10 Nov 2022 ( The Intercept )

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called for the head of the New York State Democratic Party to resign in the wake of the catastrophic performance by Democrats in the state in the midterms — an underperformance so stark that it may make the difference in control of the House of Representatives, and by extension the party’s ability to enact its legislative agenda.

Following President Joe Biden’s press conference Wednesday afternoon, Ocasio-Cortez spoke with The Intercept to elaborate on her critique of the state party and discuss the role of abortion and the youth vote in the midterms, Ukraine, and the political distinction between unemployment and inflation. 

An unedited (except for ums and such) transcript of part one of the Q&A is below. Part two, on the evolution of the left and her relationship to it, is here.

Ryan Grim: What did you make of Biden’s press conference?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Well, I mean, I was able to catch the beginning of it, I think most of it. But I think it was smart for him to come out right away and to really continue and formalize what was already emerging as the narrative, which is that this was, despite Republicans potentially taking back the House by a very slim margin, to really cement this as a Democratic victory and not a Republican one. I think it was smart to do that. And I think it was quite notable that he mentioned young people and the climate crisis and youth turnout. I think it was just a smart thing to do in order to frame, overall, some of what we saw.

RG: Because of that big polling miss, it makes it easier for him to do that. But I’m curious if you think Democrats could have done better. What could they have done differently to make it an even better night?

AOC: Well, New York, I think, is the glaring aberration in what we see in this map. I have a front-row seat to what was going on here, so I think it’s natural for me to gravitate towards that. But I think even nationally, what happened in New York really bucks a lot of the trends in what we saw nationwide; I think that a lot of these races were much more uphill than what we saw in other places. I think, in New York, the way that those campaigns were run were different than the way a lot of winning campaigns across the country were run. And I think the role of the state party had very strong national implications. If Democrats do not hang on to the House, I think that responsibility falls squarely in New York State. And so I think we definitely could have done better there. And I think that that’s kind of like the glaring hole in where we did not perform as strongly as other areas in the map did.

RG: What were those key differences, you think between the way they were run in New York and elsewhere?

“[New York Democrats] ran ads around that were explicitly very anti-defund, which only served to reinvoke the frame and only served to really reinforce what Republicans were saying.”

AOC: I think policing was a big one. I think the choice among certain Democrats to validate Republican narratives and amplify Republican narratives on crime and policing, running ads on it — validating these narratives actually ended up hurting them much more than a different approach. I think that what we saw in other races was that they were able to really effectively center either their narratives and the narratives that they wanted to run with, whether it was abortion rights, whether it was democracy, whether it was, you know, other key and top priorities.

I think Democrats in New York, they did a couple of things. They ran ads around that were explicitly very anti-defund, which only served to reinvoke the frame and only served to really reinforce what Republicans were saying. If we’re going to talk about public safety, you don’t talk about it in the frame of invoking defund or anti-defund, you really talk about it in the frame of what we’ve done on gun violence, what we’ve done to pass the first gun reform bill in 30 years. Our alternatives are actually effective, electorally, without having to lean into Republican narratives. So I think that was one prime mistake.

And I think another prime mistake is that in New York State, I think that — Cuomo may be gone, but his entire infrastructure, much of his infrastructure and much of the political machinery that he put in place is still there. And this is a machinery that is disorganized, it is sycophantic. It relies on lobbyists and big money. And it really undercuts the ability for there to be affirming grassroots and state-level organizing across the state. And so when that languishes and there’s very little organizing happening, yeah, I mean, basically, you’re leaving a void for Republicans to walk into. And so I actually think a lot of these Republican games aren’t necessarily as strong as they may seem, I think it’s really from an absence. And it’s a testament to the corruption that has been allowed to continue in the New York State Democratic Party.

“Cuomo may be gone, but his entire infrastructure, much of his infrastructure and much of the political machinery that he put in place is still there.”

