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ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ stands five feet and four—almost five—inches tall. In meetings, she takes notes in a large, canary-yellow Moleskine notebook. She is a lefty, by which I mean a left-handed person, but since she’s running as a Democratic Socialist in New York’s Fourteenth District, the other meaning is also correct. On her wrist she wears a thin hair band, using it to pull her hair back the way another politician might roll up shirtsleeves (after TV appearances, on long car rides, talking to constituents). Her round glasses and elevated, slightly hunched shoulders give her the look of someone vying to win not a congressional seat, having already defeated a 20-year incumbent, but a school science fair—which, by the way, she also won back in high school.
I first meet Ocasio-Cortez at The Daily Show, on Eleventh Avenue, at that cross-section of New York where horses-and-buggies coexist with luxury-car dealerships. When Trevor Noah drops by Ocasio-Cortez’s greenroom, he seems like the starstruck one, trying on various forms of praise. “Congratulations on your journey!” he says, shaking her hand. “Congratulations on being the most hated person on the right!”
A month earlier, the 28-year-old former Bernie Sanders organizer delivered the biggest upset of the 2018 midterms when she unseated Democrat Joe Crowley, rattling the political order with a progressive platform that calls for a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, tuition-free public college, and the abolishment of ICE. Meghan McCain suffered a meltdown on The View, warning against Ocasio-Cortez’s “dangerous” policies. Ron DeSantis, a Florida Republican, described her as “this girl . . . whatever she is.” Ocasio-Cortez has gotten so used to the attacks that she’s developed a bit imitating her critics. “We’re not scared of you,” she likes to say in a nasal, Steve Urkel voice. “We’re laughing at you!”
Noah jokes that the anchors over at Fox News have formed a crush on her. “Jesse Watters was like, ‘She’s a star, and she’s attractive, and she’s tall, and she’s good-looking, and she’s a Socialist, and she’s beautiful. . . .’ I was like, ‘Are you still talking about policy?’ ”
Backstage Ocasio-Cortez reviews notes in her yellow Moleskine and sips from a can of lemon LaCroix. As Noah introduces her, she performs her signature audience greeting—both arms out, with a little jazz-hands wave. Come November, she’s almost certain to become the youngest woman in Congress. By now, Noah has refined his welcome. “Congratulations on being both the dream of half the country and a nightmare of another half!”
Ocasio-Cortez flashes a big, dimpled smile. “I’ll take it.”
ALL THROUGH THE PRIMARIES, pundits have been declaring 2018 the year that women have finally decided to storm the gates of government. Maybe it was #MeToo or the marches—or “the Republican party increasingly looking like a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale,” as Steve Schmidt, the political strategist, tells me—but a record 529 women announced they would run for Congress this year. Another 61 filed to pursue governorships. According to Kirsten Gillibrand, who’s running for reelection in the Senate—and yes, for now that is all she’s running for—“It’s officially a pink wave!”
As of this writing, 273 women have secured nominations. In Massachusetts, Ayanna Pressley is positioned to be the first African American woman to represent the state in Congress. In Texas, Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer, could become the first openly gay, Asian American House member. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams is the first black woman to secure the nomination for governor. In New Jersey, Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot and federal prosecutor, is likely to replace a 23-year House Republican. In Vermont, Democrats nominated Christine Hallquist, who would become the nation’s first transgender governor. In Minnesota, Ilhan Omar is poised to be among the first Muslim women to enter Congress. (Michigan has nominated Rashida Tlaib.)
When I reach Elizabeth Warren, who describes her 2012 Senate run as “a little like jumping off a high dive and hoping there’d be water when I hit,” she recalls her surprise when Katie Porter, a former student, told her she intended to run. “My response was, ‘What?!’ She’s terrific, but an elected official?” Warren says. “It didn’t fit in my brain, and yet it made perfect sense. She’s passionate and determined, and that’s what we need—people who don’t fit the mold, who say, ‘I’m in this.’ ” Porter has now secured the Democratic nomination in California’s deeply red Forty-fifth District.
