AOC Says Her Bernie Sanders Endorsement Was ‘Authentic Decision’

Laura Litvan

(Bloomberg) -- Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said her move to formally endorse Senator Bernie Sanders on Saturday, weeks after the 2020 Democratic candidate suffered a heart attack, was an “authentic decision.”

The influential first-term lawmaker was interviewed at Sanders’s Saturday rally in New York City. Her comments will air in full Monday on CBS’s “This Morning.”

“Some folks try to make these decisions by making political calculations and looking at political strategy,” she said, according to a clip the network provided. “For me, once I decided what I want to do, I think it’s just the most authentic decision to let people know how I feel.” Sanders told CBS that Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement was “very significant.”

“Alexandria has been a political phenomenon,” he said, according to a CBS transcript.

Saturday was Sanders’s first campaign appearance since his Oct. 1 heart attack, after which he had two stents inserted into a blocked artery in a Las Vegas hospital. He took the stage in Queens clad in black to loud cheers and the strains of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”

Behind in the polls to Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, the Vermont senator is looking to leverage the charismatic 30 year-old lawmaker, who has outsized influence with left-leading and younger voters. The two already have overlapping support, though.

Ready to Struggle

Sanders told supporters he was ready for an “epic struggle” for the 2020 Democratic nomination and the White House, working in many elements of his typical stump speech focused on opposition to the “billionaire class and corporate elite.”

“We have some bad news for them,” Sanders said. “Things are going to change, and we’re going to have a government of working people and not the One Percent.”

Ocasio-Cortez, a first-term member of Congress from the Bronx, earlier spoke to a crowd of several thousand -- Sanders said his campaign had a permit for 20,000 people, and not all who wanted to could get in -- in Queens. She vowed a “revolution at the ballot box.”

On a sunny autumn afternoon, Ocasio-Cortez said Sanders had been seminal in her political awakening: “It wasn’t until I heard of a man by the name Bernie Sanders that I began to question and assert and recognize my inherent value as a human being that deserves health care, housing and a living wage.”

Ocasio-Cortez, on CBS, said Sanders had been fighting for people at the bottom of the economic ladder for years. She cited her own experience working at a restaurant where she earned little in wages, had no health insurance, and faced sexual harassment.

‘People Like Me’

“It’s astounded me, frankly, that the senator has been there fighting for me long before I got to the halls of Congress and fighting for people like me,” she said.

Her endorsement was announced after Tuesday’s Democratic debate in Ohio, along with that of fellow progressive firebrand, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Their support, which lets Sanders burnish his appeal with the next generation of voters, is seen as a setback for Warren, another progressive favorite.

Sanders’s heart attack kept him off the trail for two weeks. Coming months after he received seven stitches after cutting his head on a glass shower door, it focused attention on his health and age as primary contests loom in Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet the 78-year-old appeared healthy and energetic at Tuesday’s debate.

Age an Asset

Also on hand Saturday was filmmaker Michael Moore, a progressive figure for decades, who portrayed Sanders’s age as an asset. “A 78-year-old knows what a pay raise is,” he said. “A 78-year-old knows what a pension is.”

Analysts, though, say it will take more than a good bill of health and some solid endorsements to turn around his campaign, which now hovers between third and fourth place in national and key state polls.

The endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and Omar will grab immediate interest but “won’t stem the tide of support for Elizabeth Warren,” said Michael Gordon, a Democratic strategist who worked for the Clinton and Gore campaign in 1992 and 1996.

Still, Sanders is the money leader in the race, hauling in $25.3 million in the third quarter, giving him the funds to push well into the primaries. A key test comes Nov. 1 in Iowa, when the top candidates will speak at a state Democratic party dinner that often is the point at which support starts to coalesce in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, said Robert Shrum, a former top adviser to Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry.

The backing of Ocasio-Cortez -- known widely as “AOC” -- helps Sanders at a time when he’s begun highlighting differences with long-time friend and ally Warren, whom he recently pointed out has described herself as a “capitalist to her bones.”

Ocasio-Cortez is a sought-after surrogate with strong social media chops. She has 5.6 million followers on Twitter.

She was a Sanders ally even before she soared to national fame by defeating Democratic Representative Joe Crowley, 10-term lawmaker and member of the Democratic leadership team, in a 2018 primary election. Ocasio-Cortez volunteered on Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid.

Since coming to the House, she and Sanders teamed up on legislation in areas like climate change and capping rates on credit card and other consumer loans. Warren and Senator Kamala Harris of California, another leading presidential contender, also have wooed Ocasio-Cortez with other co-sponsored initiatives.

Ocasio-Cortez’s outsized influence in the Democratic Party is on frequent display. Earlier this year, the lawmaker -- who is of Puerto Rican descent -- roiled the Capitol by accusing Speaker Nancy Pelosi of targeting “newly elected women of color” by being dismissive of her, Omar, and two other liberal Democratic freshmen known as “the Squad.”

Thwarting Amazon

Later, President Donald Trump galvanized Democrats after he tweeted that the squad members -- all women of color and all U.S. citizens should “go back where they came from.” Even the cost of Ocasio-Cortez’s haircuts has become a target for conservative media, only burnishing her reputation and fame.

“You all like my haircut?” the lawmaker said as she kicked off her remarks. “It got a lot of attention last week.”

The Sanders campaign loaded up on other endorsements ahead of Saturday’s rally, including a number of city and state lawmakers. Together, the campaign said, the group “played key roles” in foiling Amazon.com Inc.’s plan to locate a second headquarters in Queens.

Endorsements are rarely game-changers, but they can be: Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts shifted the course of the 2008 Democratic primary election by backing Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton.

Some Sanders supporters attending the rally said the Ocasio-Cortez endorsement will give Sanders an added jolt, just when he needs it most.

“It’s going to help him,” said Mami Suzuki, 40, a self-employed designer from Brooklyn who backed Sanders in 2016 and this time. “She did the right thing. It will bring more young people to the campaign. She has great outreach.”

Others, though, said that while they like Sanders’s agenda, they see his prospects fading in a field that offers choices including Warren, Harris and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey as palatable alternatives.

“I love Bernie, but I might not vote for him because he might not be able to get nominated,” said Richard Dumas, 65, of Jackson Heights. “But I want to be here today to be part of the movement.“

--With assistance from Bill Allison.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Litvan in Queens, New York at llitvan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Wendy Benjaminson at wbenjaminson@bloomberg.net, Ros Krasny, Mark Niquette

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