Arrival of new congresswoman becomes a moment in Washington

Arrival of new congresswoman becomes a moment in Washington

She has been a freshman member for Congress for under a week, yet already has more Twitter followers than the Speaker and minority leader of the US House of Representatives combined. 

A resurfaced video of her dancing as a college student that appeared to be a smear instead backfired, becoming an internet sensation. A response video of her grooving to the 1970 Motown classic “War” in the halls of Congress garnered a whopping 20m views. “Wait till they find out congresswomen dance too!” she teased. 

Washington is deep in the throes of an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez moment — the only way to aptly describe the mania greeting the arrival in Congress of the 29-year-old democratic socialist, better known as “AOC”. It’s a sign of the influence Ms Ocasio-Cortez is likely to have over the Democratic party, even as she riles critics from both sides. 

Since she was sworn in on Thursday last week, the New York congresswoman has been featured on the primetime television news programme 60 Minutes and seen her proposal to impose a 60-70 per cent tax on incomes over $10m grace the front page of the New York Daily News. 

On the right, Ms Ocasio-Cortez has received equal attention, receiving significant air time on the Fox News Channel and becoming a lightning rod for some conservatives who have taken aim at her appearance, youth and questions about her credibility and background — such as the fact she spent her childhood years not in New York City’s northernmost borough of the Bronx, but in a middle-class suburb of neighbouring Westchester county.

Republican critics have mocked her for suggesting it was difficult to find affordable housing in Washington, DC, and claimed — in the case of at least one reporter from the conservative Washington Examiner — that were she indeed struggling financially, she would not be able to afford the clothes that she wears; an argument the writer tried to bolster by posting a picture of Ms Ocasio-Cortez from behind. 

The congresswoman has shot back at each criticism, with her own shade-casting one-liners. During her 60 Minutes interview, Ms Ocasio-Cortez took the host, Anderson Cooper, to the modest single-family Westchester home that she grew up in and has noted that her mother “scrubbed toilets” so they could afford it. The comments about her clothes she has derided as misogynist, saying that whether she had come to Congress “wearing a sack” or “her best sale-rack clothes”, critics would be laughing and taking a picture of her “backside” regardless. 

On 60 Minutes Ms Ocasio-Cortez noted that her older, white male colleagues in Congress did not seem to be getting the same attention. “Would you be taking a creep shot of Steny Hoyer’s behind and sharing it around?” she asked referring to the 79-year-old Democratic House majority leader. 

Michael Oliva, a New York campaign consultant who helped to prepare Ms Ocasio-Cortez for her Democratic primary debate, said she had mastered the art of getting her points across clearly and concisely, giving her influence she might not necessarily have as a freshman congresswoman. “I think that’s the most important tool she has,” Mr Oliva said. 

Amanda Litman, co-founder of the advocacy group Run for Something and Hillary Clinton’s former email director, noted that Ms Ocasio-Cortez had managed to spark a serious conversation within the Democratic party about significantly raising the marginal tax rate on the ultra-wealthy. 

All that was helping the Democratic party reach a new group of people, Ms Litman said. “It’s people who might not even watch 60 Minutes or MSNBC, but will see the GIFs over and over again . . . The videos and the Instagrams are all in service of building an audience, so when you have something meaningful to say they trust you and they are willing to hear it,” she said.

A resurfaced video of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing as a college student in Boston that appeared to be a smear instead backfired, becoming an internet sensation © Reuters

Born in the Bronx to parents of Puerto Rican descent, Ms Ocasio-Cortez grew up in the Bronx and Westchester, before attending Boston University.

Laurent Bouton, a professor who taught the future congresswoman in public economies — a class, which covered public policies, including taxation and healthcare — recalled Ms Ocasio-Cortez receiving one of the class’s top grades. Another professor, Marc Rysman, who taught Ms Ocasio-Cortez in antitrust economics, recalls her being a “very smart and capable” A-student. 

After college, the future representative bounced around different jobs in New York, helping her family to make ends meet after her father died. When she began her 2018 campaign for Congress, she was still working as a bartender. 

Jake DeGroot, a resident of Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s district who helped pioneer the digital voter canvassing technology used in the candidate’s 2018 primary upset, says Ms Ocasio-Cortez “came out of nowhere. No one really knew who she was.” But she had been able to reach new voters by sharing a progressive platform that many people in New York’s 14th congressional district — which covers the eastern part of the Bronx and northern Queens — supported, including Medicare for all, a federal jobs guarantee, which would guarantee all Americans who want one a job, along with a liveable wage, and abolishing the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Mr DeGroot said Ms Ocasio-Cortez had been able to connect with supporters because of her authenticity. “You can tell she believes what she’s saying . . . It doesn’t seem like test tube talking points.” 

Saikat Chakrabarti, Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s chief-of-staff and a co-founder of the advocacy group that propelled her candidacy, said the group, Brand New Congress, had a “holy crap” moment from its first meeting with Ms Ocasio-Cortez. “I think a lot of what she tries to do is be totally radically honest . . . She is a one-of-a-kind communicator.” 

Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s influence is already being felt in the 2020 presidential campaign where several top Democratic contenders, such as Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren, were already trying to parrot her by shooting their own confessional-style Instagram live videos in their kitchens. 

However, not everyone on the left has been quick to welcome Ms Ocasio-Cortez into the cultural zeitgeist, bristling about her involvement in a climate group-led takeover of Nancy Pelosi’s office ahead of the new congress, and break with the rest of her party’s caucus over a rules bill last week. 

One Democratic strategist, who did not want to be seen criticising Ms Ocasio-Cortez publicly, said he believed that she had been too quick to shoot arrows at the Democratic leadership, including Ms Pelosi, despite the fact that the House speaker had already been a proponent for doing more on climate change — one of Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s key issues. The strategist added: “If she expects a committee to accept the legislation she demands to be passed without reworking it as members prefer, well, she has a lot to learn about how a diverse, complicated institution functions.” 

On Monday Whoopi Goldberg, the actress and liberal talk show host, chastised Ms Ocasio-Cortez for “pooping on people” who had been in the game for longer than she had and done more to advance the ideals of the Democratic party. “I would encourage you to sit still for a minute and learn the job,” Ms Goldberg told the audience of her TV show The View

Supporters of Ms Ocasio-Cortez deflect the criticism. “We’ve built these big machines in this town that don’t like to see change happen quickly, which I think is a big problem,” said Chuck Rocha, who served as an adviser to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, which Ms Ocasio-Cortez also worked on. “There are staunch Democrats in DC who are very good friends with the guy (Joe Crowley) she beat in the primary. And it’s going to take them awhile to get over it,” he said.

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