But of all the impressive women running, it’s Ocasio-Cortez who has emerged as the anti-Trump. He’s from Queens; she was born less than fifteen miles away, in the Bronx. He inherited a family business; she was bartending as she mounted a campaign for office. If Trump is the last gasp of the baby boomers, then Ocasio-Cortez is the first emphatic cry of the millennials. But each arrived as an insurgent, skillfully lassoing populist fervor to topple establishment politicians.
In recent months, Ocasio-Cortez has been traveling the country to elect fellow progressives across Kansas, Missouri, and California. The day after we meet in New York, I’m to follow her to Michigan, where she’s campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed. But we get waylaid by a rainstorm. Every flight out of New York City on this muggy Friday is canceled. In the end, El-Sayed’s campaign charters a jet, and Ocasio-Cortez, after traveling all night, spends the day rallying thousands across the state.
The next time I see her is for breakfast in Dearborn. “Do you want to talk about your schedule?” her bodyman, Daniel Bonthius, asks.
She shakes her head. “I’m cattle,” she says. “Just tell me if there’s something alarming happening.”
For all of the national attention Ocasio-Cortez has received, her staff remains a small collective of like-minded young people. Until just a day ago, Bonthius, a 33-year-old theater grad who signs emails with his preferred pronouns (“he/him”), juggled his duties with a job at a supper club. His wife, Alisha Giampola, also 33, is an unpaid volunteer. Ocasio-Cortez’s press secretary is Corbin Trent, 38, who operated a pair of food trucks in Tennessee, processing his own steers, until he heard the gospel of Bernie and decided to volunteer. Trent answers most questions with a “Yes, ma’am,” doesn’t sleep, seems to subsist entirely off a vape pen, and has a slight limp from falling 45 feet onto pavement under circumstances that he will only describe as “doing stupid shit.”
I wasn’t going to tell you what Ocasio-Cortez is wearing—because it’s 2018—but then I learn a by-product of her becoming a national story is that she’s caught flak for, of all things, repeating outfits. Since a friend got her a Rent the Runway subscription, she’s taken to ordering clothes on the go. Today, that’s a draped Helmut Lang blazer paired with a thrifted black jumpsuit, which she describes as “like pajamas but appropriate for politics.”
The previous night Ocasio-Cortez had dinner with Nick Hayes and Naomi Burton, the young filmmakers behind her viral campaign video featuring the shot of her changing into heels on a subway platform. The couple, who left corporate jobs to found a production company focused on progressive causes, have since become so in demand that they’ve been turning down candidates they deem not radical enough. Ocasio-Cortez has a similar approach to selecting those worthy of her endorsement, who, in addition to El-Sayed, include Pressley in Massachusetts, Cori Bush in Missouri, and James Thompson in Kansas. “There’s a base level of progressivism required,” she says. Another factor is whether a district can be flipped. “And that’s according to our analysis, not . . . ” she pauses. “I really need a new word for establishment! It sounds so tinfoil hat–y.”
“Can we just call it the patriarchy?” Giampola offers.
“But it’s the patriarchy, it’s the oligarchy . . . ” Ocasio-Cortez says.
“It’s all an archy,” Trent says. “It’s the malarkey-archy.”
Ocasio-Cortez cracks up. “The malarkey-archy!”
As if on cue, Trent is distracted by an alert on his phone: “Dukakis warns Democrats that exaggerating OcasioCortez victory is a serious mistake.”
“Dukakis?” Ocasio-Cortez asks. “Michael Dukakis?” She turns back to me. “Here’s what’s so silly,” she says. “No Democrat is exaggerating my victory. Not a single incumbent is like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so happy she’s here. . . .’ ”
It’s true that the digs have come not just from Republicans but from leaders in her own party. Nancy Pelosi dismissed her win as a local phenomenon. Alcee Hastings, a Democratic Congressman from Florida, declared, “Meteors fizz out.” Joe Lieberman warned that Ocasio-Cortez is “likely to hurt Congress, America, and the Democratic Party.” He urged voters to choose Crowley, who, in a fluke of election laws, will still appear on the ballot.
