What Should Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Do Next?

She's the most famous first-term House member in history. Some want her to seek a promotion very soon.

Since stunning Joe Crowley in 2018 and kicking off a new era of progressive insurgency, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become one of the most famous politicians in America. It’s still an occurrence with no historical parallel—a 30-year-old first-term House member who has already graced the covers of most major national magazines and achieved near-universal name recognition. As a self-identified democratic socialist, she is regarded as a movement leader on the left, championing Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and other expansions of government to aid the working class and poor. Already, supporters are musing about a future presidential run—it feels inevitable—and a higher perch to mount it from. Like Barack Obama and Joe Biden, this may mean ascending to the Senate

Over the weekend, I kicked off an internet controversy when I suggested, in reply to a tweet from Marianne Williamson, that Ocasio-Cortez would face treacherous terrain if she tried to primary Chuck Schumer in 2022. Like waging a primary against Governor Andrew Cuomo in that same year, I do believe campaigns against both men are worthy. Cuomo, as I’ve written before, has long been a roadblock to progressive reform in New York State. And Schumer is cautious centrism personified, with a history of foreign policy advocacy that has proven deeply destructive for the rest of the world. He is on track to be the next majority leader of the Senate and his traditionalist approach to politics is a poor fit for the world we’ve inherited, immolated by Donald Trump.

Ideally, Ocasio-Cortez, a committed leftist and anti-imperialist, would replace Schumer tomorrow. But she would be risking a lot for what could be one of the bloodiest primaries in New York history. Schumer is a prolific fundraiser, with long-standing ties to powerful labor unions that have determined the course of statewide elections for a long time. He is not Joe Crowley or Eliot Engel. He has won competitive statewide elections before and continues to show up at local events; for all his flaws, he cannot be called an absentee senator. In any kind of statewide Democratic primary, a bulk of the votes come from downstate, from New York City and its populous suburbs. Within the city, African-American and Afro-Caribbean voters exercise great sway, particularly in Brooklyn and Queens. These voters tend to trust well-known incumbents like Schumer. And there are the suburbs, which are becoming much more hospitable to leftists: Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones are evidence of that. But it’s hard to imagine Schumer, the embodiment of suburban moderation, losing Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties to Ocasio-Cortez. In certain upstate counties, like Tompkins and Albany, Ocasio-Cortez could perform very well, like both Cynthia Nixon and Zephyr Teachout. Western New York, home to Buffalo, may not be so hospitable. None of this is to say defeating Schumer is impossible. In the 2020s, just about any political scenario is plausible. It’s simply to underscore besting Schumer is very hard to do and the downside is Ocasio-Cortez is out of a House seat at the age of 33.

Alternatively, Ocasio-Cortez would probably have an easier time mounting a bid against Kirsten Gillibrand, New York’s junior senator, who faces re-election in 2024. Let me first state, plainly, I don’t believe Ocasio-Cortez is going to run a primary against either sitting senator. For someone so young, who can simply wait out the retirements of one or both senators, there is not much incentive to engaging in such bitter campaigns. If Ocasio-Cortez is in a hurry to get to the Senate in her 30s—and her supporters want her there—the path is clearly through Gillibrand. Suggesting this, to some, is offensive. Gillibrand has a progressive record as a senator, fighting for sexual assault victims in the military and consistently voting against Trump nominees. I suggested Ocasio-Cortez primary her simply as an alternative to running against Schumer, who objectively would be much harder to defeat, as the minority leader of the Senate. Gillibrand’s standing within New York’s political establishment is much weaker; this isn’t really a fact that can be contested in any meaningful way. When she ran for president, her campaign was as ignored by powerful Democrats as Bill de Blasio’s, though it was mocked much less. By the time Gillibrand dropped out of the race in August 2019, she had won just a single endorsement from a New York elected official. It’s unclear the political establishment would rally enthusiastically around Gillibrand if Ocasio-Cortez announced a Senate campaign and raised, relatively swiftly, $10 or $20 million. Would the state’s most influential labor unions, like 1199 SEIU, spend millions to defend Gillibrand against such a forceful challenger? Perhaps if Cuomo makes them. In a hypothetical Ocasio-Cortez v. Gillibrand showdown, I am less convinced Ocasio-Cortez would struggle to win over voters who typically prefer incumbents.

