Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Curious Intervention

The Courage to Change PAC tries to shake up the City Council races

On a sweltering Saturday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a momentous decision that could, in theory, prove decisive in New York City’s highest profile political contest: she endorsed Maya Wiley for mayor.

The announcement, coming at City Hall Park, was something of a surprise to the press gathered, including myself. We had arrived because Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign team had put out a press release announcing that the famous congresswoman would be making public the recommendations of her political action committee, Courage to Change, in various City Council races across the city. Only once the event began did a rumor begin to spread—Wiley had been spotted in a tent nearby, Ocasio-Cortez would be endorsing her—and the rally, which featured prominent left-leaning politicians like Jumaane Williams and Brad Lander, took on new resonance.

The Wiley endorsement, had you told me about it two months ago, would have been a great surprise. It wasn’t, though, on that June day. A middling candidate who has rarely, until recently. broken into the top tier in polling, Wiley has become the default progressive choice in the mayoral race. Losing out on most top union endorsements and the New York Times, Wiley has struggled throughout the campaign to find a coherent message or even a compelling rationale for running. Initially, the Working Families Party named her their third pick for mayor.

Wiley was Mayor Bill de Blasio’s former counsel, notorious for offering a legal argument that shielded his communications with wealthy consultants from the public, and later had a checkered tenure as head of the Civilian Complaint Review Board before becoming an MSNBC pundit. She is accomplished and has a powerful backstory—the daughter of a civil rights leader, she would be the city’s first Black female mayor—but had not been able to recreate the same amount of excitement and momentum around her candidacy that de Blasio himself, running in a similar lane in 2013, enjoyed.

Wiley, however, still has a chance to be elected mayor. Scott Stringer, once the WFP’s first choice, has failed to expand his coalition since a former volunteer, Jean Kim, accused him of sexual assault, a charge Stringer denied. Most of Stringer’s progressive endorsements have fled and many of them, including Congressman Jamaal Bowman and State Senate Julia Salazar, are now supporting Wiley. Jumaane Williams, the public advocate, backed Wiley on Wednesday. There is a coalescing of support for her, especially as Dianne Morales flags, and Ocasio-Cortez’s announcement comes at a crucial moment. Wiley is the last candidate of the Left standing, especially with the momentum Eric Adams has been enjoying and the durability of Andrew Yang and Kathryn Garcia. Ocasio-Cortez knows this and she’s using her leverage wisely.

Beyond the mayoral race, though, Ocasio-Cortez has been making more curious decisions. Her choice for comptroller, Brad Lander, is sensible, though Lander has long been at odds with the socialist left, failing to back Bernie Sanders in either presidential campaign and aligning against DSA candidates. When it was toughest to do so, Lander did not loudly oppose Joe Crowley or Andrew Cuomo, but his platform for comptroller is undoubtedly a progressive one, and he has a nice idea for reviving Mitchell-Lama. Both the Lander and Wiley endorsements were conventional. Ocasio-Cortez personally backed the candidates and allowed them to say so. They are, in every sense, on Team AOC.

But the City Council endorsements were different. For one, Ocasio-Cortez herself was not personally supporting anyone, though the candidates themselves seemed free, if they wanted, to convey it that way to voters. (“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says we’ve got Courage to Change!” emailed one City Council candidate.) The PAC was meting out the support. And unlike other politicians, who choose, by themselves or through their political organizations, to support a smaller number of candidates, the Courage to Change PAC was backing a massive slate: 60 candidates in all, including multiple Democrats in many races, in a nod to the reality of ranked-choice voting.

Unlike other PAC’s and organizations, all it took to win the recognition was a perfect score on the questionnaire. Though members of the media and the candidates themselves seemed to be under the impression this meant they had an endorsement, the Ocasio-Cortez campaign told me, in fact, they did not. No one really did.

“One of the 60 candidates present on Saturday were ‘endorsed’ by the PAC - and as such did not receive full vets nor will they all be receiving donations. All 60 did, however, take the ‘Courage to Change’ pledge - which means they received a perfect score on the questionnaire we released in late April,” Lauren Hitt, Ocasio-Cortez’s spokeswoman, told me in an email.

But some of the 60 candidates were ranked ahead of the others. In City Council District 3, in Manhattan, Arthur Schwartz was the PAC’s first choice. In the Bronx’s District 14, Adolfo Abreu was picked first, as was Amanda Farias in District 18. Tiffany Cabán received the first choice selection in Queens’ District 22 and Alexa Aviles won it in Brooklyn’s 38th. The rest of the candidates were not ranked, though some districts only had one candidate named.

Hitt added that “in select districts where more than one candidate is taking the Courage to Change pledge, we’re providing ranking recommendations based on significant support from allied movement organizations such as Sunrise Movement, Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Road to Justice, and New York Communities for Change.”

Ultimately, the Courage to Change support—don’t call it an endorsement!—appears to amount to little more than a badge of certification that the questionnaire was completed adequately. Certain candidates were elevated if they passed muster with the professional left and DSA. There was no vetting of the candidates’ histories, which Ocasio-Cortez herself admitted to me when I pressed her on Saturday. Instead, it was left up to how a candidate answered the questions and what other organizations had already decided to do.

