Many people have criticized Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for being too young, too inexperienced, and too much of a socialist. But it was those qualities, coupled with her vigorous grassroots campaign, that led her to defeat 10-term incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley (D) in the hotly contested primary race to represent the 14th Congressional District of New York in the U.S. House.
On the eve of New York’s primary, being held on September 13th, Ocasio, who endorsed Cynthia Nixon in her bid for governor, spoke to ESSENCE about her win, not mincing words, socialism and how she’s set herself apart from other Democrats.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you think makes you different from other Democrats?
ALEXANDRIA CORTEZ-OCASIO: I think one of the reasons why NY-14 voted for my candidacy is because I don’t take any corporate lobbyist money. I think it reinstates the opposition that voters should have in terms of who our elected officials are listening to. It starts to become a lot more difficult when you have special interest lobbyists financing your campaign. Also, just the way I talk about issues. I’m not afraid to call a spade a spade. Our voters in the Bronx and Queens appreciated that. We’re not afraid to talk about racial injustice. Rikers jail is right in my district and I feel a responsibility to talk about our criminal justice system, and our history. The ability to talk about abolishing ICE, and talking about economic dignity resonated with voters.
To all our organizers, donors, supporters, and believers in a better world: thank you.
We will only achieve Medicare for All, Criminal Justice Reform, & Environmental Justice when everyday people come together for change.
It all starts at home.
Let’s bring it to November. pic.twitter.com/VUzhl978uX
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) September 12, 2018
ESSENCE.COM: What drew you to Democratic Socialists of America? What about socialism appeals to you?
A.O.C: A big aspect of that is that it’s a part of a larger movement for social, economic and racial justice in the U.S. It’s important to highlight the differences, and one of those big things is that we’re talking about democratic socialism. We’re not talking about this theoretical thing. We’re talking about medicare for all, tuition free public college, social security and the need to expand it. All of those are programs based in democratic socialism. I think after 8 years of watching Barack Obama being called a socialist, the term has lost a lot of its stigma for young people. And if we believe in healthcare and housing as a human right, then I guess that’s what it is. This is about those commitments. We’re not trying to sell people on labels and isms, but we’re advocating those issues.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you say to people who think you’re too young or inexperienced to do the job?
A.O.C: It’s an interesting argument, because it’s one that perpetuates the existing power system. Power systems and political machines really exist to reinforce power in the hands of people who have historically had it. It creates a cycle where if we never elect women or people of color because they’re not experienced enough, and then don’t allow them the opportunity to gain the experience, we perpetuate economic and racial inequality in this country. We need to recognize the kinds of experience that qualifies people for public office. Frankly, as an educator, activist and someone who has organized in my community for years, I absolutely have the experience. When we perpetuate the biases of what kind of experience is legitimate, we perpetuate the existing biases in our system.
ESSENCE.COM: What are some of the biggest changes you think are needed in your area?
A.O.C: I think gentrification is a huge issue, especially in New York City, and especially in the Bronx and Queens. We are one of the last working class districts left in the city. This is not just about changing who lives here, but making life better for those who live here. The rising cost of housing and rent is a huge issue, as well as immigration. My district is 50 percent immigrant and we have to have stronger movements to champion the dignity of our immigrant brothers and sisters because as we know injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Wages are also extremely important. We’ve had wages flatline for 30 years, and because of that New Yorkers have not been able to keep up with the basic costs of housing.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you think about Trump’s recent comments on how Puerto Rico was already in disarray before Hurricane Maria, and his disaster relief efforts?
A.O.C: It is clear that the relief efforts have been a disaster. 3,000 Americans died in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and a lot of it was the lack of a well-executed recovery method. Some estimates have the death count much higher. To cast the hurricane in any good light is outrageous. A lot of these issues and this presidency are part of deeper systemic issues. These things are going to keep happening until we address the injustices in this country. Trump did not invent racism, he benefitted from it. He did not invent the colonial status of Puerto Rico in the U.S. These systems that have been in place have created the conditions and the issues that we’re facing now.
ESSENCE.COM: What makes you the better candidate?
A.O.C: I think that one of the things we do very well, is that we are a grassroots campaign. We are not financed by special interests, and because of that we have taken bold stances that no one has taken. We’ve taking on abolish ICE, talking about this history of our criminal justice system, legalizing marijuana and ending cash bail. No one else out there is doing that. I’m exciting to be championing those issues and making them the forefront of this race.
ESSENCE.COM: How do you feel about people saying women of color are now the biggest political forces this election season?
A.C.O: They are absolutely right. Black women have the backbone of the Democratic Party, and women of color overall. It’s not enough for us to just hold the party up, it’s time for us to be the face of the Democratic Party. What women of color are able to do is to present an intersectional argument that’s very unifying of people of all backgrounds.
ESSENCE.COM: Why is it important for people to get out and vote, especially those who don’t believe in voting?
A.C.O: So much cynicism has taken over, and frankly it’s understandably. I think what we showed in our primary win in June is that when people vote, we expanded the electorate 68 percent. When the people who don’t normally vote, choose to vote, it’s one of the most impactful things that can happen in politics.
To learn more about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez visit her site.