One of the most exciting parts of making our first edition was speaking with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a long-time community organizer, entrepreneur, and candidate for United States Congress. Running for office in New York’s 14th district, Alexandria is the Democratic candidate looking to raise the voices of working class Americans and bring about the change that is actually representative of what its residents want and deserve. Having grown up in a working class family, her parents always reinforced the importance of compassion and hard work. When her father passed away during the financial crisis, these core values provided her with a strength that allowed for her to work her way through college while also supporting her family. With so many cards stacked against her, she could have easily given up. Yet these experiences only drove her further to push for change, as she began to work directly with communities as an organizer and advocate. While all of this may have you sold, one of the most powerful aspects of her running is the fact that she refuses to take corporate money to fund her campaign. As voters, we can know that her words actually hold weight because she is not compromised by the influences of today’s political machines. With a progressive platform that has been backed by PACs such as Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, Alexandria aims to successfully primary her opponent Joseph Crowley and take back representation for her community. She is an inspiration not only for believing in the type of progress we know will make this country great, but because she has overcome many societal barriers in getting here. We were so excited to have Alexandria sit down with us to discuss some of the crucial issues of today’s world, and the ways we can enact policies that will make it a better one.
Cooties: Where did your political passion first come from?
Alexandria: “I think it goes back to when I was a kid. I was born in the Bronx, and my dad had a small business here; he was always super invested in the community. When I was very young we had to move out of the Bronx because public schools in the late 80’s, early 90’s just weren’t an option for kids there. You’re basically set up to fail. So my whole family chipped in, and we had to move out of our community so that I would have a chance when it came to my education. The rest of my family stayed in the Bronx, so seeing the differences in our outcomes and the differences in opportunities that we were afforded woke me up very early to the forces that influence communities’ successes. So I’ve always been very interested and involved in my community. When I was in college I worked for the late Senator Kennedy in Massachusetts, and as much as I loved that experience, I felt like politics at that point was so overcome with money and power that there wasn’t a place for working people who came from working families like me. It seemed like you had to sell out in one way or another in order to be successful in that arena. So I stepped out of it; I wasn’t interested in it. I started doing more direct work with communities: I lived in West Africa for a little while; I worked at the National Hispanic Institute; I started doing early childhood education work. When the financial crisis hit, my father had passed away and my family financially was on the brink of foreclosure. I started waitressing to help my family make ends meat so that we wouldn’t lose our home. All of that brought me back to this idea that we just can’t afford to sit out no matter how bad things get. We just can’t give up on ourselves. Around that time the Bernie Sanders campaign started, and I started getting more involved with [it]. I helped organize the South Bronx, and that was the tipping point for me to get back into that arena again. After the election I hopped in a car with some friends and we started filming conversations with people from across the country. We went to Ohio; we went to Flint, Michigan; we went to Indiana; and ultimately we ended up at Standing Rock with the Water Protectors, meeting people there and talking with them about those issues. When I got back, Brand New Congress gave me a call and told me I was nominated to run for office. That’s basically how this whole thing kicked off and got started.”
Cooties: Was that the defining moment that really pushed you to run?
Alexandria: “Absolutely, yes. As much as I was supportive of grassroots campaigns, it seemed so overwhelming to start one on your own, when you’re virtually unknown, and especially when you’re on the younger side of being a candidate. You still don’t have those “in” votes, even if you have the knowledge and capacity and skill, it’s really just like any other industry. If you’re coming from a working class background, and you don’t have those inroads, and you don’t know those people, it’s decidedly more difficult. But when you do get that opportunity, when that opportunity does arrive, it can make the world of a difference. I knew that I was not going to run for office if it meant that I had to sacrifice my integrity. I wasn’t going to lie for it; I wasn’t going to take big money for it; I wasn’t going to do backroom deals for it. If I was going to run for office I was going to do it as transparently as possible. Which basically to me, seemed impossible until Brand New Congress called and said ‘Hey, if it’s done as a national group of candidates, then we can do it on our terms. And so that call was absolutely the tipping point for me.”
“It’s amazing to me that our entire country of working, middle-class people is almost exclusively being represented by homogenous millionaires and billionaires. Isn’t this supposed to be a democracy? And a representative democracy at that? And the fact that none of these people represent us is outrageous. In New York-14 alone, our district is 70% people of color. Never in American history has a person of color represented this district. It’s outrageous.”
Cooties: This last election got very caught up in identity politics. Yet having a certain demographic doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to represent those interests.
Alexandria: “Exactly, it is such a tricky thing. Just having a brown face represent us is not good enough. We need people with the right background. At the end of the day, if your representative is raking in millions of dollars in special interests, it doesn’t matter who they are, they’re going to be influenced to enact policy against the majority of their constituents.”
Cooties: What do you think about the gentrification that’s going on in the Bronx?