I ask Ocasio-Cortez why establishment politicians are so spooked by her. “I think we’re scared of things we’re not familiar with, that show power,” she says. “If a spaceship landed in your backyard, it’s like, ‘What the fuck is that? Is it going to hurt me?’ ”
When I wonder who, if anyone, would be her dream 2020 candidate, Ocasio-Cortez sighs.
“We don’t have one, TBH,” she says, employing social-media speak for “to be honest.” “There are several that are good enough. But I can’t say names.”
“You can’t say names,” Trent confirms.
“But I think there’s like a dream 2028, or dream 20. . . .”
Here Bonthius interjects, “Well, in 2028, you’ll be 35, so. . . . ”
“Never,” she says. “I want to be Bernie Sanders but never run for president. I want to be the kooky old lady who brings her cats to the floor of Congress and says, ‘Here’s the right thing to do.’ I just want to be chilling with Sonia Sotomayor, wearing gold hoop earrings with a big old FU and a pretty necklace.”
The past few weeks have been hard, she adds. “It’s just not a normal human experience I’m going through. There’s so many cameras on me out of nowhere. Like, I’m not media-trained——”
“We can’t say that anymore,” says Trent, who’s media-training her. “It’s not helpful.”
“OK, sorry, sorry,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “I’m just overwhelmed. I’m a normal person, and people treat me now like I’m this two-dimensional caricature that they project narratives onto. It can be emotionally taxing. Like, what do you do with young brown women who are intelligent and whose faces are symmetrical? You paint them as a narrative.”
MOST NARRATIVES begin with the fact that Ocasio-Cortez is a “self-described Socialist,” which to conservatives is code for visually appealing automaton put forth by the Democratic Socialists of America. In reality, she didn’t attend a DSA meeting until the summer of 2017. “It’s not like I grew up reading Noam Chomsky,” she tells me. “I grew up scrubbing toilets with my mother.”
Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx, and it’s where she lives now, in a one-bedroom apartment with her boyfriend, Riley Roberts, an easygoing redhead who works in web development. Her mother, an Evangelical Christian born in Puerto Rico, cleaned houses. Her father, who was born in the borough and became an architect, died of lung cancer at 48. Ocasio-Cortez was then a sophomore at Boston University, where she read not Karl Marx but Martin Luther King Jr. and Howard Thurman. A classmate she’s still close to is Alexandria Lafci, the cofounder of New Story, a San Francisco start-up experimenting with 3-D-printed homes in the developing world. Then there’s Roberts, whom Ocasio-Cortez met—“in true nerdy fashion,” she says—at a weekly Friday-afternoon conversation hosted by the dean at BU. He later moved from Arizona to be with her. When I first met him backstage at The Daily Show, he was casually citing tax rates in the 1950s.
Ocasio-Cortez graduated with degrees in international relations and economics and could have gone to work for Wall Street. But: “I just physically couldn’t do it. I knew it would kill me on the inside. It’s not like I felt enlightened waiting tables, but I knew I couldn’t do the other thing.” She got a job at Flats Fix, a restaurant in Union Square, and volunteered for Sanders in 2016, later attending rallies for Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock. After the election, at the urging of progressive activists, she decided to run. The national chapter of the DSA did not formally endorse her until June 2018, the month she won her primary. In fact, “there was a strong vocal contingent saying I wasn’t Socialist enough.
“I think it’s real bougie to grow up with a defined political ideology,” she adds. “You need to have college-educated parents for that, with a political lexicon. My mother doesn’t even have an English lexicon! When people say I’m not Socialist enough, I find that very classist. It’s like, ‘What—I didn’t read enough books for you, buddy?’ ”
We’re en route to a rally in Ypsilanti when I ask if positions like abolishing ICE and passing Medicare for All could gain traction in the Midwest, and especially Michigan, which Trump won in 2016. She reminds me that Sanders won the Michigan primary and more than doubled his lead over Hillary Clinton in Kansas. “We’re not out here with a hypothesis,” she says. “I’m not going places where the progressive message lost. I’m going places where the progressive message won and then the Democrats lost.”
