Exasperated Democrats try to rein in Ocasio-Cortez




Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Incumbent Democrats are most annoyed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s threat to back primary opponents against members of their ranks she deems too moderate. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

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The effort is part carrot, part stick. But it’s far from clear the anti-establishment political novice can be made to play ball.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is already making enemies in the House Democratic Caucus — and some of its members are mounting an operation to bring the anti-establishment, democratic socialist with 2.2 million Twitter followers into the fold.

The effort, described by nearly 20 lawmakers and aides, is part carrot, part stick: Some lawmakers with ties to Ocasio-Cortez are hoping to coax her into using her star power to unite Democrats and turn her fire on Republicans. Others simultaneously warn Ocasio-Cortez is destined for a lonely, ineffectual career in Congress if she continues to treat her own party as the enemy.

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“I’m sure Ms. Cortez means well, but there’s almost an outstanding rule: Don’t attack your own people,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “We just don’t need sniping in our Democratic Caucus.”

Incumbent Democrats are most annoyed by Ocasio-Cortez’s threat to back primary opponents against members of their ranks she deems too moderate. But their frustration goes beyond that: Democratic leaders are upset that she railed against their new set of House rules on Twitter the first week of the new Congress. Rank and file are peeved that there’s a grassroots movement to try to win her a top committee post they feel she doesn’t deserve.

Even some progressives who admire AOC, as she’s nicknamed, told POLITICO that they worry she’s not using her notoriety effectively.

“She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star?” said one House Democrat who’s in lockstep with Ocasio Cortez’s ideology. “There’s a difference between being an activist and a lawmaker in Congress.”

It’s an open question whether Ocasio-Cortez can be checked. She’s barely been in Congress a week and is better known than almost any other House member other than Nancy Pelosi and John Lewis. A media throng follows her every move, and she can command a national audience practically at will.

None of that came playing by the usual rules: Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez’s willingness to take on her party establishment with unconventional guerrilla tactics is what got her here. It’s earned her icon status on the progressive left, it’s where the 29-year-old freshman derives her power — and, by every indication, it’s how she thinks she can pull the Democratic Party in her direction.

The Freedom Caucus didn’t win many popularity contests in Congress the past four years, but it’s hard to dispute the hard-liners’ success dragging the GOP to the right.

Still, fellow Democrats are giving it their best, or planning to in the near future.

So far, most of them have kept their criticism of Ocasio-Cortez private, fearful she’ll sic her massive following on them by firing off a tweet. But a few are engaging with her in the hopes she’ll opt for a different M.O., especially when it comes to trying to take out Democrats in primaries.

Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) is playing a key role. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Velázquez knocked off a longtime Democratic incumbent to win her seat, and they share Puerto Rican roots.

In private conversations with Ocasio-Cortez over the past few months, Velázquez counseled Ocasio-Cortez against targeting her Democratic colleagues in future elections. The two had a “long, long conversation” about the dynamics of Congress and Washington, and how there shouldn’t be a “litmus test” for every district, Velázquez said in a recent interview.

After she defeated Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in shocking fashion last year, Ocasio-Cortez supported primary challengers to Democratic Reps. Stephanie Murphy of Florida, William Lacy Clay of Missouri and Mike Capuano of Massachusetts.

Only Capuano lost. But Velázquez told Ocasio-Cortez she should think twice in the future before backing primaries against her colleagues. Murphy, the first Vietnamese woman elected to Congress, represents a swing district and could lose her seat if she’s forced to move left in a primary, Velázquez said during the talk.

“Washington is a political animal where a lot of the work that you want to accomplish depends on relationships within the Democratic Caucus,” said Velázquez, who described herself as a “bridge” between Ocasio-Cortez and the caucus. “The honeymoon between the voters that you represent and yourself could be a short one. People want to see results.”

Other lawmakers agreed.

“I think she needs to give herself an opportunity to know her colleagues and to give herself a sense of the chemistry of the body before passing judgment on anyone or anything,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke, a fellow New York Democrat.

“She’s new here, feeling her way around,” added Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). “She doesn’t understand how the place works yet.”

Ocasio-Cortez, through her staff, declined to be interviewed for this story. But there are signs that she’s getting the message, at least when it comes to backing primary challenges against her colleagues.