We saw that with India Walton. We saw loud and clear there were a lot of canaries in the coal mine from the state ballot initiative. I mean, Jay Jacobs [the New York State Democratic Committee chair] — Republicans put millions of dollars into defeating the redistricting ballot measure last year that would have protected the map, that would have put us ahead. And so I really believe that we would have won Democratic seats, potentially gained Democratic seats in New York State, but Republicans put millions of dollars against this ballot measure, they organized against it, and the New York State Democratic Party didn’t drop $1 in making sure that we got this thing passed. And this was in an off-year election, this was in 2021. We could have done this. And the fact that that happened, and there still was no implication for the state [party], and for state party leadership. A lot of this was really about these calcified political machines being asleep at the wheel, and there being a complete lack of desire to hold any of it accountable.

RG: And you called for Jay Jacobs to resign. What leverage do you and other progressives in the state have to make that happen? Is there anything being done organizationally to push that? What kind of structure would you see replacing the structure of the former Cuomo folks?

AOC: Well, I think, right now, the New York State Democratic Party, the way that it is currently structured, is very reliant on the governor. And I think that between Cuomo resigning late last year, Hochul then very unexpectedly taking the gubernatorial seat, then immediately dealing with a natural disaster, having to contend with a potential primary and then a general, I don’t really think that there’s been as much breathing room to address that issue in that whole environment.

But it’s very clear that the New York State Democratic Party was designed under Cuomo to be very reliant on the governor’s seat; the governor very much determines who the state party chair is, etc. And I think that, given how progressives really organized and helped deliver that margin, I think that there very much is room for a conversation to be held here about how we can restructure how the party is selected and established in perhaps a more decentralized way, or perhaps in a more democratic way, that is more representative of communities and more encouraging of engagement across the state — and less meddling, to be frank. Because these little cuts really do build up, whether it was the failure on the ballot initiative, whether it was the refusal to recognize and respect when progressive candidates do win democratic nominations outright that the party doesn’t work against its own nominees, which is what happened at Buffalo.

You know, I can say: I’ve been in Congress for four years, I have never had a conversation with the New York State Democratic Party chair ever. In fact, he’s done nothing but attack progressive Democrats all across the state. What he has done is created an environment where the only, quote unquote, or the main, quote unquote, legitimate Democratic candidates worthy of support are those who fight both progressives and Republicans, which is clearly not a winning strategy, especially not in the state of New York. And so when he has invested so much energy into demoralizing the grassroots and making sure that a lot of this grassroots energy gets busted up all across the state, of course we’re going to see these margins swing towards Republicans.

And so I think there really is something to be said here about a change in leadership and a change in structure of the state party, because this was really — I mean, when, in 2018, when Cuomo was running against Cynthia Nixon, the state convention first of all didn’t even invite really any progressives that were there, even after my I won my primary. But beyond that, it voted to endorse Cuomo by a margin of something like 97 percent, which is nowhere near what the primary was; it was like a banana republic. And so it really just solely exists to just reaffirm the image of the governor, as opposed to actually investing in infrastructure that promotes democratic organizing.

A lot of it is also driven by big money. And both the real estate and charter lobbies invest very heavily and have an enormous amount of influence in terms of what candidates get Democratic support in the state and which ones don’t. But I think that even if there’s no movement on the state party, I think their neglect has created enough space for there to be alternative structures to pop up. And some already have, like, if you look at NYPAN, the New York Progressive Action Network, they were kind of an offshoot of the Our Revolution chapters that cropped up all across New York state, but they’ve actually retained their infrastructure, and they’ve continue to remain active across the state. I think that NYPAN’s organizing is very ripe to fill the role that the state Democratic Party has left vacant if we don’t reform it in a more serious way.

RG: And one of the key players in that kind of real estate/charter school/state party apparatus that you talked about is [House Democratic Caucus Chair] Hakeem Jeffries. Do you think that there ought to be a reckoning for what his role is in this? It looks like he’s going to make a bid for party leader if Pelosi steps down. What do you think the repercussions are of how New York played out for that?

AOC: Well, you know, I think what we should really do is — I think there are quite a few figures who really affirmed and really pushed this playbook. And it’s not even just this year. I think there has been a multiyear strategy to try — it’s essentially been a campaign within the Democratic Party — to undermine progressive politics and try to mischaracterize it as toxic. And I think a continued insistence on that is going to hurt the party. Because I think one of the big things that we learned last night is that not only is it not true, but that candidates who refuse to overcompensate and overly tack right were actually rewarded for sticking to their values, and while doing their best to represent their communities.

