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Wednesday, August 30, 2023

A.O.C. at 33: ‘Evolving,’ ‘Learning,’ But Not Ready to Call Herself an Insider - The New York Times

The Evolution of A.O.C.

"The congresswoman from New York says she’s different from when she first took office. But she’s not ready to call herself an insider.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez standing in the U.S. Capitol in front of a microphone, with lights shining on her, waiting to do a live TV interview.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez preparing to do a live TV interview after this year’s State of the Union address.T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is used to being a lightning rod. Since her election in 2018, she has been celebrated and vilified by both parties, sometimes simultaneously. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, though, is no longer the freshman outsider. Now in her third term, with a high-ranking position on a powerful House committee, she has learned to maneuver in Congress, making allies on the left and working with her political adversaries. She says that might make the progressive wing of her party “suspicious,” but she’s comfortable having more influence on the inside.

We recently sat down to talk about this stage of her political career, as well as immigration, social media and how she feels about finding common ground with her right-wing colleagues. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Listen to the Audio Version of This Interview

The Evolution of A.O.C.

So, how would you describe A.O.C. at 33?

Wow, what a question. I think that perhaps some of the things that would describe me in this moment might be: evolving, learning, challenging myself, but also rooted and grounded in who I am and why I’m here.

For a lot of people, 33 is a time when they are already established in a career and making plans about the future. You use these words — evolving, but rooted — and it kind of captures that tension. So I want to explore that with you. You are in your third term now. Your job’s not new. A lot has changed since you were first elected in 2018. What is the thing that has changed the most about you since you first took office?

I think I have a sense of steadiness and confidence in what I’m doing. My election was characterized by so much upheaval, both nationally and personally. We were in a time of great political upheaval when President Trump was elected. The Democratic Party at that time was kind of lost in many ways. We were in transition between an older party and a newer one, in terms of where we were coming from ideologically.

Then also myself. I was waitressing up until — I don’t know, March? And I won my primary just a few short months later. And even coming into Washington, not just figuring out how I orient myself politically, coming from a background of direct action and activism, but then also adding on the entire profession of legislating at a federal level.

And then also the class dynamics, the gender dynamics that come from being a poor or working-class person going into an environment of extraordinary privilege. There were years of learning ahead of me.

When you say things have changed for you personally —

When I first came into office, I was unproven in a way that I think many other people may not be, right? There are a lot of people that are elected with a history of legislating. And I very much felt that I had to prove two things at the same time that were often at odds with one another.

I had to prove to the people that elected me that I am committed and very well grounded in all of the values and issues and fights — from taking on a party establishment that can be very calcified to continuing to fight for landmark progressive issues like Medicare for all, and comprehensive changes to our immigration system or criminal justice reform.

And the second was that I had to prove to this world of Washington that I was serious and skilled, and that I wasn’t just here to make a headline, but that I was here to engage in this process in a skilled and sophisticated way. That I did my homework, so to speak.

“I had to prove to this world of Washington that I was serious,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez says of her early days in Congress. Shuran Huang for The New York Times

You built your brand as this political outsider, but now you’re the vice ranking member on the powerful House Oversight Committee, the No. 2 spot for Democrats on that committee. So clearly you have proved at some point that you do mean business. Do you see yourself as more of an insider now?

I don’t think so. I mean, on a certain level, once you are engaged as a legislator, you are on the inside. That is a function of the role. And that grants myself or anyone else in a similar position the tools to be able to translate this outside energy into internal change.

I’m curious if you understood in 2018, when you were first elected, that holding power and having relationships was going to be vital to how you moved the party?

When I first came in, I came into an environment that I sensed was never going to give me a chance, and into a party that was extremely hostile to my presence, extremely hostile to my existence. That’s one of the reasons I dug so powerfully into my work.

I think a lot of women and people of color — and especially women of color — have heard time and time again, “You have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” And I felt like I had to work way, way harder to not even get half as far, you know? I knew that relationships and expertise, of course, were important, but I also felt that door was closed to me at that moment. And so the best thing that I could do is just work as hard as I possibly could to get to a point where I had earned the benefit of the doubt.

