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March 21, 2019

Ocasio-Cortez’s opportunity, and one big risk: Will she build bridges to black Democrats or burn them?

January 11, 2019
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y, on the House floor at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

The jury is still out on whether Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be a rising or a shooting star in the political firmament.

New York has a tradition of producing members of the House who are meteors. Some flame out by flying too close to the sun. On this list are Vito Marcantonio, Adam Clayton Powell, Bella Abzug and Anthony Weiner.

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Other House member have risen to prominence. On this list are Mayors Fiorello LaGuardia, John Lindsay and Ed Koch as well as Gov. Hugh Carey and Sen. Chuck Schumer.

What distinguishes the lists? The rising stars built bridges to larger constituencies, while the shooting stars got diverted either by needless political feuds or personal scandal.

No one should doubt Ocasio-Cortez’s prodigious political skills. The fruit of those skills is worth cataloging.

First, she caught powerful incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley flat-footed in last year’s primary. Ocasio-Cortez split the Hispanic vote with Crowley centered in the Bronx, while sweeping the younger white progressive voters in Queens from Astoria and Woodside. The results proved her campaign proficient as she handily beat Crowley 15,877 to 11,761 votes.

Second, Ocasio-Cortez then took the publicity opportunity emerging from her stunning upset and transformed that media glow into a massive political following via Instagram and Twitter. Her ability to connect with young people is an undeniable political plus.

Third, she proved herself a fighter against critics as diverse as Fox News, Donald Trump Jr., Lindsay Graham and even Claire McCaskill. Ocasio-Cortez’s ability to absorb punches from these naysayers and punch back only to emerge stronger is a valuable political talent.

Fourth, she combines a shrewd knack for issue selection with a sure sense of timing. How else can one explain her championing a Green New Deal issue just as public attention got refocused upon the need to address climate change, as well as her endorsement of Pelosi for speaker one day before the opposition to Pelosi cracked. Chalk it up to finely tuned political instincts.

Meanwhile, there has been another side to Ocasio-Cortez’s rise, which raises concerns about her ultimate success. First, after her astute move to support Ayanna Pressley in her primary — Pressley become the first African-American member of the House from Massachusetts — Ocasio-Cortez jumped in to oppose Lacy Clay in Missouri. Clay, whose family has been a linchpin of African-American empowerment in St. Louis, won big, defeating the candidate endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez by a large margin in a high-turnout primary.

Then, after bemoaning Barbara Lee’s loss to Hakeem Jeffries in the House caucus chair’s race, as a defeat blocking the ascension of an African-American woman to leadership, Ocasio-Cortez turned right around and helped elect first-timer Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a white male, over Terri Sewell, a more experienced and quite accomplished female African-American member of the House from Alabama.

Finally, a Politico story hit alleging that Ocasio-Cortez would take the lead in fomenting a primary challenge against Jeffries in 2020. Jeffries represents a Brooklyn-Queens district and is seen as New York’s best chance of one day electing a speaker of the House. In fairness to Ocasio-Cortez she has denied the validity of this Politico story.

Nevertheless, these three moves have raised the eyebrows of the 55-member-strong Congressional Black Caucus. Behind each of Ocasio-Cortez’s moves, many in the CBC seem to feel the hidden hand of the Justice Democrats: an active, organized and effective PAC of progressive advocates with roots in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign.

The Justice Democrats should expect the CBC to fight back against any attempts to block the rise of their members’ political aspirations. Consequently, there are strong indications that the CBC is taking note not just of what Ocasio-Cortez has been doing, but the actions of other emerging progressive members of the House Democrats like Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ro Khanna of California, who are also allied with the Justice Democrats.

A cold war between the Democrats’ progressive wing and the African-American community would be both inimical to the ability of pure progressives to win statewide primaries and harmful to the unity Democrats need to win general elections.

Plus there is the basic political question: From the Democrats’ perspective, is the low-percentage play of trying to defeat Jeffries in a Democratic primary, given his record and stature, really worth sapping the energy that could be directed towards to winning Republican seats held here in New York by Lee Zeldin, Peter King and John Katko? In each of those three races last year, promising progressive Democratic candidates sharply lowered the incumbent Republican’s victory margin, even as they lost.

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Underlying all of this lies a bitter political history. To New York’s African-American political leaders, there is a disturbing yet recurring pattern. To these leaders it seems that at many turns where there is an opportunity to advance minority empowerment, New York’s white progressives have stepped in to block minority aspirations: Al Blumenthal jumping into the 1973 mayoral race in NYC to black Herman Badillo’s ability to forge a multi-racial coalition; Bella Abzug gladly accepting Badillo and Percy Sutton’s support in her 1976 Senate primary, which she narrowly lost to Moynihan, only to see Abzug turn around to run for mayor in 1977, snuffing out the mayoral aspirations of Sutton and Badillo; the nastiness of the Green-Ferrer mayoral run-off in 2001; and Zephyr Teachout jumping in to oppose Tish James for AG last year.

This pattern is not Ocasio-Cortez’s fault, but she would be wise to factor this enduring residue of discontent among black leaders into her calculations. As one African American legislator told me in confidence, “She does not know the anger she could spark if she goes through with this attack on Hakeem Jeffries. He is the best of us.”

My point here is not to presume that Ocasio-Cortez is prevaricating when she denies wanting to lead a primary challenge against Jeffries. My point is much more basic. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez advances her own exquisite messaging skills, she has rising star written all over her. But when Ocasio-Cortez allows herself to become an instrument of some of her more strident progressive allies, she is playing with a fire that could extinguish her ability to become a bridge builder.

Bruce N. Gyory is a Democratic political consultant and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.

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