From long shot hopeful to rising political star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has had quite a few weeks. But she has her eyes fixed on the future – believing that American politics is poised to “advance 10 years” in the crucial November midterm elections because of the progressive wave she helped usher in.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez beat the Democrat veteran Joe Crowley on 26 June in a stunning primary election victory. And while even she was surprised at the result, she is not shocked it started a “national conversation” about the direction of both the Democrats and Republicans, she told The Independent.
There’s a spark in Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s eyes when says her main goal now is to ensure that her victory and the “whirlwind” of attention “isn’t just a flash in the pan moment”. She believes that President Donald Trump may not make it to 2020 and the next presidential election given the number of issues he faces, including the investigation into Russian election meddling and any possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russia.
“We’ll see if he survives to 2020 politically ... There’s a lot in the air right now,” she said. But the bigger issue is her own party.
She argued the new Democratic party, even 10 years from now, cannot define itself as simply being against Republicans. She said she wants it “to really inspire” people – beginning with November.
“I think right now in 2018 ... We’re in a very special political moment where we can advance 10 years in our politics in this year’s midterms elections,” she said.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez said the country is “a lot closer to that change than we think we want but it’s all about whether we’re going to mobilise” voters in 2018. “[Her primary victory] is still fresh, we just won ... But now we’re starting to refocus on getting back to work and organising in our community,” she said.
The 28-year-old Democratic Socialist remains committed to abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, and backs universal healthcare and free higher education for all.
But, her focus is not only on her race in New York. She is thinking nationwide, a rarity in House politicians which is likely to have boosted her popularity. She said she is just a “toehold” for a progressive wave within the Democratic party, a wave she hopes will make it “more connected to their communities than it has ever been before”.
Her campaign and platform – focusing on taking corporate influence out of politics, student loan forgiveness and climate change action through an economic plan – has helped to blunt some of negative connotation surrounding the term “socialist” in the US.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez said she hopes the new wave of progressives will make the party a “really strong counter” to the Trump administration but not just in adversarial terms. She pointed to her own district, representing the largely minority, immigrant, and working-class boroughs of the Bronx and Queens in New York City, which has been scared by Mr Trump’s hardline policies. Beyond political in-fighting in Washington, communities like Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s need to be protected.
As for her primary win, Ms Ocasio-Cortez explained how her team “expanded the electorate 68 per cent over the last off-year”. That meant they “mobilised people who had never voted before or don’t usually vote in an election like this – and that takes a lot of shoe leather and a lot of on-the-ground physical presence”.
Her newfound fame does not appear to have gone to her head. She is well aware of what it means for her and others running for public office and seemed to have the same passion, if not more, than when The Independent spoke with her before the primary.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez promotes so many other progressive Democratic candidates – like Michigan candidate for governor Abdul El-Sayed, who could become the first Muslim-American to lead a state, Ayanna Pressley running for Congress in Massachusetts in John F Kennedy’s former seat, former nurse Cori Bush vying to unseat Republican incumbent Roy Blunt to represent Missouri, and several others. The aim is not just to build up a caucus of like-minded advocates but to also make sure they get attention.
“People told me I would have to run three times [in primaries] before I would win,” she said, an attitude she previously called “Trumpist defeatism” as part of a troubling trend in politics. She wants to rid people of that notion and encourage socialists like herself to change the government from within.
What has helped that perceived optimism, in part, was her campaign team and volunteers, many of whom are first-generation Americans and first-time voters. “The advantage of running a campaign like that is that all the commonly held wisdom is kind of up for questioning,” she said.
She admitted “some of it is out of naivety” but much of it, she said what her campaign did – like eschewing all television adverts – “was out of an intentional desire for innovation”.
“Both are actually good things. People say ‘well why don’t we try XYZ?,’” she said, adding it allowed them to “question assumptions”. And, that seems to be a theme throughout progressives’ campaigns across the country – challenging what establishment Democrats say can and cannot be done in Washington.
But, Ms Ocasio-Cortez said she is well aware the Democratic party has a lot of work to do. Although she is reluctant to “measure it in years” because “because change happens so quickly” sometimes, her campaign is evidence of that.
There have been questions about whether the establishment wing of the Democrat party will truly come together with the more socialist, progressive wing, but Ms Ocasio-Cortez believes the voters are the most important thing.
“It’s not about what the establishment is going to accept or not accept it’s about [how] voters are going to make happen,” she said.
When asked about possible challengers within her party to Mr Trump’s 2020 presidential run, she simply said: “I’m like everyone else. I’m sitting here, I’m looking at what’s going on.”
She and others are “looking for someone ... To consistently lead on the issues instead of it being this kind of horse race,” she added.
Ms Ocasio-Cortez said it is “exciting” to support all these progressive candidates and “whether people say it’s a movement or ... A fluke, it doesn’t matter, what matters is the work we’re going to do”.