Coming From Inside the House

The Left has raised questions about how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will conduct herself in office. By attending a protest in Nancy Pelosi’s office and coming out strong against Amazon in New York City, she’s off to a strong start.

Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a protest at Rep. Nancy Pelosi's office on Tuesday. Sunrise Movement / Twitter

The question of how socialists should conduct themselves in office is a longstanding debate on the Left; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s bona fides as a qualitatively different type of leftist elected official is a more recent one. It’s far too soon to make any definitive statements about Ocasio-Cortez’s time in office — she doesn’t even officially start for another two months. But given her actions this week, even her skeptics from the Left have to give her credit.

A few days ago, Ocasio-Cortez admitted she would not have enough money to secure an apartment in Washington, D.C., until she started drawing her congressional salary — a powerful statement about the role class plays in who is able to run for office (not to mention the affordable housing crisis in Washington). The median net worth of a member of the House was at least $900,000 in 2015.

More significantly, on Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez spent her first day on the Hill at an illegal demonstration in aspiring Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to push for a serious resolution to global warming.

Rhetorically, Ocasio-Cortez tried to walk a fine line, careful not to criticize Pelosi too directly. “We need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen,” Ocasio-Cortez said of Pelosi, before high-fiving demonstrators. But she also said that addressing climate change “gets kicked from session to session and so what this just needs to do is create a momentum and an energy to make sure that that it becomes a priority for leadership.”

Ocasio-Cortez has drafted a resolution calling for House Democrats to create a new committee that would have the power to draft a “Green New Deal” bill by 2020 — one that would create a public works jobs program and transition the country toward renewable energy. Significantly, the resolution demands that no member of Congress — from either party — who accepts donations from the fossil fuel industry would be permitted to sit on the committee.

While the first part of the bill is easy for almost any Democrat to agree to in theory, the second part, in naming a specific enemy, forces party leadership to pick a side: big donors or victims of climate change?

Regardless of the specific demands, which in this case are necessarily constrained by the rules of the House, Ocasio-Cortez’s willingness to stand with protestors from a little known group inside the head of her own caucus’s office before she is even sworn in indicates that she is prepared not only to buck protocol and take on high-ranking national Democrats, but to use her office as a center of organizing for progressive causes.

Ocasio-Cortez also went up against the New York Democratic establishment on Tuesday by taking an aggressive stance against Amazon’s announced plan to move 25,000 high-paid tech workers into Queens. In this, Ocasio-Cortez joins fellow democratic socialist Lee Carter in questioning the corporate incentives model of economic development.

Virtually every major politician in New York City signed a letter encouraging Amazon to move to the city in 2017. And while a few have backtracked, most, including Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, remain extremely enthusiastic about the deal, while dismissing concerns about a lack of community input.

Directly juxtaposing corporate giveaways with lack of state funding for public projects, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Amazon is a billion-dollar company. The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here.”

In fact, between state and city giveaways, Amazon may get as much as $3 billion in public money. Once sworn in, Ocasio-Cortez will represent working-class neighborhoods directly adjacent to the proposed Long Island City Amazon office.

As with the demand to exclude congress members who take money from fossil fuel companies from making decisions that affect the climate — and as with her campaign — Ocasio-Cortez drew a line directly between the rich and powerful and everyday people. Ocasio-Cortez has consistently framed issues on class terms, pointing out in various instances that the rich are rich because the poor are poor, that average people suffer because of capitalists’ actions. In doing so, she helps to raise class consciousness far more than almost any Democrat aside from Bernie Sanders.

In supporting sit-ins in her own party’s office, she demonstrates an understanding that constant community organizing is necessary along with legislative power. While we can’t know what course Ocasio-Cortez will take once she comes under the full institutional pressures of the Democratic party, the Left should take heart in her early steps — and support her to push further.