Spotlight On: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, US Lawmaker

She's the congresswoman everyone is talking about. And as it turns out, AOC has done a lot for US law, too. 

  • Last updated Mar 5, 2020 11:09:44 AM
  • David Carnes

Name: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (known colloquially in the media as simply “AOC”).

Current role: Member of US House of Representatives representing the 14th congressional district of the state of New York.

Notable for: In 2019 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever to serve in the US Congress. Her 2018 victory in the Democratic primary over a 10-term incumbent was widely considered the greatest upset victory in the 2018 midterm congressional elections. She is one of the few members of the US congress who openly describes herself as a socialist.

Education: In 2011, Ocasio-Cortez graduated with honours from Boston University, with a BA in international relations and economics. In a more unusual accomplishment, the MIT Lincoln Laboratory honoured her high school work in microbiology by naming a small asteroid, 23238 Ocasio-Cortez, after her.

Early career: During college, Ocasio-Cortez interned for US Senator Ted Kennedy, focusing on foreign affairs and immigration. After graduation, family economic difficulties forced her to work as a bartender and a waitress. She also started the Brook Avenue Press, served with the National Hispanic Institute, and worked as an organiser for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.

Career as a member of the US congress: After Ocasio-Cortez’s long-shot victory in the 2018 congressional elections, she entered congress with a high public profile based on media attention due to her upset victory in the Democratic primary and an unusually large following on social media.

Her committee assignments include the Subcommittee on Investor Protection, Entrepreneurship and Capital Markets; the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions; the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Subcommittee on Environment. Less than a month after taking office, Ms Ocasio-Cortez introduced a major piece of proposed legislation known in the media as the Green New Deal. 

Sudden impact: The meteoric rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  

Given her short period in Congress so far, much of Ocasio-Cortez’s notability rests on the stunningly improbable electoral victory that brought her to Congress in the first place. Since then, she has continued to apply some of the same strategies to ensure her unusual visibility and effectiveness as a freshman congresswoman.

Her primary opponent Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent, is unlikely to have felt threatened by a cocktail waitress who worked for the duration of her primary campaign at Flats Fix, a taco and tequila bar. In the midst of outspending Ocasio-Cortez 18-1, a poll taken three weeks before the election had him up 36 percentage points. Crowley never saw defeat coming, and Ocasio-Cortez went on to cement her triumph by easily winning the general election.

Her strategy was unique, and it caught her opponent by surprise. Typically, few people bother to vote in midterm congressional primaries, which leaves a large “silent majority” of voters untapped. Add to that the fact that the overwhelmingly Democratic 14th district almost never elects a Republican, meaning that winning the Democratic primary is near-equivalent to winning the general election, and Ocasio-Cortez’s path to victory becomes clear.

Instead of attempting to induce likely voters to change their minds, she appealed to the silent majority, most of whom shared her Hispanic roots, to increase the size of the voter pie—within which Ocasio-Cortez could take the largest slice for herself. And that is exactly what she did, so well that her margin of victory was a full 15 percentage points, virtually unheard of for an insurgent candidacy.  

Social media presence

Broadening the size of the electorate wasn’t her only key to victory, however—it was the consequence of a variety of factors. One of the most important factors, both in the election and in her subsequent career as a member of Congress, has been her adroit use of social media, like Barack Obama before her, to bypass formal political structures and communicate directly with constituents and, after the election, a national audience.

Ocasio-Cortez amassed nearly 6 million followers on Twitter as of late November 2019, millions more than Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and her totals on other social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram have hit comparable heights. 

The combination of her outspoken political views and strong social media presence resulted in an avalanche of free media attention, much of it supplied by her ideological opponents. In this way, Ocasio-Cortez transformed herself from a local into a national political figure almost overnight.  

Political Views

Ocasio-Cortez’s views are well to the left of the centre of the American political spectrum. She is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and she freely identifies with that label, pointing to social democracies in places like Sweden rather than authoritarian regimes in places like Cuba as her inspiration. Although her views are considered extreme by a large swathe of the US public, she enjoys significant support as well, especially among younger voters.

Her political platform includes universal medical care, a federal jobs guarantee, aggressive measures to reduce carbon emissions and fight inequality, the abolition of the primary U.S. immigration enforcement agency (ICE), free higher education, and a 70% income tax rate for people earning over $10 million. 

The Green New Deal

As a member of Congress, Ocasio-Cortez is perhaps most well-known for co-sponsoring two non-binding resolutions known as the Green New Deal (GND). The GND has been described as a proposal to address climate change and economic inequality through a radical overhaul of the US economy. The bill has failed to advance in either chamber of Congress despite garnering significant media attention.

A look ahead: AOC for President?

With Democratic candidates for president having proliferated like mushrooms after a rainstorm, one might wonder why the Democratic party’s newest star has not yet thrown her hat into the ring. The reason is quite simple—Ocasio-Cortez was born in October 1989, and the US Constitution bars anyone under 35 years old from assuming the presidency. Since she will turn 35 less than a month before the 2024 elections, however, who knows what the future may hold?  


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