Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had few role models to look to when she decided the time had come to run for Congress. But she was inspired by the experience of another woman of Puerto Rican descent who grew up as she did in the melting-pot neighborhoods of the South Bronx: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Ocasio-Cortez — who shocked the political establishment in June by pulling off a stunning upset primary election win against a 10-term incumbent on her first-ever campaign for political office — remembered reading that Sotomayor, when asked to remove her gold hoop earrings and hide her bright-red fingernails as she sat for her official Supreme Court portrait a decade ago, said no. Sotomayor wasn’t about to change her look just because she’d reached the pinnacle of judicial power.
“To me that was such a powerful message,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “We’re so often told to edit who we are in order to be acceptable to whatever is deemed to be mainstream. To me her refusal to do that was really empowering. We can run as who we are and be who we are. We can take these seats, and we can take them as who we are.”
Ocasio-Cortez became a Democratic superstar overnight on June 26 with her nobody-saw-it-coming primary victory over Rep. Joe Crowley, the well-connected chair of the House Democratic Caucus. In an instant, the telegenic woman who will turn 29 on Oct. 13 became the standard-bearer for the liberal wing of the party. “AOC,” as she’s known, has become a big target for criticism and commentary from the left and the right. And she’s been getting her media training on the job.
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“It’s definitely an adjustment. There’s a major difference between doing local press [in New York] and being on CNN,” Ocasio-Cortez says.
She was not naive about the blood sport of national politics, but she was surprised at how quickly she became both a media darling and a political punching bag. Some have questioned her credentials, suggesting that she has exaggerated her blue-collar roots, while others flatly question her intelligence and her qualifications. “They have these stereotypes for a woman and a person of color that they can just pluck off the wall,” she says. “That’s the easiest and laziest thing to do.”
Ocasio-Cortez has barely taken a breath since her primary victory. She’s used her burgeoning celebrity to tub-thump for like-minded candidates in other states in hopes of spurring the “blue wave” that will allow Democrats to take back the House in the Nov. 6 midterm elections. Hitting the stump outside New York has been good preparation for what she can expect when she gets down to work in the Capitol. (In a massively Democratic district, she figures to easily defeat Republican Anthony Pappas.)
“You realize that there are all of these competing narratives out there,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “Understanding how to define the issues that are in our wheelhouse takes a lot of practice. I’m not someone who is necessarily surrounded by the traditional cadre of political consultants. You practice by doing it and also by knowing what our message is and sticking to that message.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s backstory is so colorful that it’s hard to believe she didn’t attract more media attention during her primary run. That’s a testament to how untouchable Crowley seemed in New York’s deep-blue 14th Congressional District, which covers parts of the Bronx and Queens.
A daughter of the South Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez worked on and off as a bartender and server at a friend’s restaurant while she mounted her campaign. Her time as an organizer in New York for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid whetted her appetite for politics. She also had experience working for Sen. Ted Kennedy while studying economics and international relations at Boston University. She spent time after college working with female entrepreneurs in West Africa and as an educational director for the National Hispanic Institute.
Ocasio-Cortez proudly calls herself a Democratic socialist. The distinctive graphic look of her campaign materials recalls the aesthetic of United Farm Workers campaigns and the influence of the Chicano art movement. She is poised to be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress after her victory is cemented in the Nov. 6 general election.
Ocasio-Cortez had long been interested in politics and community activism, but she had no inclination to run until she realized she could do it on her own terms. “I felt I was too outspoken about issues,” she says. “I felt like running for office meant you had to tone down your message and take all sorts of lobbyist money and present yourself in a way that is not authentic to who I am. There were all these reasons I felt like I couldn’t do it. But we got to this point where we said we need to do this for the movement. We need to do this to make our country better.”
In a district where 85% of voters are Democratic, Ocasio-Cortez knew there was no need to drape a centrist cloak over her agenda, which includes bold policies on affordable housing, healthcare, education, criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization. The enthusiasm she saw for Sanders’ campaign was eye-opening.
“I knew the only way we would win was by being really unapologetic about our stances and what we’re championing,” she says. “As it turns out, what voters want more than ever is to feel like they have a representative to swing for their needs. There’s sometimes this weird belief that [Democrats] have to shy away from their beliefs to win elections. I thought why don’t we just own that and embrace it.”
Nowadays, when Ocasio-Cortez walks the streets where she spent nearly two years knocking on doors and holding meetings in church basements, she sees her picture taped lovingly onto storefronts and apartment windows. “It’s surreal,” she says. She’s determined to remain as close to a “normal person” as possible. She’s still living at her South Bronx home, still making her daily trips to the bodega and still doing her own laundry. But leaving her home first thing in the morning in sweatpants and such — that’s out. “Going outside looking like a gremlin is not something I’m able to tap into much anymore,” she quips.
Hanging out with friends in local restaurants and bars is also more complicated than it was just a few months ago because she is so frequently recognized. “That’s a little weird,” she admits. She hasn’t had much time for pop-culture consumption of late. But her can’t-miss TV shows include HBO’s “Westworld,” VH1’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and Netflix’s “Queer Eye.” The last movie she took in was Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You.”
As the midterm general election draws near, Ocasio-Cortez is grappling with sky-high expectations for the liberal faction that she now ably represents. And she is still working on the practical matter of finding a place to stay in Washington. “It will be a culture shock,” she says of relocating part of the time to Georgetown or thereabouts.
The likely freshman politico heads to the Beltway with a heavy burden, but one that she believes will fuel her drive to advance her platform. “There was no way I could have expected this kind of reaction,” she says. “I really feel an immense amount of responsibility to all of the people that have hope in our movement. Sometimes it’s very stressful to have people see me as a character instead of a human. I felt like overnight I went from a three-dimensional character who was squeezed into a two-dimensional character. That’s a very surreal thing for just an everyday working person to go through.”