colleagues already face primary challengers from the left, which has unnerved many in the party.
“The jury is still out,” said Meeks, when asked about Ocasio-Cortez’s influence in Washington and Queens. “It will be interesting to see — because you’ve got to try to get along here — whether she decides, with colleagues that she’s worked with every day, whether she’s supporting them or not supporting them.”
So far Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t directly waded into the primary battles, although she did appear in a video with Justice Democrats earlier this year calling on a new crop of activists to challenge incumbents. And her chief of staff, a Justice Democrats alum, urged his Twitter followers to donate earlier this month to the progressive candidate taking on Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas).
Tensions flared in March, when Ocasio-Cortez issued a warning to a group of her Democratic colleagues that they could wind up “on a list” of primary election targets after several moderates bucked the party on an immigration vote on the floor.
Weeks later, she angered many of the same lawmakers as she urged her 4.5 million Twitter followers to halt their donations to the Democratic campaign arm because of a new policy boycotting consultants who work for Democratic primary challengers.
The freshman has also shown no reluctance to harangue Trump administration officials from her perch on the Oversight Committee. In one viral exchange, she accused Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross of lying about the decision to add a citizenship question for the census.
That firepower hasn’t always translated into legislative wins on the floor. At the beginning of the new Congress, Democrats overwhelmingly approved a package of House rules over the vocal objections of Ocasio-Cortez and fellow progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).
Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the three other progressive freshmen in her squad who defied leadership in Tuesday night’s vote — Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — say they never seriously considered pushing the rest of their caucus to tank the bill, as they watched the effects of an ever-worsening border crisis.
“We weren’t actively trying to whip a hard line against it, because we were in an extremely difficult situation,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
“I’m not new to government or lawmaking. I understand that perfection cannot be the enemy of good,” Pressley added in an interview Wednesday.
Some of her fellow Democrats say the difference between Ocasio-Cortez’s strategy back home in Queens and her approach in Washington simply reflects the way Congress works, where members can decide to make noise, but it might cost them their spot at the negotiating table.
“This is one where, I think, across the board on the Democratic side, we all want what’s best for the kids. I detest how ICE operates, I’m with AOC completely,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said of progressives’ efforts to improve the bill, rather than derail it. “There’s just so many provisions that, had we not been strategic, we might not have gotten.”