Ocasio-Cortez believes that the Democratic Party has spent far too long in a defensive crouch. All the while the electorate has grown more and more demoralized. “Like, are Democrats just the not-racist party? Are they just the not-sexists? I mean, seriously. I’m embarrassed when the brand of the Democratic Party is just LGBT rights. Sure we need to fight for those things. But how far have we gone that we’re the party of women’s rights? I just think they’re not courageous enough. When we don’t fight for people, people don’t fight for us. And that’s why we’re losing. I don’t think we’re losing because we’re not moderate enough.”
It’s moments like this that talking to Ocasio-Cortez can feel like being confronted with the sort of idealism that most of us who are past our 20s can’t muster for our personal lives, let alone our politics. “I wouldn’t have the energy to do this if I was fighting for 10 percent better,” she says. “I couldn’t go up in front of 5,000 people in Kansas and be like, ‘Deport less!’ ”
The rally is at a Methodist church. When we arrive, it’s already so packed that people have spilled into the parking lot. They look a lot like Trump voters: mostly white, working-class Midwesterners ranging in age from seven to 70. Inside there is pink carpeting and no air-conditioning. Most are fanning themselves with leaflets, growing sleepy. But then Ocasio-Cortez speaks, and something happens. She talks about Dr. King and the new New Deal and the “they” who “didn’t see us coming.” And pretty quickly, the audience is with her, calling out to her.
“They said, ‘Alexandria, don’t come to Michigan!’ ”
“They said, ‘The Midwest isn’t ready for Medicare for All!’ ”
“Can you believe it?”
At this point she’s just winging it, but the crowd loves her. (“The less prep she does, the better she is,” Trent tells me. “But she doesn’t believe that.”)
Then she tries something new. “I want you to take your left foot and stomp it once,” she says to a loud thud. She asks them to do the same with their right. “Now, one, two, three!” she says, and the room shakes three times.
“That’s an army!” she says over crashing applause. “That’s an army.”
WHILE OCASIO-CORTEZ roused troops near Detroit, about 300 miles west, in northern Illinois, Lauren Underwood, now 32, was vying to become the first woman of color to represent her mostly white, conservative-leaning district. Though both are running as Democrats in the Fourteenth Districts of their states, Underwood’s platform veers more to the center. A registered nurse and a former senior adviser under President Obama at U.S. Health and Human Services, Underwood wants to improve the ACA, reform ICE, and make college more affordable. She has been backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, and Obama—none of which have endorsed Ocasio-Cortez. If that doesn’t make clear where each fits into the Democratic establishment, here’s how Senators Kamala Harris and Gillibrand responded when I asked about the candidates:
Gillibrand on O-C: “She has a lot of passion, and I think she ran a great campaign.”
Harris on O-C: “I think she’s energetic and a great addition to the party.”
Gillibrand on Underwood: “I think she’s an amazing candidate.”
Harris on Underwood: “I think Lauren is phenomenal.”
Underwood’s campaign office is located in a strip mall in St. Charles, bookended by a boxing gym and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Illinois-14 spans 1,500 square miles and seven counties, a mix of bucolic suburbs and cornfields. Historically, the district tends to swing. In 2016, Bernie won the primary, but Trump won the election. The average household income is $114,000, and unemployment is low.
When I visit in August, it is 99 days to election. Underwood has already defeated six white men in the primary and is now closing in on Randy Hultgren, a four-term Tea Party Republican who opposes abortion and gun control. Polling is close. Lately he’s taken to hosting town halls in her district after not holding any in more than a year. “It just lets me know that what we’re doing is working,” Underwood tells me. “He literally would not show up for us, and now he’s feeling the heat.”
Underwood, a former Girl Scout, speaks in short, deliberate sentences that stick to her talking points. She travels the long distances of her district with a Nike backpack and a backseat filled with snacks. Underwood likes to say she didn’t run because of Trump but that his election changed her life. After working to implement the ACA, she chose not to stick around D.C. as his transition team began dismantling it. Instead, she moved back to Naperville, where she planned to buy a home. But then Hultgren reneged on his promise to support a version of the ACA that protected those with preexisting conditions—Underwood has supraventricular tachycardia, a chronic heart condition—so she moved in with her parents and used the house money to launch a campaign against him. “The average millennial can’t afford to run for Congress,” she says.