In a brief exchange off the House floor recently, she said she wasn’t interested in backing progressive candidates against incumbent Democrats — contradicting her own words after the midterms. She also criticized POLITICO for publishing a story suggesting she considered backing a primary opponent against rising star Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who many believe could become the first black speaker.

“I’m focused on my job,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Her spokesman, Corbin Trent, added: “There has been a change in focus — though not a change in ideology.”

Some House Democrats aren’t convinced. They’ve noticed that Ocasio-Cortez has hired two former organizers from the anti-establishment group Justice Democrats to run her office. One of them, her new chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti, told supporters during a November conference call that “we gotta primary folks.”

Ocasio-Cortez appeared to agree with him during the call, arguing that “all Americans know money in politics is a huge problem, but unfortunately the way that we fix it is by demanding that our incumbents give it up or by running fierce campaigns ourselves.”

“Long story short, I need you to run for office,” she told progressive activists on the call. “That’s really what we need to do to save this country.”

Comments like that got Ocasio-Cortez off on the wrong foot with her colleagues, to say the least.

“It’s not unreasonable for people to wonder” whether she will come after them, said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.). “I’m choosing not to focus on if she’s going to run someone against someone … but by seeing how we can more effectively work with her and bring her ideas to the table.”

Ocasio-Cortez is an enigma to most House Democrats. She’s very friendly in person, chatting up fellow lawmakers and security workers in the Capitol as she’s tailed by admirers and reporters.

Then they see the Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter, where she frequently snaps at critics and occasionally at fellow Democrats. When House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters that a new climate committee that Ocasio-Cortez championed would not have subpoena power, she retweeted the news and chastised Democratic leadership.

“Our goal is to treat Climate Change like the serious, existential threat it is by drafting an ambitious solution on the scale necessary — aka a Green New Deal — to get it done,” she said. “A weak committee misses the point & endangers people.”

Two House Democratic sources compared her use of Twitter to Donald Trump’s. Just as congressional Republicans constantly withhold criticism of the president out of fear he’ll unleash a tweet at them, some Democrats have done the same with Ocasio-Cortez.

“People are afraid of her,” said one senior Democratic aide.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) predicted that Ocasio-Cortez will soon learn that Republicans are “the real enemy.”

“She will come to the understanding that it’s a better use of her time fighting the Republican Party than her Democratic colleagues who agree with her on green energy,” said Maloney, who called Ocasio-Cortez “very nice” and “very charming.”

Others aren’t so sure. They point to her first week in Congress: Ocasio-Cortez aggravated Democratic leaders and even some fellow progressives when she tweeted that she’d oppose the Democratic rules package, arguing it would stymie liberal priorities like “Medicare for all.”

House Democrats were also unhappy when she made a play for a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Lawmakers suspected Ocasio-Cortez was behind a massive online campaign pressing Pelosi to appoint her to the panel, though her office said she was not.

Critics inside the caucus felt she didn’t deserve it, given her lack of professional experience on tax issues and her status as a freshman.

“It totally pissed off everyone,” said one senior House Democratic lawmaker of the campaign. “You don’t get picked for committees by who your grass-roots [supporters] are.”

But the issue of pushing primaries against Democratic incumbents such as Jeffries, who was recently elected chairman of the Democratic Caucus, is what’s agitated rank-and-file members the most.

“The chances that the Democratic caucus will stand by and watch its chair get attack and people piling on him — by Democrats! — is so obscene that I think you’ll find one of the strongest reactions that could possibly be anticipated,” Cleaver said.

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said he’s taking Ocasio-Cortez at her word that “she wants to work with everybody,” as he said she told him. Meeks and other members of the New York delegation intend to nominate Ocasio-Cortez to serve on the Financial Services Committee, an exclusive panel, early next week.

“It’s one thing” for outside activists to go after Democratic incumbents, Meeks said. “It’s another thing when you’re in this institution and you’ve got to work to get things done.”

But Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the former head of the House Progressive Caucus, said Democrats should probably get used to Ocasio-Cortez.

She’s “going to force some of the members to have to align with or against her,” he said. “In that sense, I would assume that can be irritating to some.”

“Maybe it’s the aunt or uncle you didn’t want to invite to the wedding,” Grijalva added, but Ocasio-Cortez “is part of the family.”

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