Visible Women

How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the new poster girl of American politics

On 6 November, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest ever woman to be elected to the US House of Representatives. Jean Hannah Edelstein explains from New York why she’s standing out from the crowd

The shoes were from & Other Stories. They were brown, or once had been, with zips up the front. Probably quite fashion-forward at one point, but by the time Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted two photos of her pair on Twitter in late June, they were trashed. “Here’s my first pair of campaign shoes,” she wrote. “I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles.”

They were not necessarily the shoes you’d expect an important politician to show off. But Ocasio-Cortez is a different kind of politician. And as of this week, she’s the youngest American woman ever elected to Congress: she’ll be 29 when she takes office next year. She hasn’t just taken up a political position. She’s become the poster girl for a new wave of female politicians: a record number of whom were elected across America in last week’s midterms. And she won with a left-wing agenda that many thought would never be popular in the United States.

Ocasio-Cortez posted the photo of her shoes after she won the Democratic primary to represent New York’s 14th Congressional District in the House of Representatives. She was responding to reductive and biased claims from the media that her victory could be chalked up to ‘demographics’ – the implication being that the district had voted for Ocasio-Cortez, a young woman of colour, rather than the long-standing incumbent, Joe Crowley, a white man, because the voters were primarily young people of colour themselves.

Ocasio-Cortez’s point: she’d put in the work to win over her diverse constituents to her democratic socialist vision. Yes, she’s a self-declared socialist: a political identity that doesn’t always go down well in America, even among people who profess to lean left.

A little political context may be helpful in understanding why Ocasio-Cortez’s success is so significant. The tenets of the Democratic party veer towards a sort of benevolent capitalism, one that generally falls to the right of the UK Labour Party.

By contrast, the Democratic Socialists of America – an organisation, not a political party, but one that Ocasio-Cortez aligns herself with – advocates for the abolishment of capitalism. This, to many Democrats, especially those who’ve been in office for a long time, is extreme. 

Ocasio-Cortez on the campaign trail in July 2018 

Although Ocasio-Cortez officially won her place in Congress on 6 November, her victory was assured by her success in the Democratic primary election, because she was running in a district that has had a Democrat as its representative since 1993 – four years after Ocasio-Cortez was born. 

In Britain, it would be called a safe seat, but Ocasio-Cortez was not expected to win it: Joe Crowley, her opponent, had been in Congress since the late Nineties, hadn’t been challenged by another Democrat since 2004, and had run for office and won 10 times. Yes, 10. 

You can almost understand why he didn’t think he had anything to fear when he set up his 2018 campaign. Not until Ocasio-Cortez, then aged 28, decided it was time to challenge the status quo. Such was Crowley’s complacency he mostly ignored his rival, at one point even sending a surrogate to a debate.

This was a mistake: in a working-class, racially diverse part of New York City under the Trump administration, angry and chafing, something other than complacency was required. Ocasio-Cortez delivered it.

Ocasio-Cortez embraces a woman on the Texas-Mexico border, June 2018, where she was protesting the Trump administration’s family separation policy 

The district covers the east part of the Bronx and some of the north and central parts of Queens, the less-glamorous parts of New York City, but also the place where working- and middle-class families, immigrants, and people of colour have settled and thrived for many generations.

But it’s harder these days. To some extent, these groups of people still settle and thrive here. But gentrification, the attendant rising property prices, and flourishing economic inequality have made the achievement of the American Dream – employment, housing, a secure future for their families – more difficult to reach than ever. 

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For these constituents, many of the key pillars of Ocasio-Cortez’s platform – universal healthcare, living wages, prison and justice reform, immigration reform, public funding for university education – resonate. They represent dramatic progress from the status quo offered by Crowley and other established Democrats, having more in common with the platform that Bernie Sanders ran for president on in 2016. It’s not a coincidence that Ocasio-Cortez worked as a local organiser for Sanders’ campaign.

But it’s also important to acknowledge that Ocasio-Cortez is a different kind of politician to Sanders, from a different generation and a different background. She is a champion that her constituents can relate to: not because of ‘demographics’, but because of real shared life experiences. 

Ocasio-Cortez (far left) with fellow newly-elected Democratic representatives Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Abby Finkenauer and Sharice Davids

In a political climate where much sneering against ‘the liberal elite’ emits from the actual Republican elite, Ocasio-Cortez’s Bronx roots came under scrutiny after her success in the primary election. Was she really a local girl made good, or were her claims to deep local connections an affectation?