Despite her collection of endorsements, Underwood did not start out as an establishment candidate. “I’m a 31-year-old black woman,” she says. “No one invited me. No one was like, ‘Girl, you’re the one.’ ” She doesn’t accept corporate money and has succeeded with grassroots organizing, deploying a robust volunteer network to canvass overlooked communities. “We had farmers tell us that no Democrat has knocked on their door in ten years,” Underwood tells me. “Not just congressional—no Democrat, period.”
Underwood warmly refers to her fellow female candidates as “the girlfriends around the country,” but she is wary of being lumped in with a movement. “I don’t talk about the blue wave here,” she says. “It’s not about that.” She tells me the question of what kind of Democrat she is arose only during the primary. “Like, fill-in-the-blank Democrat—are you a progressive, are you centrist, are you Socialist? I said, ‘I’m just a Democrat!’ And back in the day that used to mean something.”
Underwood rarely brings up race, gender, or social justice. Instead, she emphasizes health care, schools, and jobs, hoping to find an in with moderate Republicans and those who don’t vote in off-year elections. “Even for people who walk around in their maga hats, there’s a defiance,” she says, “and underneath that there’s anger and confusion, that’s not like, ‘I’m so happy, we have a great leader!’ ”
In the evening, Underwood heads to a volunteer recruitment event at a local bar. She is there to energize them, but when an Asian American physician from Naperville thanks her for running in a district that’s 85 percent white, Underwood is having none of it.
“It’s not about diversity,” Underwood says. “I want to be real clear. I’m from Naperville. This is my community. I am not somebody who picked this district out of a map and thought I would set up shop and run for Congress.” Then, perhaps feeling she responded too sharply, she adds, “I’m not really pushing back. I just want to reframe for this group who I am and why I’m in this space.”
A WEEK AFTER MICHIGAN, OcasioCortez and I meet in Los Angeles. In the meantime, she has dashed through San Francisco and Orange County, hosting several 800-person arena fund-raisers starting at $10 a person. The next day, she’s off to New Orleans to headline a Netroots Nation rally, where she’ll be a crowd favorite, speaking after Senators Warren, Harris, and Cory Booker, and telling the audience, “If it looks like I’m tired, I am. If it looks like I have no makeup on, I don’t. If this is the fifth time you’ve seen me in this dress, deal with it.”
The chiding of Ocasio-Cortez by liberals and conservatives has kept coming—for barring press from a town hall; claiming solidarity with cabdrivers while using Uber; and saying nice things about John McCain after his death. On any given day, no one can agree if she is the next Sarah Palin, the next Obama, or a Venezuelan dictator. By Labor Day, Ocasio-Cortez posts an Instagram video, speaking directly into her phone, as she likes to do, in the courtyard of her building: “The thing that’s hard is that you’re supposed to be perfect all the time on every issue and every thing. What people forget is that if we want everyday working-class Americans to run for office and not, these, like, robots, then we have to acknowledge and accept imperfection and growth and humanity in our government.”
It’s worth noting that within weeks of her primary win, Gillibrand, Warren, and Mayor Bill de Blasio all adopted her Abolish ICE platform. (Harris called for reforms but also stated, “We need to probably think about starting from scratch.”) In late July, The New York Times reported that Gillibrand had aligned with four of Ocasio-Cortez’s core positions, and that she was now comfortable being called a populist. Even earlier, Warren, Harris, and Booker had embraced Medicare for All and a federal jobs guarantee, and rejected corporate PAC donations in their reelection campaigns.