One of my first hearings ever was questioning Michael Cohen, and I remember the commentary at that time was, “She’s just going to put on a show.” And I knew that I was capable of more than that. I think anyone who is used to being underestimated can relate to that experience.

I want to read you two recent headlines from New York magazine. They were written within a week of each other. The first is “A.O.C. Is Just a Regular Old Democrat Now,” and that accuses you of compromising on your progressive ideals as you work within the party system. And then came the rebuttal, which was “The ‘A.O.C. Left’ Has Achieved Plenty,” which argued that your wing has pushed the party leftward. Why do you think your role is still being parsed this way by Democrats and by those on the left?

Part of it is because we haven’t really had a political presence like this in the United States before. I think very often you had this consummate insider that was bankrolled by corporate money and advancing this, frankly, very neoliberal agenda. And those were the people that we were used to seeing in power. And so I think over time there’s been an inherent association between power, ascent and quote-unquote selling out.

I often say to my grass-roots companions that the left, for a very long time, was not used to having power in the United States. And so when we encounter power, we’re so bewildered by it —

Suspicious of it?

Suspicious of it — that there’s no way in this country you can accrue any kind of power without there being some Faustian compromise.

I want to ask you about an unlikely political marriage. In the spring, you teamed up with Republican Matt Gaetz of Florida, an extremely controversial right-wing member of Congress, to ban fellow Congress people from trading stocks. Are you two friends now?

I think that is a generous characterization. I’d also like to add that the Republican lead on that legislation is Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, a moderate Republican. And you know, I think many of us worked very hard on this legislation, because it speaks to a secondary or maybe a third dimensional cleave in both parties.

In order to get elected to the House, it requires just an absolutely ridiculous sum of money and access to capital that most people do not have. And this issue of banning members of Congress from trading an individual stock, I think, speaks to the class realities. Those members who are resistant to it, as well as members who are supportive of it, speaks to a very clear class difference in the U.S. Congress and is actually an area of common interest between Republicans and Democrats that come from a similar place on that issue.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez at a rally for fellow Democratic candidates in 2022. Eric Gay/Associated Press

I guess what I’m asking is if you are willing, then, to work with your ideological enemies if it’s for what you consider to be the greater good?

Of course. And I think the oversight committee has opened many windows to that. There are elements of the libertarian right, or the Freedom Caucus, that oppose the level of defense contracting in the military budget. Civil rights and privacy violations are another area where I have discovered some elements of common interest. They’re very few and far between, but where we identify them, I think it’s important to burrow in on them and see what is possible.

I want to ask you about the way that you politically engage, because you’ve defined a certain style. You’re extremely effective at using social media. We are now, though, in a different moment than we were when you first ran. There’s a real backlash to social media. Has your thinking on your use of it shifted?

Well, I do think that our media environment, including our social media environment, has changed dramatically over the last five years. Elon Musk taking over Twitter has dramatically changed the media environment. You’ve had this mass exodus from the platform. It’s become much more difficult for me, myself, to use. And that I think is reflected in my presence on some of these platforms.

What would make you get off X, formerly known as Twitter?

You know, this is a conversation that I’ve had. If one monitors my use of that platform, it has fallen precipitously. I think what would constitute a formal break is something that we actively discuss — whether it would require an event or if it’s just something that may one day happen.

You have 13 million followers there, so it’s a huge audience. It’s your largest audience on social media.

Absolutely. And that’s why it’s not something to be taken lightly.

I guess what I’m curious about is, for someone like you who has integrated the use of social media so much into the way that you engage with people, and especially young people — how you see your participation in a platform like Twitter or X, and how Elon Musk has been using it. It seems antithetical to what you have said you fundamentally believe in. Your being on the platform, it could be argued, somehow supports his platform.

It’s a legitimate point. It’s something that I have absolutely struggled with. I’ve certainly pulled back on my activity on the platform due to those concerns, and I do wrestle with that.

Something that I’ve been focusing on a lot more is building audiences in alternative places. But, even now, when there are extraordinary events that happen, like natural disasters in the state of New York, I do think it’s important to be able to have access to a messaging platform that people may trust. But it’s uncomfortable. We’ve seen the media take different approaches to this — the differences between NPR or The Washington Post or whatever it may be, contending with these same questions.