Alexandria: “Just like the gentrification that’s going on in the rest of the boroughs, it’s extremely hard. I’m experiencing it myself; all working people in New York City are feeling the crushing pressure of gentrification. What’s even worse is that the pressure in real estate in New York City is almost entirely artificial in that, if you look at Manhattan, even though almost all the apartments are spoken for, about a half of them are vacant. Real estate in New York City is used as a mechanism to launder money and hide wealth; you have this global 1%, oligarchs from Russia, and China, and the Middle East, and in the United States as well, who buy second, third, fourth apartments in New York City to hide their assets. As a result, you have half of the apartments in Manhattan being empty. If you take a bus through Manhattan, you will be shocked by the amount of empty storefronts that now exist. Because the infrastructure situation has been so horrible in New York, I actually started taking the express bus. Our infrastructure, particularly in the Bronx, is a huge issue [because] we’re not getting the investment that we need from the State. [When] I began taking the bus I started looking. There are entire blocks in midtown Manhattan, prime global real-estate, that almost the entire block is empty with the exception of maybe a small ATM branch on the corner. The people that actually live here are experiencing so much pressure despite the fact that the majority of these apartments are empty. They’re being pushed out to build empty apartments; apartments that will stay vacant. And a lot of this is because again, on a local level, our politicians are being bribed by real estate development companies. My opponent is one of them; his third largest contributor is Tishman Real Estate, which is responsible for building many of the luxury condominiums and highrises in the city. But those people who buy these apartments don’t contribute to the city; they don’t work in the city; they don’t teach our children; they don’t protect us; they don’t put out our fires. Most of the time they are elsewhere, and our businesses can’t thrive on people who live in this city for two months out of the year. It just doesn’t add up. With the Bronx specifically, they’re trying to rezone Jerome Avenue, and this is a huge issue because Jerome Avenue is one of the main avenues in the Bronx, and it’s filled with small businesses. They’re trying to rezone it to pave the way for luxury condominiums; and my district is specific. New York-14 is one of the only districts that is comprised entirely of working class families. We’re one of the last strongholds that the city has left of second and third generation New York families, and no one is out here protecting them because all of our officials have been bought off. We can’t allow this to happen, we just cannot allow this to happen.
Cooties: Having said that, what do you think are the best steps for achieving income equality, as well as gender, sexual, and racial equality?
Alexandria: I think one of the main things, at least when it comes to the city, is that we need to start examining our policy so that we start incentivizing and creating a city where people have the opportunity to own the homes that they actually live in, so that that is something that is possible for a working person in New York City. When it comes to equality in terms of people of color, we need to pay very close attention to criminal justice reform. When it comes to gender equity we need to start looking at things like paid parental leave, both paternity and maternity leave. There’s so many inequities when it comes to things like the wage gap, and the opportunities that women have in their careers; a lot of that is tied to traditional expectations around motherhood. Ultimately feminism is about women choosing the destiny that they want for themselves. If a woman wants to choose to stay at home with her children, that should be a choice that she can pursue. On the flipside, if a woman wants to choose an entirely different life for herself, we need to make that possible as well. Paid paternity leave, maternity leave, and parental leave in general is extremely important in terms of allowing all parents to make the life that makes them happy. That’s ultimately what policy should be about. Given the fact that we thankfully are at a level of technological advancement in the United States, we need to insure that our policies allow people to lead happy and productive lives. Not lives where they need to work 100 hours a week just to feed their children.
Cooties: How do you think we can best strengthen the feminist movement during Trump’s administration?
Alexandria: Well, this is such a tricky question. I think that a lot of the work that you’re doing is extremely important, because policy changes only after our culture changes. Policy is reflective of our cultural beliefs and values. For example, we can’t push for single-payer until we’ve made a cultural movement that has won over hearts and minds. Personally, I think the question is first, how are we challenging and expanding our ideas culturally in terms of gender equality? Then, how do we translate that into policy? For example, if you take things like parental leave, the cultural shift that needs to happen is that we need to change the idea just from the default of ‘women always need to take the burden of responsibility for the home entirely into themselves’ to ‘parents should be able to choose that for themselves.’ A couple should be able to choose how that responsibility is divvied up between the two of them. I think the beautiful thing about feminism is that it allows you to make that default choice if you want. You know, there are plenty of women out there who are fulfilled being mothers, and we need to allow them, and empower them to make that choice and not feel like they should be anything else. [On the other hand], we also need to make it possible for women and men who want to choose a more even distribution, or a different distribution as well. I think public policy should be reflective of expanding our options for our life. But primarily, we can only change policy after our culture has changed; after we’ve challenged those ideas in our greater culture. With gay marriage - that it happened so quickly - it was really one of the fastest and most dramatic movements that went from culture to policy in recent American history. When you compare that, for example, to interracial marriage, it took almost 50 years for the United States to reach a 50% cultural approval rate on whether interracial marriage was acceptable. It was only 1995 that we were able to cross that threshold. We were able to go from gay marriage being a fringe idea in the late 80’s, to hitting that tipping point of having someone like Ellen on television in the late 90’s. That broad acceptance in marriage equality was just so fast! That’s because our policy was influenced by a quick acceptance culturally.