In New York’s 14th District, Joe Crowley Faces a Challenge From the Left (Updated)

The contrast between the candidates tells the tale of two Democrats competing to represent not only New York’s 14th District but also, in many ways, the future of the party itself.

[photo: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands at the U.S.-Mexico border]
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a candidate for U.S. Congress in New York, stands at the Tornillo-Guadalupe port of entry gate on June 24, 2018 in Tornillo, Texas. Ocasio-Cortez left her district this week to protest President Trump's immigration policies in Texas. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

UPDATE: June 27, 6:57 a.m.: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday won the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District with 57.5 percent of the vote, according to the New York Times, unseating incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley.

For the first time in over a decade, Rep. Joe Crowley faces the possibility of losing his bid for re-election. Crowley, a congressional Democrat who has held office since 1999 and currently represents New York’s 14th Congressional District, hasn’t faced a primary challenger in 14 years.

But now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Bronxite who has never run for office, is vying for the nomination in the state’s impending June 26 primary.

Ocasio-Cortez is the first woman of color to run in the district, which encompasses parts of Queens and the Bronx. Until recently, politics—or at least running for office—wasn’t part of her plan. She began her career as a community organizer, first working as an educational director for the National Hispanic Institute, then volunteering for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) presidential campaign. “Before working on that campaign, I really thought it was impossible to run for office without corporate money, which is why I never thought of doing it,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a May interview with The Indypendent.

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, she received a call from political action committee Brand New Congress (BNC), which was formed by former Sanders staffers and supporters to encourage progressives to run against longstanding incumbents without taking any corporate money. They asked if she was interested in running against Crowley, who is known for his ties to the real estate and financial industries.

Challenging Crowley, who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee, had to be done by “someone outside the system who would give it a jolt,” Ocasio-Corez told the website.

And that’s exactly the way Ocasio-Cortez presents her bid. Her campaign casts her as a grassroots, down-to-earth alternative to Crowley, whom she has described as out-of-touch with his constituents.

The contrast between the candidates tells the tale of two Democrats competing to represent not only New York’s 14th District but also, in many ways, the future of the party itself.

Crowley, for his part, largely ignored Ocasio-Cortez until he could no longer afford to do so. Instead of campaigning against his opponent, Crowley initially positioned himself as an antidote to Trumpism and a leader of the “resistance” against it. “I was born for this role,” Crowley, who reportedly plans on making a move to unseat Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democratic Caucus this year, told supporters about his re-election campaign at a May meet-and-greet.

The two candidates’ first debate wasn’t held until June 15, less than two weeks before the primary. In his opening remarks, Crowley once again made it clear that he was more interested in presenting himself as the leader of the fight against Trump, whom he called the “number one threat against all of us,” than he was in running against Ocasio-Cortez. His and Ocasio-Cortez’s respective positions, he claimed, don’t have much “daylight” between them.

That first debate showed that Ocasio-Cortez is running to Crowley’s left on some issues—such as immigration. Where Crowley claimed the best way to oppose President Trump’s immigration policies is by “getting Democrats back into the House of Representatives,” Ocasio-Cortez instead called for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Where Crowley said he has used his power to help elect “progressive Democrats in Queens County” and “diversify” the U.S. House of Representatives, Ocasio-Cortez said diversity was about more than race. “This is not just about diversity and race,” Ocasio-Cortez responded, “this is about class.”

Crowley didn’t attend the second debate, instead sending former New York City Council member Annabel Palma, who now serves as the deputy commissioner of strategic initiatives at the city’s Department of Social Services. His campaign spokesperson, Vijay Chaudhuri, told City & State that the congressman’s absence was due do a scheduling conflict, and that the debate’s organizers “refused” to reschedule. Regardless, Crowley’s absence prompted a rebuke from the New York Times’ editorial board, who chided him from not showing up and reminded him that, despite his long tenure, “his seat is not his entitlement.”

He did later attend a June 21 debate, where he once again highlighted his decades of experience in national politics.

But the entire point of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign has been that experience is ultimately meaningless when it’s used to curry favor with big donors instead of to better the lives of ordinary people. “The Bronx has been abandoned by its leadership for a very long time,” Ocasio-Cortez said on June 21. The congressman’s decision to skip the June 18 debate was “a continuation of that neglect.”

Immigration also came back into focus at the final debate, where the candidates’ respective positions on ICE were brought into sharp relief. “We need comprehensive immigration reform,” Crowley said. “But I also think the most important thing is to deal with the 11 million plus individuals—human beings, not animals—who are working here trying to contribute and become a part of the fabric of our nation.” Ocasio-Cortez took it a step further, once again calling for the abolition of ICE.