You recently took a trip to Latin America with other progressive Latino colleagues. You went to Chile, Brazil and Colombia, all countries led by recently elected leftist leaders. And you spoke about how important it is to have a growing number of Latinos now in Congress who are interested in the region. But there was something else you said that struck me, and it made me wonder about this new era for you. You said, “We are here because fascist movements are global, and as a result, progressive movements also have to be global if we’re going to rise to the challenges of these times.” Do you see that as the natural progression of your work? Moving your ideas internationally, even if they might conflict with the foreign policy of the leader of your own party?

I wouldn’t necessarily characterize my foreign policy goals as oppositional to the president’s or to the United States. I am a member of Congress. I have sworn an oath to this country, and I take that oath very seriously. But I do believe that those progressive foreign policy goals do represent a departure from the inertia of our Cold War past.

Let’s say you were from a very different part of the political spectrum than I am, and you believe that we have to take this very strong, realpolitik approach, that we must be countering China in the most aggressive terms possible. Let’s say you believe all of those things. I still think that even if you were motivated by that, we would still come to similar conclusions, which is that we must reckon with our interventionist past in Latin America because it has created a trust problem among our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere.

When a country has had a history of interventionism, of supporting coups, of spying on our neighbors, why would you trust them now? And so whether you’re doing it for moral reasons or realpolitik reasons, it’s not just about it being the right thing to do. I think it’s a smart thing to do in order for us to reset and build trust and relationships with our hemispheric partners.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez with fellow Democrats Representative Veronica Escobar and Representative Rashida Tlaib in 2019. She said the Democratic Party had “changed dramatically” since she was first elected. Erik S Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock

In the Republican debate, you had Ron DeSantis say that perhaps an invasion of Mexico might be in order to stop drug trafficking.

Such a suggestion is so reckless that it’s difficult to even capture. But the political incentive for Ron DeSantis to say something like that speaks to the lack of real attention that we pay domestically to our role as a member of this hemisphere. Part of our increased engagement in the region is not just about how we are thought of in Latin America, but also domestically, how we understand our closest neighbors.

Speaking of our closest neighbors, I want to talk about immigration. Under Biden, more asylum seekers are being held in private detention centers than under Trump. Families are still being separated. The Biden administration kept Trump-era policies that sped up deportations and made it harder for legitimate claimants to come to the U.S. So, what grade do you give the administration on immigration?

Immigration is arguably this administration’s weakest issue. This is one area where our policy is dictated by politics, arguably more so than almost any other. There are very clear recommendations and suggestions that we have made to the administration to provide relief on this issue, and it’s my belief that some of the hesitation around this has to do with a fear around just being seen as approving or providing permission structures, or really just the Republican narratives that have surrounded immigration.

We also need to examine the root causes of this migration and address that this problem doesn’t start at our border, but it starts with our foreign policy.

I mean, it doesn’t start at our border. And I know that this has been a right-wing talking point, but I do want to understand your thinking here. Why haven’t you used your considerable clout as a Latina leader to visit the border and highlight the ongoing issues there now, like you did during the Trump administration?

Well, this is something that we’re actively planning on. What I have done is tours of our New York-area facilities. Right now, this crisis is in our own backyard, and we have toured the Roosevelt Hotel, and I think it’s been very important for us to — especially to my constituents, who are demanding accountability on this — to look at that front line that is right here in New York City.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said immigration was “arguably this administration’s weakest issue.”Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

I want to get to New York, but we’re two and a half years into this administration, the crisis has been burgeoning, and you have been a self-declared and widely viewed leader on this issue.

Yes, yes. Well, I mean, again, I think that this is something that we have been working on. But when this crisis is right here in our own backyard, I have absolutely prioritized having that visitation presence. And I also think that there’s a very, very, very dangerous understanding of the frontline of our migration crisis being just our border. And if we only think of the immigration crisis as a border issue and only understand our border as a southern border and not John F. Kennedy Airport, that constitutes a lack of imagination when it comes to immigration.

But under the Trump administration, you did make the southern border an issue.

