How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Learned to Play by Washington's Rules

Catie Edmondson
Rep. Alexa­ndria Ocasi­o-Cor­tez (D-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 7, 2019. (Celeste Sloman/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Less than two weeks after being sworn in last year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young progressive star fresh off an upset of one of the top Democratic leaders in the House, put her fellow Democrats on notice that she would soon be coming for them, too.

Appearing in a promotional video for Justice Democrats, the insurgent liberal group dedicated to unseating entrenched Democratic lawmakers that helped sweep Ocasio-Cortez to power, the Bronx firebrand urged her supporters to recruit candidates to run against her new colleagues. She was flanked by the group’s three co-founders, two of whom had just taken top jobs in her office. There were even whispers that she might try to oust Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., a rising star regarded by many Democrats as a future speaker of the House.

But after nearly nine months, with her eyes now wide open to the downsides of her revolutionary reputation and social media fame, Ocasio-Cortez has tempered her brash, institution-be-damned style with something different: a careful political calculus that adheres more closely to the unwritten rules of Washington she once disdained.

“I think I have more of a context of what it takes to do this job and survive on a day-to-day basis in a culture that is inherently hostile to people like me,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview.

Gone from her Washington office are her original chief of staff and her communications director, two Justice Democrats co-founders who were intent on waging their divisive brand of politics from their offices on Capitol Hill. No longer an unabashed ambassador of the combative group, Ocasio-Cortez has carefully managed her involvement with it.

And she never did go after Jeffries, now chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the same position held by former Rep. Joseph Crowley last year when Ocasio-Cortez set her sights on ousting him. Instead, on Tuesday she announced that her first endorsement of a primary challenger to an incumbent Democrat would be Marie Newman, who is making a second run at ousting Rep. Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, a conservative-leaning Democrat who is regarded by many of his colleagues as something of an outlier because of his opposition to abortion rights and his vote against the Affordable Care Act. Ocasio-Cortez is not the only Democrat to break with Lipinski and support Newman, nor is she the first.

Deciding on the endorsement, she said, was in part a product of having learned to balance her twin roles as a dissident and a member of Congress.

“It’s not just about being an activist,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “It forces you to grow. So it doesn’t mean you don’t endorse activists, but it also requires an assessment for a capacity of growth and how you navigate a space like this.”

When she first arrived on Capitol Hill, Ocasio-Cortez and her team made it clear they planned to use their perch inside Congress as a platform for their divisive, outsider brand of politics. On her first day of orientation, Ocasio-Cortez joined protesters camped outside Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office agitating for the Green New Deal.

“It could have made people mad, they could have put me on the dog-walking committee,” she joked later that week on a Justice Democrats conference call promoting the organization’s candidate recruitment campaign. “They still might.”

Ocasio-Cortez may have meant it as an offhand quip, but her comment underscored a reality on Capitol Hill that she and her team were slow to fully appreciate: the extent to which power and the ability to get things done in the House were dependent on personal relationships and respect for the hierarchy. The first-term congresswoman enjoys rich public support outside the halls of Congress, particularly on social media platforms where progressive activism thrives. But the approach that she and her cohorts champion — pulling the institution to the left in part by threatening the careers of any Democrat who fails to embrace their ideas — quickly alienated many of her colleagues, and has made it difficult for her to get anything done.

And in private conversations, many of Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic colleagues routinely complain that in her zeal to build her social media celebrity and political brand, the first-term congresswoman is too quick to cast aspersions on her fellow lawmakers, painting them as apologists for the status quo.

“In many ways, I feel like I walk around with a scarlet letter, because many members who just have any primary, whether I know about it or not, tend to project that onto me,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview. “In many ways, I feel like I walk through that body as a symbol of someone who should not be there and a threat to the way power is organized.”

She said she has gone through a “loss of innocence and naïveté,” realizing that it was impossible to separate the legislative work of serving in Congress with the politics of reelection campaigns.

“They are frankly much closer in that dynamic and much closer in overlapping than a lot of people tend to realize,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez has cut back on her appearances on behalf of Justice Democrats and has begun bolstering her fellow incumbent freshmen lawmakers, like Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., a member of Democratic leadership who she will support at a fundraiser in Boulder later this week. In April, she rallied around some of her colleagues who flipped districts President Donald Trump won in 2016, encouraging her Twitter followers to donate to their campaigns. She diligently reached out to the so-called majority-makers on her committees — the centrist freshmen who flipped Republican-leaning seats — to win them over.

Her aides, however, continued to carry the Justice Democrats flag without restraint, tweeting out their support when the group challenged incumbents, to the dismay of Democratic aides and lawmakers. A flashpoint came in July when Saikat Chakrabarti, then her chief of staff, ignited a firestorm by accusing centrist Democrats of enabling “a racist system” after they blocked an effort to defund immigration enforcement as part of an emergency border aid package. In a post on Twitter, he compared them to “new Southern Democrats,” a reference to segregationists. It was a remarkable breach of protocol for an unelected aide.

Jeffries used the House Democrats’ official Twitter account to deliver a biting warning shot in a now-deleted tweet that singled out the chief of staff. Two weeks later, Chakrabarti announced he would leave the office entirely. Ocasio-Cortez’s new chief, Ariel Eckblad, a former aide to Sen. Kamala Harris of California, is well-versed in the workings of Capitol Hill and is widely seen as a sober-minded replacement. Corbin Trent, who had been handling communications for both Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and her congressional office, a highly unusual arrangement, has returned to the political side.

The rift was an escalation of a feud that began days earlier when Maureen Dowd, The New York Times columnist, asked Pelosi about the fury from the Bronx Democrat and three other progressive freshmen over the border aid package. The speaker noted that the group had failed to persuade any other Democrats to join them in voting against the House’s version of the bill.

“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi said then. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.”

Ocasio-Cortez fired back by saying that it was she and progressive activists who revere her, not Pelosi, who wielded the real power in the party, and later complained that the speaker was engaging in a “singling out of newly elected women of color.” Chakrabarti followed up with a tweet questioning the speaker’s leadership.

The break ultimately led to a private, one-on-one meeting with Pelosi in the speaker’s Capitol office last month, where Ocasio-Cortez appeared ready to call a truce, telling reporters, “I think the speaker respects the fact that we’re coming together as a party and a community.”

Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, said Ocasio-Cortez’s challenge came from the fact that she leads a movement “bigger than one district and Washington.

“Navigating her role as a legislator and a movement-maker is basically what her career is about,” Shahid said in an interview. “We’ll continue to have that theory of change with one foot in D.C. and one foot in the movement. It’s really hard to do that.”

For Ocasio-Cortez, the process continues to be bumpy. Even with Eckblad at the helm, her office still operates in some ways more like an upstart campaign on a shoestring than a congressional office. A replacement for Trent has yet to be hired, and another aide who routinely rankles rank-and-file aides and lawmakers with combative comments — like when he claimed his fellow congressional aides were elitist “careerists” — is still in place.

And while it is not clear how many more Justice Democrats Ocasio-Cortez will endorse, she said she was still “very wedded” to the insurgent theory of change that propelled her to Congress.

“Change by nature takes friction,” she said. “It’s just a question of how we move through it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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