Even as a child, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was no stranger to financial hardship. Born to a family of working-class Puerto Rican Americans in the South Bronx, she was first forced to confront her family’s less-than-ideal socioeconomic status when she started school. While her parents instilled in her the importance of education, her options were limited. “From a very young age, it became apparent to me that the zip code a child was born in had undue influence on that child’s future and achievements,” she told Millennial Politics.
Alexandria went on to attend Boston University, where she took an interest in empowering West African women both through financial means as well as by providing better quality maternal care.
She eventually caught the eye of Senator Ted Kennedy and began to work for him in Massachusetts. Though she appreciated her time with the infamous “Lion of the Senate,” it coincided with the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, amplifying her disillusionment with corporate influence in politics.
She decided to move back to the Bronx immediately after graduation. It is here that her family’s situation took a turn for the worst. Mr. Ocasio, unable to afford health insurance, lost his battle with lung cancer, leaving his family without a financial safety net. With the looming threat of losing the family home, Alexandria helped support the family as a waitress, working eighteen-hour shifts just to ensure her family had a roof over their heads. “It’s one thing to talk about these things in news articles and another thing to live this life.” Alexandria was eventually faced with the reality of being unable to keep her family financially afloat on a minimum-wage salary. She felt as if she was watching her and her family’s dreams slip away.
It was during 2015 that Bernie Sanders, a little-known senator from Vermont vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, led his progressive wave across the United States. Alexandria was deeply inspired by Sen. Sanders’ message of economic empowerment and decided to become an organizer for Bernie in the Bronx.
Following the disappointing conclusion to the 2016 presidential election, Alexandria went across the country with a close friend, traveling everywhere from Flint, Michigan to Standing Rock to talk to real Americans about the issues they were facing.
Upon her return, she got a phone call from a newly formed progressive “post-partisan” organization known as Brand New Congress. To her surprise, they asked her if she wanted to run for Congress to represent New York’s 14th district in the United States House of Representatives. “It didn’t really hit me as real.”
Despite her initial self-doubt, Alexandria agreed to go through the rigorous vetting processes. She confesses that there were times when the idea of running filled her with anxiety; however, the same Bronx community that kept her going through the tough financial times has kept her enthusiastic and motivated. As she saw fellow working-class Americans like Robb Ryerse, Cori Bush, and Hector Morales join the Brand New Congress roster, her confidence grew even more.
“When you think you’re alone, it’s crazy. But when you realize you’re running with selfless, inspiring people around the country, it becomes inspiring and starts to feel possible.”
Alexandria is so committed to avoiding corporate politics that her campaign relies almost entirely on grassroots donations from ordinary individuals, not accepting a single dollar from Super PACs. Her inspiring message of economic prosperity and progressive populism has appealed to a wide array of Americans, from police officers to firefighters to even people outside of New York’s 14th.
“This dishwasher in New Jersey is contributing $1 a month for eighteen months. That, for me, is what it’s all about.”
When asked about her policy platform, Alexandria emphasized that she wants to be able to represent working class-voters and marginalized people who feel left out of the elite bureaucracy of New York politics. “People need to value civil rights as a human issue, not policy.” Her parents’ emphasis on the importance of education has not been lost on her, as she continues to advocate for universal pre-K education. Alexandria also wants to ensure that New Yorkers have employment options after they leave school, in part by creating jobs through heavy investment in green energy solutions and infrastructure.
She is un-apologetically pro-Medicare, and has solace in the fact that her campaign has already been enough to scare incumbent Joseph Crowley into flipping his position on the issue. This only intensifies the contrast between Alexandria and Crowley. While she has a clear-cut, demanding message of change, Crowley earlier this year confessed that “Democrats don’t know what our platform is.”
In the age of Trump, it is important for Democrats to be vigilant and to not lose sight of those who we need to protect. Alexandria represents a Democratic Party that defends and promotes marginalized people, whereas her opponent represents the older, more conservative wing of the party that would not think twice about shying away from social issues in the vein attempt to win over the same voters who brought Trump his Electoral College victory. This brings us to the most important part of Alexandria’s campaign. She ultimately hopes that her campaign will inspire other young women of color who were in the same situation that she was once in to feel that they have a voice, and if they wish, even run for office in order to change things for the better.
“I reached a point where it felt like nothing I did mattered. There was too much that was overwhelming and preventing me from standing up and using my voice. What’s really important is to take up the space and do the things you want to do authentically. You have to let go of the voice that says ‘you are not good enough.’ You’re good enough, and you’re worth it. We need to hear your voice. We need you there. You matter.”