The truth is mixed: Ocasio-Cortez was indeed born in the Bronx, to a father who was also born in New York and a mother who was born in Puerto Rico. When she was young, the family moved about 30 miles north to Yorktown Heights, where her parents enrolled her in better state schools than the ones in their Bronx neighbourhood.

When one conservative pundit claimed this was evidence that she was overplaying her modest upbringing, Ocasio-Cortez shot back on Twitter: “My mom scrubbed toilets so I could live here,” she wrote, while a campaign spokesperson pointed out that her experience living between the two districts – her extended family remained in the Bronx, and she moved back there after finishing university – gave her firsthand experience of how access to privilege, such as good public schools, is determined by access to (relative) wealth. 

An outstanding science student in high school – she was second-place winner in a global science fair sponsored by Intel – Ocasio-Cortez switched to studying economics and international relations halfway through her time at Boston University. She also lost her father to lung cancer when he was only 48. In the midst of the financial crisis, she and her mother were among thousands of American families who found themselves battling against banks’ efforts to foreclose their homes.

Graduating university into a still-soft economy in 2011, Ocasio-Cortez followed the path of many millennial graduates trying to find their way in New York City. She found work in the service industry, waiting tables and bartending – indeed, she started her campaign from behind a bar. 

In an interview with food magazine Bon Appetit, she said: “For me it was especially potent that I was working in the food service industry while running for office because I wasn’t reminiscing on some summer job I had when I was a teenager. This was the life I was living.” 

Ocasio-Cortez on the campaign trail

You need only look at a photograph of Ocasio-Cortez in the immediate aftermath of her primary victory, hand clasped over her mouth in shock, to know that even she was not expecting to defeat Crowley. But she did, with 57.5% of the vote. And then she got down to business.

With her victory in the final election against an obscure Republican university professor pretty much guaranteed, she dedicated her time not just to keeping her own profile high, but to supporting other Democratic candidates. Through the media and live appearances, she shared her vision for the kind of progressive change that’s going to come when she and the new generation of congressmen and women move to Washington, which includes 99 other women, among them the first Muslim, Korean-American, and indigenous women to be elected.

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Many find her a breath of fresh air. But initial reaction to her success from established party figures was not entirely warm. Nancy Pelosi, the most senior Democrat in the House of Representatives and a long-time close colleague of Crowley, was quick to reassure Democrats that Ocasio-Cortez did not represent a total transformation of the party.

Other Democrats advised her not to campaign on behalf of candidates in non-coastal states for fear she’d be perceived as too progressive for their local style of democracy. And some pundits questioned whether her platform would hold up under the stress tests of Washington, suggesting, for example, that her support for the abolition of Trump-era restrictions on and persecution of immigrants could be in conflict with her plans for policies that redistribute wealth. Some old-school Democrats see appealing to Republican voters through centrist policies as the key to success; Ocasio-Cortez just doesn’t. Time will reveal how they will learn to compromise. 

Since Ocasio-Cortez came to the fore last summer, she’s also had to endure the kinds of tedious critiques that are so often leveraged at successful young women. Google her name and the second suggested search is ‘Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez husband’ (she doesn’t have one).

Across the political spectrum, people have analysed her preferred shade of red lipstick, to the frequency with which she repeats outfits, to the value of a suit she was photographed in for Interview magazine – an outfit selected by a stylist for the shoot and judged pretty fancy for a socialist by many a Twitter wag.

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Despite these challenges, Ocasio-Cortez has remained calm, focused and powerful. Her performance on 6 November met expectations: she won her district with 78% of the vote. But the rest of the party was not so lucky: while the Democrats did succeed in taking over the majority of the House of Representatives, several other highly-touted Democrats, including three history-making black candidates, did not. Ocasio-Cortez was not disheartened – or, at least, she didn’t show it.

“What I hope we learn, and what I hope we adopt moving forward,” she told The Intercept on election night, “is to not be afraid of our values – to not be afraid of differentiating ourselves from the Republican Party, and really committing and doubling down to our vision.”

Celebration had to be brief. By the day after the election, Donald Trump had already started an attempt to plunge the country into a constitutional crisis before Ocasio-Cortez and her cohort take office in January. But once she does? If she can keep up the momentum, it seems clear that change is going to come.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign aims to raise the profiles of women in politics – and inspire future generations to follow their lead. See more Visible Women stories here

Images: Getty Images