“There has been a multiyear strategy to try — it’s essentially been a campaign within the Democratic Party — to undermine progressive politics and try to mischaracterize it as toxic.”

I personally do think that there should be a political cost to being heavily backed by big money. That, to me, is just a primary concern. And regardless of who it is in this discussion about generational change in the Democratic Party, I think we also need to be looking at donor bases. And we shouldn’t be shifting in a direction where the party or our party leadership becomes even more dependent on large donors and corporate backers, not less dependent, especially in a time when more Democrats are being elected independent of that and where the infrastructure for small-dollar fundraising has only grown and become more vibrant.

So I do hope that there really is reflection on some of the strategies that went awry in New York, and how that was different from other places in the country. And I do hope that there is a reflection on being outwardly antagonistic towards a very enthused progressive base, especially one in which young people delivered these wins. If you look at the difference between Tim Ryan and John Fetterman, as races, some of the preliminary data is suggesting that they had the same turnout in almost every demographic except young people. And as we know, young people skew way progressive within the party. And so when you outwardly antagonize, and outwardly seek to belittle and distance oneself from progressive values, you demoralize your base. I think there’s gonna be a lot more of that analysis as more data rolls in. But it’s not to say that everybody has to be holding the same line on progressive causes dependent on their community. But it doesn’t — I do think that this is a signal that being outwardly antagonistic, including trying to defeat progressive candidates, trying to demoralize those bases, is not healthy for the prospect of democratic gains.

RG: The election did offer a clear mandate for abortion rights, not just the House and Senate races, but in every state it was on the ballot. Yeah, Kentucky, Montana, Michigan, California, Vermont — the pro choice side won. So what do you think Democrats can do with that mandate? You know, just saying like, “Vote again and vote harder in 2024” can’t really be all there is. What should Biden do? What should Congress do with this new mandate?

AOC: Depending on how slim this margin is, if Democrats are somehow able to eke this out with a one or two seat — a similar margin that we’ve had — I think we need to go all out: We need to codify Roe v. Wade. If we’re able to pick up our Senate margin, then we deliver on the things that we weren’t able to deliver before. I think we try again on a $15 minimum wage. I think we codify Roe v. Wade, I think we go for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, I think we go all out on the litany of legislation that was stalled by [Sens. Joe] Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema. And I think it’s a very unique opportunity for us to do that in a very big way.

Now, if the Republican caucus, it ekes this out with a very narrow margin — which some folks are saying may be the case — if that is the case, I think we take advantage of the disorganization of the Republican caucus. I do not believe that Kevin McCarthy is a strong leader whatsoever. And I think we inflict a lot of pain on this. And either it becomes enough of a liability with them that they have to let something through because they’re just getting killed on this issue, or they lose in two years.

But on top of that, I also think that the results of tonight or last night do give Biden actually a bit of a strengthened mandate, in that I believe that the message from the electorate was very clear. And I think that over the last two years, there has been a lot of self doubt about how far to go.

“We learned an economic lesson, which is that full employment is politically stronger than inflation.”

And I think we learned an economic lesson, which is that full employment is politically stronger than inflation, as opposed to when we were in the situation under Obama, where they tried the other tack and unemployment was punished much more severely. And so I think we learned that economic message on employment. I think we learned [the value of] a very strong message on abortion. And whether that means Biden leaning into his pen a little bit more on executive orders and other tools at his disposal, I think that that’s going to be very important, including the bully pulpit.

And I also think that there was very strong implications around public safety that, like, once and for all, after two years of the party insulting criminal justice organizers, accusing them of sloganeering [and] of trying to out the conservatives on this issue — I actually do believe that there was a very clear message here that the American electorate understands that the conversation about public safety extends beyond policing. And that it also includes many other issues as well.

Because it’s like what we say back home. We were able to communicate to our electorate, you know, are we here to talk about police? Or are we here to talk about bringing down crime? Because those are two different conversations. And I actually think that that’s starting to sink in for people more that this is not about rejecting safety. But this is about actually solving the problem and using evidence-based approaches to tackle this problem. And so I don’t think we run away from these things anymore, and I don’t think we run away against health care writ large. I think, depending on what happens with the House, if we have the opportunity, we also need to strike the Hyde Amendment as well. And I think that that’s going to be increasingly important. And if we retain the Senate, and even if the House goes towards Republicans, given the very narrow margin of Republican victories, they too are also going to have to negotiate, they too are also going to have to compromise. And I think that they are in a much weaker position as a party, which means they have more to concede — not us. And we can stand in that in that confidence, in that power a little bit more.