“Everybody calls themselves a progressive now,” Ocasio-Cortez says when we meet for a drink at the Ace Hotel in downtown L.A. “But, like, ‘Health care for all’ doesn’t mean anything. Medicare for All is a bill on the floor of Congress.” This reminds me of something she’d said in Michigan about the presidential hopefuls whose names she couldn’t name. “It’s like, you have all these 2020 contenders,” she said. “On paper, they all start adopting these positions, but there are some that are the real deal, and I think others need the brand. And here’s the thing: Do you want to be president or do you want to change the country? They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. But you have to want to put one on the line for the other.”
Democratic senators I speak to deny that there’s a split in the party. Harris says she rejects “these little boxes.” Gillibrand tells me this is “a made-up issue.” But when I ask if Ocasio-Cortez, running as a Democratic Socialist, has initiated a tiptoe to the left, they bristle. “She can call herself whatever she wants,” Gillibrand says, “but the idea of Medicare for All—I ran on it twelve years ago.” Harris laughs before answering. “No,” she says. “The views I hold, I hold regardless of who’s elected.”
Technically, Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t been elected yet. By the time she enters Congress, she will be 29, and 31 by the 2020 presidential election. A recent defector from the Republican Party is Schmidt, the strategist who previously worked on the campaigns of McCain and George W. Bush. When I ask him if a Democratic Socialist agenda can appeal to voters nationwide, Schmidt says no way. “This is not a Socialist country,” he says. “And it never will be.”
Schmidt, like many moderates, believes that a push to the left will alienate the mythic swing voter and guarantee Trump a victory in 2020. “It’s one thing when you’re a 28-year-old congressional candidate. Presidential candidates should know better.”
He adds, “It’s entirely possible the party nominates a Democratic Socialist–ish candidate, but by the time they’re done with the primary, Trump will be as happy as when he got his first golden toilet.”
Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t buy much of the dogma put forth by political consultants, and she’s been pretty good at tuning out the noise. Returning late one evening from D.C., where she met with a few of her future congressional colleagues, she wore her jumbo headphones on the Amtrak train, blasting Cardi B’s “Best Life,” featuring Chance the Rapper. (“I told y’all, I’m livin’ my best life/I told y’all, I said I’m livin’ my best life.”) In August, she and Roberts took a vacation to Acadia National Park in Maine, where she posted a photo of a sunset on Twitter.
In L.A., she explains why she disagrees with the centrists. “People think swing voters are political moderates. They’re not. It’s not that the candidate has to accommodate the swing voter. It’s that if the candidate is compelling enough, the voter will swing to that candidate’s politics. That’s how you get Obama-to-Trump voters.”
Though she rarely addresses Trump directly, Ocasio-Cortez understands the value of performance in today’s politics. “Have you read Infinite Jest?” she asks, referencing the David Foster Wallace novel about entertainment and corporatism run amok. “We are living in the ‘Year of Perdue Chicken.’ We’re looking at our phones until we literally lose consciousness. If our leaders don’t learn to communicate in an engaging manner, our entertainers will become politicians. That’s what we have now.”
Abdul and Bush end up losing. But in Kansas, Thompson wins, as does Tlaib in Michigan and Omar in Minnesota. By September, more political earthquakes hit as Andrew Gillum is nominated for governor in Florida, and Pressley wins in Massachusetts. When I check in with Lauren Underwood again, she’s confident. The previous week, Paul Ryan had swooped into her district to campaign for Hultgren, who admitted he was “nervous.” “You can’t write off any districts, you can’t write off any candidates based on demographics,” Underwood says. “I hope the powers that be recognize that there’s a lot of homegrown talent and people willing to serve and do the work. And they may not fit traditional molds.”
For her part, Ocasio-Cortez has little interest in being the sole spokesperson for the progressive movement. Again and again she tells me that no one person can save us, that we’ve already made that mistake. “I don’t think Obama failed us, because in many ways we failed him,” she says. “We were like, ‘OK, we elected the first black president; go for it, Barry!’ We elected him and then we were nowhere to be found in 2010, in 2012, in 2014 . . . and that’s on us.
“People see our movement as a mania,” she says. “But what are you supposed to answer Trump with, like, ‘Settle down . . . ?’ You hear all this stuff about how we’re moving too left, but what’s the plan? If not this, what? I’m open. Tell me.”