Against the Grain

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Testing the Limits of Political Celebrity

The star socialist congresswoman, just over one month on the job, is alienating her colleagues and constituents. Could her once seemingly safe seat be in jeopardy?

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Feb. 17, 2019, 6 a.m.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York didn’t learn much from her shocking political upset against Speaker-in-waiting Joseph Crowley. One of Crowley’s biggest mistakes was focusing on his national party ambitions over the less-glamorous tasks of constituent service and showing up back home. His embarrassing absence at a televised primary debate played a pivotal role in his defeat.

Now, just months after his defeat, Ocasio-Cortez is following the worst practices of her predecessor. Her socialist worldview is garnering her limitless national attention at the expense of more mundane congressional work. She was the last member of the New York delegation to open up a district office; her official website says the office is still under construction. Her staff was profiled in a cringeworthy Washington Post story in which they trashed other Hill staffers as pampered and elitist—a move that elicited fury from the very Democratic colleagues she’ll need to work with.

And her ideological commitments are blinding her to what’s in the best interest of her constituents. In championing a Green New Deal, she endorsed the goal of phasing out air travel for high-speed-rail in a document her office released as a supplement to her legislation. LaGuardia Airport is in Ocasio-Cortez’s district, and it employs 12,000 individuals directly and 136,000 indirectly.

She was an outspoken opponent of Amazon’s plan to open a campus creating 25,000 mostly high-paying jobs in Long Island City. On Thursday, Amazon decided to back out of the deal it struck with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, specifically name-checking Ocasio-Cortez as one of the rabble-rousers who scuttled the project. The New York Daily News splashed her photo on the front page with the headline: “AMAZON KILLERS.”

Even more significant is that her base of Hispanic-Americans were the most supportive constituency of Amazon’s move to New York, according to a February Siena poll. A whopping 81 percent of Hispanics supported the move, 25 points higher than the overall level of support. Seventy percent of African-Americans backed Amazon’s expansion into New York City. An earlier Quinnipiac poll surveying New York City voters also found widespread support, with overwhelming support among Hispanic voters. The main core of resistance came from wealthier white progressives in Manhattan.

In a world where virality is more valuable than legislative productivity, it’s unlikely her decisions will cause immediate political backlash. She’s become an instant celebrity, an asset that often is short-lived though it pays huge political dividends while it lasts. But there are clear signs the congresswoman is over-reading her mandate.

For example: Ocasio-Cortez’s supporters are planning to challenge several New York Democrats in primaries next year, hoping to install ideological allies over the rank-and-file liberals already serving. The target list includes the powerful chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (Eliot Engel) and the House Judiciary Committee (Jerrold Nadler). Her supporters believe Engel and Nadler are too supportive of business and of Israel. They also view these racially diverse districts as ideal targets for change, having been represented by white men for decades.

But to quote The Wire, if you come after the king, you best not miss. If her supporters’ high-stakes gambit fails, she’ll be staring at a redistricting process two years later that threatens her seat in Congress. New York is expected to lose two House seats in reapportionment, setting off a game of musical chairs over which members will lose their districts. Even those who aren’t directly affected will see the borders of their districts redrawn.

For the first time, a redistricting commission comprising both Democrats and Republicans will be proposing the state’s new congressional map. It’s too early to say how much political gamesmanship will be a part of the process, but it’s never wise to alienate allies who may be needed in the future. By challenging her more established colleagues and backing legislation at odds with her constituents’ interests, Ocasio-Cortez is setting herself up for her political rivals to enact revenge.

Ocasio-Cortez is betting that the traditional rules of politics no longer apply—that her talents on social media and base-pleasing attacks against Republicans will guarantee her political protection for the long haul. But even if all politics isn’t local anymore, voters still grow tired of members who get famous in Washington and forget about constituents back home. Crowley learned that the hard way. Ocasio-Cortez may soon learn her own lesson in Politics 101.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

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