Gillibrand, who has only held her seat since 2009, does not enjoy Schumer’s name recognition or longevity. Unlike Schumer, Gillibrand was appointed to her seat by then-Gov. David Paterson to fill Hillary Clinton’s vacancy; to this day, Gillibrand has never won a competitive statewide Democratic primary. Though Democrats geared up to challenge her in 2010, party officials dissuaded any kind of primary and Gillibrand ended up crushing token Republican opposition that year, as she did again in 2012 and 2018. It’s worth recalling how controversial Gillibrand’s selection was at the time. A one-term congresswoman who had ousted a Republican in 2006, Gillibrand was, by any measure, a very conservative Democrat. She aggressively opposed efforts in New York to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. She received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. Upon the news of Paterson’s selection, gun control advocates were irate. “When I heard Gillibrand was his pick, I thought it was a joke,” Gloria Cruz of the Million Mom March to Prevent Gun Violence told the Daily News. “This is an insult to the families of gun violence victims across the state. Shame on Gov. Paterson.” The most charitable view of Gillibrand is she had to adopt certain views for a right-leaning district that were never really her own; as a senator, she was liberated to be the progressive she always wanted to be. Politicians evolve on issues all the time and we should commend those who self-reflect and change. Gillibrand herself has apologized for her past.

One of the more controversial points I made online, which attracted fury from Gillibrand supporters, was that Ocasio-Cortez would be a “better” U.S. senator than Gillibrand. Twitter, with its character limits and incentive for invective, is not the best place for nuance, so allow me to elaborate here. For democratic socialists, movement leftists, and those with progressive convictions around policies like advancing universal healthcare and reimagining America’s horrific foreign policy, Ocasio-Cortez is absolutely the better choice, superior to Schumer and Gillibrand. If your politics hew to the center, if you believe America simply needs to maintain its imperialist posture globally and protect market-based health insurance at home, Gillibrand and Schumer are your senators. Yes, Gillibrand supports Medicare for All and other populist policies. Yet as we’ve learned with any deeply disruptive but necessary policy aim, it’s one thing to voice affirmation in theory and another to risk your political capital when the moment arises. I have much more faith Ocasio-Cortez, who never fundraised from Wall Street like Schumer and Gillibrand, would not abandon the project if it’s in reach but facing enormous opposition from the medical and health insurance lobbies. On foreign policy, Ocasio-Cortez is one of the few elected officials willing to question the military-industrial complex and stand up for the rights of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. She is not a BDS supporter, but she understands that criminalizing the movement is dangerous. Both Schumer and Gillibrand initially backed a bill that would make it a felony for Americans to support the international, nonviolent boycott of Israel. The bill, which has bipartisan support in the Senate, would make violators face a minimum civil penalty of $250,000 and a maximum criminal penalty of $1 million and 20 years in prison. It remains one of the more sinister attacks on free speech in recent memory.

Schumer, whose hawkish views on Israel are in perfect alignment with the Trump administration’s, co-sponsored the bill. So did Gillibrand. After the ACLU and other progressive organizations loudly objected to the legislation, Gillibrand backed off and withdrew her co-sponsorship. Her rationale was that she would never support an attempt to chill free speech, though it’s difficult to imagine how such an experienced and intelligent United States senator could misinterpret the intentions of such legislation. Ideally, we’d have a senator who never signed onto such a horrid bill in the first place. “I would never support any bill that chills free speech,” Gillibrand told a town hall in 2017, as opposition to the anti-BDS bill mounted. “I would never be for something that you stated the bill says. It’s not something I would support. I met with the ACLU and we sat down…and why they believe it says it chills free speech, which leaves the bill as ambiguous. So I am going to urge the authors of the bill to change the bill and I will not support it in its current form.”

To get back to the question at hand, if you care about the fate of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and are seeking a less cataclysmic foreign policy approach, why would you prefer Schumer or Gillibrand to Ocasio-Cortez? Gillibrand has said it’s important for Israel to maintain its “meaningful military edge” in the region, which has amounted to the brutal, asymmetric deaths of Palestinian civilians during wars with Israel. Demands on social media to insulate Gillibrand from any kind of potential primary may seem particularly tone deaf when funding for the right-wing demagogue Benjamin Netanyahu’s rocket arsenal is linked to the actions taken by United States senators like Gillibrand, who happily agree to funnel more unconditional military aid to Israel. It’s issues like these, which are far less appealing for certain activists, that rarely get play on slogan-happy social media. A Senator Ocasio-Cortez, like the rising cohort of progressives in Congress, would seek to make this aid conditional, or cut it off altogether.