The questionnaire itself is quite thorough. The PAC asks if a candidate supports Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and abolishing ICE. It dives deep into local matters, asking if candidates will vote in favor of expanding licenses for street vendors, holding developers accountable for wage theft, and support city funding increases for the MTA. Candidates are asked if they’ll support turning Rikers Island into a green energy storage hub and spending at least $100 million for “deep energy retrofits” for NYCHA.

Defunding the police, of course, comes up. “Will you support a plan to bring down the annual NYPD budget and shift those funds towards community resources and programs[?]” the PAC asks. “Will you support and fund comprehensive mental health and crisis response services, including community-based treatment programs, and a 911 health care responder corps that is entirely independent of the NYPD?”

What’s notable is how the toughest fights are avoided altogether. DSA, which played a pivotal role in Ocasio-Cortez’s rise and seems increasingly sidelined as the congresswoman drifts toward the nonprofit and NGO left, is endorsing six candidates in this cycle. In several of the most pitched races, they badly need Ocasio-Cortez’s support. In Park Slope, Gowanus, and Kensington, DSA-endorsed Brandon West will have a tough time defeating the WFP-backed Shahana Hanif , who worked for Brad Lander. Courage to Change certified four different candidates in the race, refusing to take a side. In a district like that one, Courage to Change’s sole backing of West could have elevated him over the field. With four candidates now proudly claiming to be Ocasio-Cortez-approved, it will be harder for the socialist left to claim victory there.

The same is true in nearby Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, where DSA has thrown all their weight behind tenant organizer Michael Hollingsworth. Crystal Hudson, his top rival, has the backing of most of organized labor as well as Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a DSA antagonist. The newly-elected DSA politicians in the area, State Senator Jabari Brisport and Assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest, are stumping hard for Hollingsworth. Courage to Change did not recommend a first-place candidate, choosing both Hollingsworth and Hudson. Hudson is quite progressive herself, but would owe nothing to the socialist movement if she won. Ocasio-Cortez, seemingly, is fine to not aid Hollingsworth in what will be an incredibly close race.

On Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez released her “personal” endorsements, separate from the Courage to Change PAC. Neither Hollingsworth nor West won her sole backing. In Park Slope, Ocasio-Cortez simply co-endorsed Hanif and West. And in Fort Greene, the congresswoman backed no one.

By far, the PAC’s worst choice was in Manhattan, where Courage to Change selected attorney Arthur Schwartz as their first choice to replace term-limited Corey Johnson. There is no ideal Left candidate in that race, but Schwartz certainly is not the lesser evil. Though he served as an attorney for the Bernie Sanders campaign and has developed a reputation as an old-line progressive, he has been a retrograde force in the public transit community, investing his time, energy, and money in trying to defeat a protected bus line that now efficiently ferries commuters down 14th Street in Manhattan. Schwartz also fought against bike lanes in Greenwich Village and against a dedicated bus lane in Queens. As an attorney, he has brought his legal power to bear to keep them from happening.

I asked Ocasio-Cortez how Schwartz ended up getting selected as a first choice for Courage to Change. Wouldn’t a professional life spent trying to defeat projects that make it easier for people to ride the bus or a bicycle be the antithesis of what a Green New Deal candidate should stand for? Doesn’t any hope of combating climate change rest upon getting people out of their automobiles and into public transit?

“Our pledge is not a PAC endorsement—this a pledge,” Ocasio-Cortez told me. “Going through 50 different races is an effort but we can’t go through the history of every candidate in different races which is why we aren’t approaching this as an endorsement, we’re approaching it as a pledge. We’ve uplifted as candidates who’ve committed on all 27 points of policy.”

It’s fair enough to say that sorting through the histories of candidates in 50-odd races is a challenge. But if you’re unwilling to do the bare minimum of searching out what these candidates may have stood for in 2019 and 2020, why bother having pledges? DSA is endorsing six candidates in six races, not 60 in almost every single City Council district across New York City. There is a reason some organizations limit endorsements or “pledges” in the first place—vetting candidates is difficult.

As talented and visionary as she may be, Ocasio-Cortez picked a rather odd way to intervene into local politics, where she’s had less of a hands-on role than her predecessor, Joe Crowley. If other organizations certified candidates the way Ocasio-Cortez chose to, an otherwise right-wing candidate could choose to answer a questionnaire the “correct” way to net a perfect score. Leftist talking points are rather easy to master. A progressive PAC that doesn’t care about history at all—that won’t even do the work of finding out whether their first choice for a pivotal City Council race was an enemy of environmentally-friendly public transit upgrades in an age of climate catastrophe—is failing its voters. Better, in truth, to have no PAC at all.

Unlike other PAC’s, it does not appear Courage to Change will disburse much money. The PAC must register with the Campaign Finance Board to do so and hasn’t yet. The election is less than two weeks away. The recommendation has been meted out and now 60 campaigns across the city will have a badge to affix to their websites or a last-minute logo for campaign literature flooding mailboxes.

The ease of winning the PAC’s approval represents a quiet danger for the Left, one it does not yet want to acknowledge. People with no history or interest in the movement can readily ape the posture and the lingo, winning fast fans. It was how Morales, an affluent nonprofit executive who founded a charter school and voted for Andrew Cuomo as recently as 2018, became a hero to online activists and left-wing NGO’s in just a few short months. All it takes, seemingly, are a few push-button slogans and a sizzling Twitter feed: be sure, no matter who you are, to promise to support the Green New Deal and defunding the NYPD. The rest will take care of itself.