Their differences in both politics and approach are also reflected in their endorsements: Crowley, who is the chair of the Queens County Democratic Party, has been endorsed by prominent Democrats such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and a bevy of local politicians from the New York State Assembly, the state senate, and the New York City Council.

Though Crowley voted for anti-choice bills like a 1999 abortion funding amendment, which withheld funds from international organizations that promoted abortion, as well as the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, he has changed course in the years since and has been endorsed by several reproductive health organizations including Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America. Earlier this year, Planned Parenthood calculated Crowley’s voting record as 100 percent in favor of reproductive rights over the last decade.

Ocasio-Cortez has made few comments on-the-record regarding reproductive health, but her website notes that she supports “open access to safe, legal, affordable abortion, birth control, and family planning services, as well as access to adequate, affordable pre- and post-natal care, for all people, regardless of income, location, or education.” She has come out in support of Medicare for All.

Crowley has also received endorsements from more than two dozen unions and several local organizations such as the Stonewall Democrats of NYC, the immigrants’ rights group Make the Road Action, and the Muslim Democratic Club of New York.

One New York club, the Pan-American Democratic Association, broke rank and endorsed Ocasio-Cortez earlier this month. William Salgado, the club’s chair, told the New York Post that the club’s endorsement came after Crowley skipped the June 18 debate. “Ocasio-Cortez showed up,” Salgado said. “Ocasio-Cortez is a better representative of our neighborhood. She’s more progressive. She’s not behind the banks, insurance companies, and Wall Street.”

Most of Ocasio-Cortez’s other endorsements have come from progressive groups including Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Democracy for America, the Black Lives Matter Caucus, and MoveOn.

Cynthia Nixon, who is running her own progressive campaign challenging Gov. Cuomo, gave Ocasio-Cortez a last-minute endorsement on June 25, just one day before the primary. “Alexandria and I are uniting to take on the old boys club, reject corporate money, and run people-powered campaigns that envision a progressive New York that serves the many, not just the wealthy few who can afford to buy influence,” Nixon wrote on Twitter.

Most of the constituents Ocasio-Cortez hopes to represent are far from wealthy. More than 15 percent of New York’s 14th Congressional District residents live below the federal poverty line. The district’s median income was $53,512 in 2016 while Crowley’s own net worth is estimated to be approximately ten times that amount, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Notably, Crowley has received more than $235,000 in contributions from the real estate industry during this campaign cycle, according to the Indypendent. Meanwhile, more than one-third of residents in some of the neighborhoods he represents—including Parkchester and Jackson Heights—are severely rent burdened, meaning that more than 30 percent of their income goes towards rent, according to a 2017 report by the New York University Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.

Ocasio-Cortez credits her working-class upbringing for her progressive politics. Born and raised in the Bronx, “I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny,” she said in a campaign video released on May 30, which was shot and produced by volunteers and reportedly cost less than $10,000 to create. After her father died in 2008—at the height of the financial crisis—Ocasio-Cortez’s mother cleaned houses and drove a bus for extra cash. Ocasio-Cortez waitressed and worked as a bartender to help with the bills. In an interview with Elite Daily, she said she’s one of the few people in her family who still lives in New York; most of her relatives are now scattered across the country because they couldn’t afford rising rents in the city. In that same interview, she said she’s still paying off her student loans.

“This race is about people versus money,” Ocasio-Cortez says in the voice-over for her most popular campaign video, which has been viewed nearly 500,000 times on Twitter. “We’ve got people. They’ve got money.”

Since she pledged not to take corporate money, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign has been both high-effort and low-budget. With the help of BNC and her own organizing contacts, she recruited a team of volunteers to help her canvass in the district—not just in English, but also in Spanish, Bengali, Mandarin, Arabic, and Albanian, the Nation reported.

According to her campaign’s most recent financial disclosures, Ocasio-Cortez has raised over $300,000. Almost 70 percent of contributions were raised from small donors, which is how Open Secrets, a federal campaign finance watchdog, terms “unitemized individual contributions” on federal campaign finance forms. Crowley, meanwhile, has raised more than $3.3 million, only $26,000 of which came from small donors.

With less than a day left until the primary, it’s still unclear whether Ocasio-Cortez has the support necessary to beat Crowley, who hasn’t had a primary challenger in more than a decade and hasn’t faced serious Republican opposition in years. Since much of her popularity is due to online organizing, it’s hard to tell how much support she is receiving from within her own district. A dearth of polling and historically low voter turnout makes the race’s outcome difficult to determine.

As Ocasio-Cortez said in her ad, Crowley may have money, but she thinks she has people by her side. What remains to be seen is whether she has enough people to win—and whether those people will show up at the polls.