On an assuming street corner in the east Bronx, people slowly started crowding around a storefront turned political HQ, The Bronx Republican Party Headquarters. Over the sounds of old rock songs blasting through speakers, people talked like old friends — rarely using masks — and signed up for phone-banking and door-knocking at foldable card tables which had been set up right outside the doors of the building. Volunteers handed out “Cummings for Congress” window and yard signs and neon yellow shirts that read “Defund AOC” to an excited group of people with Trump 2020 memorabilia. This was the volunteer kick-off for the John Cummings campaign.
In one of the safest Democratic seats in the nation, a Republican thinks he can defeat a progressive star.
Cummings, a school teacher and a former cop, has a simple message for voters: bring representation back to the district and save America. His opponent, the national political celebrity Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, rose to prominence in 2018 after she beat 20-year incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary. Since then, she — along with other progressive members of Congress, sometimes disparagingly referred to as “The Squad” — has become a prime target for Republicans.
Much like his opponent has done, Cummings has made sure to play up that he is not a politician but rather a school teacher. This makes Cummings and Ocasio-Cortez a part of a growing trend of non-politicians from both sides of the aisle choosing to run, and choosing to amplify their lack of “establishment” credentials while doing so.
At the Cummings event, Ocasio-Cortez was a common topic of conversation, more even than Cummings himself. Laura Angelo, 56, is a retired school bus driver who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016. She told me that the priority of politicians should be ensuring a free America. She said she is scared for the future her grandchildren face because of the possible leftward shift the country is facing, which, to her, is represented by Ocasio-Cortez.
“I've got to support John Cummings because he is going against AOC to take her out of office,” Angelo said. “We have got to get rid of her lies. We’ve got to get rid of AOC and the rest of the swamp.”
Judy Lanci, the President of the Bronx American Legion Auxiliary, believes the district has not received any support from Ocasio-Cortez since she was elected to office. She was there that evening to give a certificate of appreciation to Cummings after he donated $2,000 to the legion so it could send care packages overseas and pledged to make his first bill in Congress a piece of legislation to make all postage to US military members serving in areas of conflict free.
“I have not seen AOC ever, and I am very active in the community,” Lanci said. “John is very visible and he cares about the community. He lives here, he knows all about the community, and, like I said, he cares all about the community. He won’t be an absentee Congressman.”
Last February, a deal for Amazon to build a campus in Long Island City, Queens fell through due to pressure from politicians across New York, including Ocasio-Cortez. For Cummings, whose campaign has received $12,500 from Amazon’s Political Action Committee, this is one of the primary reasons to remove her from office. On his campaign website, the deal is central under the “Why I’m Running” subsection, where he pledges to fight to bring back the company and open up new opportunities for jobs. At the event this week, he brought up the deal again, as well as a longer list of economic and social issues he disagrees with AOC on, including voting against the USMCA deal, opposing economic opportunity zones, calling for police to be defunded, and opposing charter schools.
“The trend is that she is intent on completely eliminating the middle class and also eliminating the root out of poverty to the middle class,” Cummings told the crowd. “And that is what the socialists want to do: they do not want people that are not dependent on the government. That is what it is about for them — it's about power.”
At the event, it became clear that the campaign would be relying on reliable, in-person campaigning tactics. Throughout the evening, there was frequently a line at the table to sign up for door-knocking, with supporters explaining it was their favorite part of election season. Despite the Facebook page asking people to wear a mask and socially distance, masks were used by a minority of attendees, with many pulling them off when speaking to one another, and supporters were packed together on the sidewalk throughout the evening. Speaking to Cummings, he mentioned that ground game is key to the campaign, indicating that the ongoing pandemic would not change the campaign’s playbook.
“We are going to do everything. We are going to go door to door, make phone calls, have events, sit outside grocery stores, go to the subways,” he said. “It's all about meeting people, that is how you win.”