RG: Picking up on that point a bit more, when you’re talking about inflicting pain on McCarthy, or on the Republicans. Are you thinking discharge petition on Roe? Because, like, you’ll probably have at least 210 members?

AOC: Yeah, I think discharge petition is an excellent vehicle. I do think that using rules is going to be quite important. I know that that’s going to be subject to negotiation within the Republican caucus as well. This is something that they’ve already started to use as a lever. And so part of me doesn’t want to — I want to make sure that we’re navigating this carefully. Because, like, motions to recommit, once one party kind of messes with it, it could create a precedent. And so I would be concerned if they did something like try to blow up the process of discharge petitions, because it’s such an essential part of our of our procedures. And they use them as well. They use discharge petitions as well, they’re not always successful, but it is a mechanism.

RG: Speaking of discharge petitions, on the stock trading ban, you had pushed a discharge petition, and then withdrew it after Pelosi promised to bring that to the floor. I’m sure you saw [Virginia Rep.] Elaine Luria, looks like [Iowa Rep.] Cindy Axne is trailing; both of them were kind of like public defenders of congressional stock trading and just got hammered for it during their campaigns. Do you think it was a mistake to withdraw that, and where is that fight now?

AOC: I’m trying to remember when this happened, I believe it was early summer when this happened. And so when I filed the discharge petition, for me, I felt like it was important to file it because it felt clear to me that leadership was trying to — or it just felt clear to me that there was just a lot of slow walking around this. And I felt like there was just kind of a hope that this was just gonna try to disappear into the background. And I just filed my discharge petition in an attempt to get this thing going again. And as far as that happened, it was successful, we were able to get leadership to move on this.

I think that there were some of these negotiations that were happening in good faith and not only when we filed the discharge petition, because the thing is, that petition was filed for my bill with [Reps. Joe] Neguse and [Raja] Krishnamoorthi. But we do have a broader coalition of people who support the concept in general, but there are many different kinds of proposals that are out there. And so I had concerns that it wouldn’t be successful without the other folks in that coalition on board, because we really needed like everybody to sign this thing in order for us to get to this vote.

And so I think that just what the discharge petition was successful in was was getting leadership to take this seriously, get momentum for it, but I also think that it was helpful in bringing this coalition together. We were able to do that press conference, but not only that, we were also able to come together and really start negotiating much more seriously on what a piece of compromise legislation among all of us with different proposals looks like.

When we actually came to that in early fall, that was when leadership announced their bill, frankly, without consultation with anybody in that coalition. And that was very shortly before we recessed it; it was just like a week or two before we recessed. So whether it was a mistake or not to withdraw it? I’m not sure. I think there were definitely some positives to it. And I certainly reserve my right to do it again. Because I do think there’s a point where we are running out the clock here, and we need to get this thing done. It will not happen under a Republican Congress, that’s for sure.

RG: And Democrats also hammered progressives for that [Congressional Progressive Caucus] letter encouraging the pursuit of negotiations to end the war in Ukraine, you know, saying that like doing it right before the election would end up hurting Democrats. That letter, as you know, that was retracted. You never commented on that, on whether you still stood by it. And you and other progressives have been criticized for not laying out your thinking on kind of what the progressive position ought to be when it comes to this war. I don’t know if you saw this, but Russia just announced it’s withdrawing from Kherson, which is a massive defeat for them. But so why hasn’t there been more of a progressive voice on the debate over war funding? And what’s your thinking on what the U.S. approach should be now?

AOC: Well, to be clear, both the decision to publish that letter at that time and withdraw that letter at that time were decisions that we were not made privy to. But in terms of the content of the letter — like timing aside, in terms of the content of the letter — I believe that a lot of it is quite consistent with what we’ve also been hearing from former Obama administration officials, the Biden administration, and now even recently, there have also been, I believe, some developments coming out of Ukraine, indicating an openness to negotiate under certain preconditions. And I believe that progressives have always advocated to leaning on diplomatic solutions, we should continue to lean on that.

