The Democratic Party’s most shocking political upset so far this year occurred on June 26, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a 28-year-old member of the Democratic Socialists of America who campaigned for Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016—defeated Rep. Joe Crowley in a congressional primary in Queens and the Bronx. Crowley is no lightweight in Democratic politics: he is presently serving his tenth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, has been the fourth highest-ranking member of the House Democratic caucus, and has been serving as chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party since 2006. But Ocasio-Cortez won 57% of the vote by running decidedly to the left of Crowley—and now, she will be running against Republican Anthony Pappas for the congressional seat Crowley has occupied since 1999.
Pappas, a professor of economics at St. John’s University, is far from a Tea Party wingnut or a Christian Right theocrat—and many of his positions would be deal breakers if he were running as a Republican in Texas, Alabama or Kansas. Pappas has been critical of the Prison Industrial Complex, favors tougher enforcement of anti-trust laws for giant corporations, and is not a climate change denier.
In fact, Pappas has some common ground with Ocasio-Cortez and her political mentor, Sen. Sanders, when it comes to criminal justice reform. Pappas has called for an end to “the overcriminalization of America,” pointing out that the U.S. “has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but only 5% of the world’s population”—and he has called for “humane conditions in prisons.”
In contrast to the Trump administration’s climate change denial, disdain for the environment and love of fossil fuels, Pappas has called for the U.S. to be heavily involved in international climate change agreements—which is definitely not a typical Republican position. And he even sounds like Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren at times when he calls for slowing down corporate mega-mergers with tougher enforcement of antitrust laws.
In other words, no one is going to mistake Pappas for Sen. Ted Cruz anytime soon.
Nonetheless, Pappas’ campaign is a longshot. The economics professor is competing in a district that is overwhelmingly Democratic, and the fact that Queens and Bronx Democrats gave Ocasio-Cortez so decisive a victory over a politician as established as Crowley not only shows how effective a campaigner she can be—it shows that there is a genuine appetite for unapologetic liberal/progressive candidates among NYC’s Democratic voters.
Ocasio-Cortez, like Sanders, does not run away from liberal and progressive ideas; she wholeheartedly embraces them. And when she calls herself a democratic socialist, it doesn’t mean that she is advocating a Marxist-Leninist or Maoist system of government—but it does mean that she rejects corporatist neoliberalism and favors, for the Democratic Party, an aggressive return to the policies of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
In fact, Sanders has already been making use of Ocasio-Cortez’ campaigning skills. Together, the two of them recently toured the Midwest, where they campaigned for Democratic congressional candidate James Thompson in Wichita, Kansas. Thompson, a civil rights lawyer, is running against incumbent Republican Rep. Ron Estes for his seat in the House.
In the Midwest, Ocasio-Cortez has also campaigned for Cori Bush—
a nurse and activist who is challenging incumbent Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay in a Democratic congressional primary—and Abdul El-Sayed, who is running for governor of Michigan in a Democratic primary. Thompson, Bush and El-Sayed, like Ocasio-Cortez, have all been running Sanders-influenced campaigns. And many of their issues—including single-payer healthcare and a national minimum wage of $15 per hour—are also things Sanders campaigned on in 2016.
The congressional battle between Thompson and Estes in Kansas is totally different from the Ocasio-Cortez/Pappas competition in New York City. Thompson is taking on a far-right Republican wingnut in one of the most heavily Republican states in the Midwest, whereas Ocasio-Cortez is running against a northeastern Rockefeller Republican—which is a dying breed in the GOP of 2018.
When Ocasio-Cortez and Pappas appear on the ballot in November, voters in Queens and the Bronx will be deciding between a Rockefeller Republican and a Sanders-influenced social democrat—and if Ocasio-Cortez defeats Pappas and goes to the House of Representatives next year, it will be a victory for the movement that Sanders spearheaded in 2016.
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