Two days before running for office in June 2017, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old, Bronx-born Latina, was terrified. Every thought imaginable ran through her head as she pondered the realities of running for Congress in New York’s 14th District: What if I fail? What am I about to get myself into?
She’d be running a grassroots campaign against Representative Joseph Crowley, who hasn’t faced a primary challenger in 14 years during his two decades in office. Crowley is one of the nation’s most powerful Democrats, currently serving as head of the Queens Democratic Party and chair of the House Democratic Caucus. He is also a potential candidate for House Minority Leader if Nancy Pelosi steps down.
Ocasio-Cortez, who was still working shifts as a bartender at the time, knew Crowley would make a formidable opponent.
“There’s a whole landscape out there of connections and relationships and special interests,” says Ocasio-Cortez. “And it’s one thing to know you’re going up against a multi-million dollar machine, but you really don’t know the intricacies of what that means. And so I was scared of that.”
But two days later, Ocasio-Cortez officially launched her campaign, joining an upswell of women who have decided to run for office since the 2016 election.
In 2018, the country has seen a record number of women running for office. The Center for American Women and Politics recently found that more than twice as many women are running for Congress in 2018 than 2016. So far, the number of women running for House seats has broken records, with 380 women filing to run in 2018.
This trend doesn’t surprise Shauna Shames, an assistant professor at Rutgers University who has researched women candidates. Shames says that the 2016 election, along with the Women’s March and #MeToo campaign, have inspired women and millennials to become more directly involved with politics.
“This is a groundswell of new candidates coming forward to run,” Shames says. “And we haven’t seen as many new candidates, in particular women candidates…it may not [have been] ever, since 1992.”
1992 is known as the “Year of the Woman” because a surge of women ran for Congress and won.
Spurred by several factors including the Senate’s disregard for Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas, 24 women were elected to the House of Representatives in 1992—the largest number of women ever. The number of women Senators also tripled from two to six.
“I’m hoping we’ll see something like that in 2018,” Shames says.
But for the trend to continue beyond 2018, Shames thinks institutions like candidate training organizations and political parties must play larger roles in recruiting women candidates.
“Right now we don’t have a very big bench of women who could be candidates and we need to build it,” she says.
Although women are half the population, they currently constitute less than 20 percent of Congress. The numbers are even lower for women of color, who make up seven percent of Congress. Barriers such as fundraising, a lack of party recruitment, and negative stereotypes often prevent women of color from running for office—or even considering running in the first place.
In many ways, the research reflects Ocasio-Cortez’s own campaign experience.
Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t like being stereotyped as running on the “race card” or the “woman card.”
“Listen, I’m not running as a woman,” she says. “I’m not running on my race. But I do want to acknowledge that there are differences when you run as a woman or as someone of color. It’s true.”
Her initial doubts about challenging Crowley also show why women of color are less likely to consider running, especially against well-funded opponents.
“This whole thing started out [with me] saying ‘this isn’t for me.’ The powers that be aren’t stacked in my favor,” she says. “And that’s why women and people of color and low-income Americans… don’t run. To a certain extent there’s always that valid question ‘why bother?’”
Given what she calls the “machine-dominated” nature of Queens politics, as well the Citizens United ruling that allowed for unrestricted corporate spending in campaigns, Ocasio-Cortez worried that she would need wealth and social influence to run for office.
“As a girl from the Bronx, I didn’t have any of those things,” she says. “And so I was like ‘there’s no way’.”
The trailer for an upcoming documentary about women running for Congress, featuring Ocasio-Cortez.
While Ocasio-Cortez acknowledges that money plays a role in certain aspects of campaigning, she has seen big advantages of going grassroots. She thinks that her refusal to accept corporate PAC money has allowed voters to build trust in her candidacy.
“Money has traditionally bought elections, so it used to just be whoever raises the most wins,” she says. “But I do think things are changing in this country.”
She places her commitment to running without corporate PAC donations at the center of her campaign, framing her candidacy as one of “people versus money.”
Although politics was not in the plan for most of her life, Ocasio-Cortez has long been interested in policy issues. In college, she worked at the office of the late Senator Ted Kennedy. After college, she worked on childhood literacy projects in the Bronx and became an education director for the National Hispanic Institute. She also took on waitressing and bartending shifts to support her family after her father passed away during the 2008 financial crisis.
This community involvement eventually gained the attention of Brand New Congress (BNC), a political action committee founded by former Sanders’ staffers with the goal of recruiting progressive, working Americans to run for Congress nationwide.
In late December 2016—a day after Ocasio-Cortez was at the Standing Rock protests—BNC called her and asked if she wanted to run for Congress. BNC candidates are nominated by community members in their districts—and Ocasio-Cortez was one of them.
Ocasio-Cortez met with BNC and thought hard about running for office before making a decision—she would do it.
“It felt like out of nowhere it went from zero to ‘alright, are you gonna file next week?’” she recalled.
Like Ocasio-Cortez, all BNC candidates undergo a vetting process to ensure they are involved with their communities and understand what policies their constituents need. In addition, all candidates run on progressive platforms and pledge not to accept corporate PAC money.
BNC Press Director Zeynab Day says BNC candidates come from diverse backgrounds and thus understand the problems faced by everyday people in their districts. Of the 28 Congressional candidates currently backed by BNC, 13 are women.
“It’s very important that diverse opinions all across the board are represented in Congress,” says Day. “So that is a goal of Brand New Congress…to help bring those voices…to the forefront.”
Part of uplifting those voices, Day says, means getting new candidates to challenge longtime incumbents like Crowley.
“There’s no true way for change to occur unless there’s an actual challenge, unless there are new ideas and fresh perspectives introduced into the political process,” she says.
District 14, which covers parts of Queens and the Bronx, is highly diverse. According to Ballotpedia, nearly half the population is Hispanic, and 28 percent of people are black or Asian. The median household income is $47,000.
Ocasio-Cortez claims Crowley fails to represent these constituents.
“I think [Crowley] was a fine representative for the Queens of 20 years ago, and he spent 20 years in office, and I think that we need representation for the Queens of today,” she says.
The Crowley campaign declined to comment.
Despite Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism, longtime District 14 resident Raj Telwala thinks Crowley has done a good job of representing the district and “is pretty aligned with progressives.”
“Just by immigration policy alone, [Crowley] has been able to give voices to people that really need to have voices heard in this decade,” he says.
While Telwala does believe that Congress needs more women, he thinks keeping a powerful leader like Crowley in office should take priority to thwart President Donald Trump’s agenda and prepare for the 2020 presidential race. Compared to Crowley, he worries that Ocasio-Cortez lacks the political influence to help the party do this.
“If we have all these young people come in…they’re gonna be freshmen, they’re gonna be rookies, they’re not gonna have legislative experience,” he says.
The need for powerful Democratic leadership against Trump is the main reason why Telwala plans on voting for Crowley in the primary on June 26.
One year later, Ocasio-Cortez reflects on those “gut-wrenching” two days before launching her campaign and realizes there was nothing to fear.
They’ll tell you you’re too loud –
that you need to wait your turn;
and ask the right people for permission.
Do it anyway. pic.twitter.com/ADdDIPQAWq
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) March 10, 2018
“People will say crazy things about you,” she says. “They’ll say…‘She’s a nobody. She has no chance. How dare she? Why does she think she can do this?’”
But this doesn’t bother her.
Ocasio-Cortez says she developed a “really thick skin” growing up in a Puerto Rican family in the South Bronx.
“If I have anything going for me,” she says, “it’s that I don’t really care what other people think about me.”