I think that the large asterisk is: Will Russia, is Russia, how can we bring Russia to the table without compromising Ukrainian sovereignty and just core principles of self determination? But that is really what the landscape of diplomacy is about. And even when Obama was on “Pod Save America” several weeks ago, he discussed about how, at this present time, diplomatic relations are likely worse than they may have been almost at any point during the Cold War, which is a very dangerous place to be. And so the reaction to the publication of this letter, I think, continues to be a bit overblown. And I think that there’s almost a — it’s almost like people are looking for a problem, where there really I don’t think is any intent for there to be one. I also think that it’s quite consistent with what we’ve been hearing from, frankly, the Biden administration, former Obama administration officials, and even certain Ukrainian officials. And now when it comes to that recent development on Russia, I do believe that there’s some skepticism that we’re hearing from Ukrainian officials about whether that is — the genuineness or authenticity of good faith that that announcement was made, but you know, I think that’s something that we will soon see play out.

RG: Back on that point about making some pain for Republicans on abortion rights, if you do end up losing those seats in New York, probably a lot of them are going to be uncomfortable with the Republican position and politically vulnerable around it. Yet they do feel pretty confident saying that they’re against [the Women’s Health Protection Act] because they caricature it as, you know, you’re killing babies right before birth. But WHPA does go beyond codifying Roe v. Wade, so where do you come down on the question of trying to get get the codification of Roe into law versus holding out for the kind of maximalist WHPA legislation?

AOC: Well, you know, I think when it comes to something like WHPA, I think that a lot of this is just about messaging. And so, Roe, I think in public imagination, I believe that what Roe really stands for and what people really see as Roe is, is a woman or person’s ability to have bodily autonomy and make these decisions between them and their doctor. And Republicans, where they tried to go in against WHPA is by trying to slice and dice and make these questions about 15 weeks or 20 weeks or 30 weeks. And I think for a very long time, people have kind of run away from that fight. I don’t think that we need to litigate number of weeks. I think, if anything in the aftermath of Roe, there have been an enormous amount of conversations about the enormous amount of circumstances in which this is not applying to this kind of myth of third-trimester elective abortions where, like, there’s nothing else that’s wrong.

I think that when we try to, like, really bring this down and campaign on WHPA, I think we do ourselves a disservice. I think we can remain focused on the overall principle here, which is people should be able to make these decisions between themselves and their doctor. I mean, I know people who have been in situations where they are, they are in like late second, sometimes even early third trimester and horrifying complications arise. And the procedure to save the mother’s life is known as an abortion, even though the fetus was not viable. And so, you know, I think especially in places like Westchester County, we can make this an issue, we just need to actually make it an issue. And we need real organizing happening in communities like these, but I don’t think we need — I don’t think we’re at the place of concession on that. Because I just don’t think that we’ve tried. I don’t think we’ve exhausted our options here by any means.

RG: And any thoughts of anybody in the progressive wing running for leadership?

“That’s a Herculean feat, for us to be able to pass the legislation that we did with the margins that we had.”

AOC: I don’t know because there’s still a lot of question marks that I don’t know what a lot of these leadership races may look like. I still think that there’s questions about what’s even going to happen in terms of transitions. Like, I don’t think that any of that has really been made clear yet. That may also be a result of the fact that we don’t know what the final tally is. I think there are going to be different considerations where if we end up eking this thing out with a one or two seat majority, not too dissimilar from the three or four seat majority that we had dealt with.

I think people are going to prioritize different characteristics and leadership. I think that the value and the ability to hold this caucus together and organize it, that’s a Herculean feat, for us to be able to pass the legislation that we did with the margins that we had. It’s really quite unbelievable. And so if we are in the majority again, with that very small margin, I think there’s going to be a focus on making sure that we have someone that can really retain that ability. But if we’re the minority, I think people may prioritize different kinds of skill sets to navigating being an opposition party in the minority, and so I’m not too sure yet, I think all these races being called are going to have an impact on what direction people go in, and whether they decide to run for things or not as well.