As I’ve said, I don’t believe Ocasio-Cortez is going to mount primary campaigns against either senator. Though she has a reputation as a radical, she’s proved to be more of a D.C. team-player than she lets on, and her endorsements of primary challengers rarely amount to actual risk-taking. Bowman and Jones, the successful progressive House candidates in the New York suburbs, only received Ocasio-Cortez endorsements a few weeks before primary day. Ocasio-Cortez’s continued identification with democratic socialism has not translated to any particular public advocacy for the organization itself, the Democratic Socialists of America. Her Courage to Change PAC, while backing a range of incumbents and DSA candidates in New York, did not funnel any cash to actual DSA political action committees. Ocasio-Cortez rarely, if ever, references DSA in her tweets and has not headlined a fundraiser for the organization in a long time, if ever. All of the winning DSA candidates received a congratulatory phone call from a famous New York politician. But it was Schumer calling the Assembly and Senate candidates, not Ocasio-Cortez. As of Monday, Ocasio-Cortez has not referenced their victories on Twitter, let alone placed private phone calls to the candidates.

Though she toppled the chairman of the Queens Democratic Party, Ocasio-Cortez has refused, so far at least, to endorse the unprecedented reform effort taking place in the borough. The New Reformers, an organization I first wrote about in 2019, backed a large slate of Democratic district leader and judicial delegate candidates to unseat machine-aligned incumbents. Though campaigns for unpaid party posts may seem like inside baseball, it’s these district leaders and delegates who nominate state supreme court judges to the bench and control the direction of the legal system of one of the largest counties in America. The Queens Democratic Party is no electoral “machine”—the party-aligned political clubs are withering away—but it retains a near-ironclad grip on the legal system, particularly Surrogate’s Court, where Democratic Party lawyers make millions off of those who die without wills. For a time, the Long Island attorneys who still effectively control the Queens machine were profiting off home foreclosures too. To become a judge in Queens County, deciding the fates of the poorest and most vulnerable in the city, one must still be a friend of the Queens Democratic Party. Competence, fairness, and moral clarity don’t matter as much. As long as the current party power structure is kept in place—Congressman Gregory Meeks, Crowley’s successor, retains the same attorneys and leadership—the legal system of Queens County will remain a cesspool of self-dealing and patronage.

The good news is that the New Reformers were successful. 14 of its 26 candidates won, including eight new district leaders. A ninth could be elected if a lawsuit seeking to count invalidated absentee ballots is successful. In one race, a 50-year incumbent was unseated. In another, a former state assemblyman lost his district leader post. There are 72 Democratic district leaders in Queens. If, over time, enough new district leaders prevail, a new county leader can be elected. Here is where Ocasio-Cortez’s inaction is most glaring. The New Reformers, with their two fundraising committees, raised less than $30,000. Had Ocasio-Cortez blessed the effort and sent a fundraising email on their behalf, their haul could have been increased dramatically, allowing for a larger slate or more victories for those that competed. To reverse the decades-long corruption in the Queens County legal system, a new generation of party leaders will need to come to power. It’s not clear why Ocasio-Cortez has not engaged here. Perhaps she is deferring to Meeks, a House colleague. Perhaps she would rather focus on national affairs, which is her right. Local politics is a messy, often thankless endeavor, and offers little upside for ambitious politicians enjoying the national limelight. CNN and MSNBC aren’t talking about district leader races. The New York Times won’t reference them anymore. Ocasio-Cortez has been an important progressive voice in Congress. She may not want to change, in any way, what she has been doing.

If Ocasio-Cortez chooses to not use her remarkable clout to directly challenge the local Democratic Party power structure, others will fill the vacuum. What’s unfortunate is that New York has a long history of national power players with centrist, unimaginative politics trying to control local affairs. The working class and poor lose out when corporate-aligned Democrats run party organizations. Joe Crowley, the man Ocasio-Cortez defeated, was talked about as a successor to Nancy Pelosi on the eve of his loss. Locally, Crowley helped prop up Christine Quinn’s City Council, which worked with Michael Bloomberg to kill an effort to give paid sick days to New Yorkers. The Brooklyn Democratic Party was invested in protecting a state senator who joined the Republican-enabling Independent Democratic Conference. When the state senator, Jesse Hamilton, was defeated in 2018, Brooklyn Democrats tacitly endorsed his failed political comeback this June. The Bronx Democratic Party was led, until recently, by a politician who didn’t support same-sex marriage or abortion. Ocasio-Cortez herself never has to be a county leader. She doesn’t need to try. But as she builds her career in Congress and considers her very bright future, it would benefit her, and the people she represents, to support movements against the politicians and party apparatchiks who are invested in protecting rotten, century-old systems. She wouldn’t even need a Senate seat to do it.