Yes. And again, I will be visiting the border.

Let me ask you this: 100,000 migrants, as you have pointed to, have come to New York City, which your district is a part of. The city estimates it will spend $5 billion on caring for new arrivals this year. Some of this crisis is because migrants are being bused to New York by certain governors, but it’s a real crisis, and a lot of New Yorkers don’t like it. Sixty-two percent of registered voters in New York City, one poll found, support relocating migrants to other parts of the state. You’ve said New Yorkers would welcome migrants, but they’re actually protesting. Have you misread your constituents’ feelings about this?

I don’t think so. I think that we’re still willing, but what we need is partnership from the federal government. And I have not been shy around criticism of how the Biden administration has handled this issue. New York City is the front line on this, and we have regularly asked the administration for many, many different avenues of relief.

I think the issue that New Yorkers have is not that there are immigrants coming to New York City, but that immigrants are being prevented from sustaining and supporting themselves. We have New Yorkers, and we have New York businesses, that want to receive migrants and want to employ migrants. And that includes across the state. We have a robust agricultural sector that wants to hire migrants — they have said this repeatedly. A hospitality sector that wants to do the same. And the Biden administration’s refusal to open up work authorizations or extend temporary protective status really prevents us from doing what we do best, which is allowing and creating an environment where immigrants from all over the world can create a livelihood here.

Don’t you think, though, that this is having an impact on the way the Democrats are viewed and their ability to argue that they’re good stewards of governance? I mean, you have the mayor of New York City, a Democrat, fighting with the governor of New York, also a Democrat, and blaming the federal government, led by a Democrat.

Well, Mayor Adams and I certainly have had our differences in the past, and perhaps present, in terms of how we handle this issue. But I do believe that this adds to the pressure. This is absolutely a message that we have communicated to the president, that we must handle this issue when it comes to work authorizations, when it comes to temporary protective status, because it is absolutely having an impact.

Would you like someone to run against Mayor Adams in 2025?

Well, I was elected in a primary election against a very established Democrat. I believe that primaries are healthy for the party. I believe that primary elections are part of what keep us a robust and accountable party. So I certainly think that an election without any choice would be something that many New Yorkers would feel kind of uncertain about.

That sounds like a yes — you’d like someone to run.

It’s important for us to have choices, and I say this as a person who has had elements of our party mount primary challenges against me, and I don’t take it personally.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez in the early days of her political career, with her fellow freshman congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley. Looking back, she said, “There were years of learning ahead of me.”Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Do you feel more comfortable in the Democratic Party now? The way you described it initially was fraught. They rejected you, and you were definitely trying to change the party. You have said you’ve pushed the party leftward. Many would agree. So is it OK to be a regular Democrat now?

The activist in me always seeks to agitate for more. I think despite there being progress, many people are still woefully underserved in this country. But the Democratic Party has changed dramatically in the last five years. Even if you just look at the numbers, I believe it’s something around 50 percent of House Democrats have been elected since 2018. And so what is considered center and moderate now is dramatically different than what it was five years ago.

We started this conversation talking about how you entered politics at a particular moment, and not a good one. And you acknowledged that your tenure has been tumultuous, with attacks on democracy and on your own person. Do you like your job?

I certainly think I like it a lot more than I used to.

There have been times where this work has been extremely challenging, and I didn’t know if I would survive in this position. But I see myself as having a very great responsibility, because at the end of the day, the representation of working-class people in our Congress is still extremely low. Women still only constitute 27 percent of our Congress. People of color, Latinas — there have only been, I don’t know, two to three dozen Latinas that have been elected in the history of the United States. And so I’m motivated by an extraordinary sense of responsibility, not just for representation, but to deliver on policy.

At 33 years old, first winning my election at 28 — this has taken a large degree of learning. I’m also very hard on myself, and I have to sometimes put into perspective that I am comparing myself to the skill set and performance of people 20, 30, 40 years my senior. But again, it’s something that is very important, and I maintain that one of my responsibilities is to hold the door open for those who are to come."

A.O.C. at 33: ‘Evolving,’ ‘Learning,’ But Not Ready to Call Herself an Insider - The New York Times

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