Ocasio-Cortez is a New York Democrat rock star on the cusp of power
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Ocasio-Cortez is a New York Democrat rock star on the cusp of power

Set to be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, 29-year-old candidate who once decried Israel’s ‘massacre’ of Gazans is both media darling and lightning rod for criticism

Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, speaks with  reporters after her general campaign kick-off rally in the Bronx borough of New York, September 22, 2018. (Don EMMERT/AFP)
Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, speaks with reporters after her general campaign kick-off rally in the Bronx borough of New York, September 22, 2018. (Don EMMERT/AFP)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic superstar on the cusp of making history as the youngest woman elected to Congress, is a poster child for the left and a surge in minority women running for office.

The 29-year-old, blessed with telegenic looks, charisma and bursting with youthful idealism, is both a media darling and a lightning rod for criticism.

She has championed her working-class and Puerto Rican roots as the daughter of a cleaner and a father who died in his 40s, embodying a different generation of politician. She also shuns corporate donors.

“Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” she said in a campaign video that helped her defeat a 10-term, Democratic Party grandee in her first political race in a New York primary in June.

Overnight, Ocasio-Cortez went from total unknown to the toast of coastal America, profiled in Vogue, a guest on late-night chat shows and jetting around the country lending her rock-star status to other insurgent candidates.

On Tuesday, she is virtually certain to be elected to Congress — an astonishing achievement for a woman who was working this year as a bartender — in a safe Democratic seat in diverse Queens and the Bronx.

Congressional nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigning for Zephyr Teachout in New York City, July 12, 2018. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images via JTA)

Ocasio-Cortez once worked for the late senator Ted Kennedy while studying economics and international relations at Boston University. She has worked with female entrepreneurs in Africa and in education.

When she beat incumbent Joe Crowley, she was moonlighting as a bartender. “It’s really one of the most remarkable stories I’ve ever heard,” said talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel in a breathless introduction.

There’s no doubting her talent, crowd-appeal, idealism and passion for grassroots campaigning, riding what she hopes will be a blue wave in the midterms to ultimately overwhelm Donald Trump.

‘Hurt America’

“It becomes way harder to hate up close, which is why the work of knocking on doors is so important,” she said to applause last month at an event organized by the LGBT community.

“I am like, ‘Hey, we are fighting for universal care, for tuition-free public college, we are fighting for a living wage,’ and you see that kind of defense mechanism kind of come down.”

Representative Joe Crowley, D-NY (Public Domain, US Congress, Wikimedia Commons)

But in America at large, such politics are pretty radical. She is a Democratic Socialist in the vein of failed 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, on whose campaign she worked.

Ocasio-Cortez has compared the fight against climate change to the fight against Nazi Germany in World War II, calling it a “major existential threat” and has likened electing Democrats to ending slavery.

Her comments on Israel have prompted criticism from the right and left.

Although she has commented infrequently on foreign affairs, in May she called the killing of Palestinian protesters by Israeli troops on the Gaza border fence a “massacre.”

Then in July Ocasio-Cortez decried the “occupation of Palestine” during a television interview, but stumbled when pressed to explain what she meant.

Appearing July 13 on PBS’s “Firing Line,” Ocasio-Cortez admitted that she was “not the expert” on the issue, drawing accusations that she was “clueless.”

On “Firing Line,” host Margaret Hoover asked Ocasio-Cortez “What is your position on Israel?” Ocasio-Cortez responded, “I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist.” She added: “I am a proponent of a two-state solution.” The candidate said her previous position on the Gaza clashes “is not a referendum on the State of Israel.”

When pressed to explain herself further she said “I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue,” and “I just look at things through a human rights lens and I may not use the right words… Middle Eastern politics is not exactly at my kitchen table every night.”

However, in August she was cheered at an event at the New York’s Jewish museum, albeit one that did not touch on Israel or the Jewish community.

The right has branded her politics “dangerous” and she has also taken hits from centrist stalwarts, former senator Joe Lieberman saying her primary win seemed “likely to hurt Congress, America and the Democratic Party.”

Only time will tell whether the progressive Democratic wing that she embodies represents the future or a Tea Party-style spinoff as mainstream liberals scramble for ways to contain Trump.

“On any given day, no one can agree if she is the next Sarah Palin, the next Obama or a Venezuelan dictator,” summed up Vogue.

She has proved herself an engaging speaker on the campaign trail.

‘Inspirational’

“She was very social media savvy, she worked very, very hard for every vote she had… and she is a really good candidate with good political instincts,” says Jeanne Zaino, a political scientist at Iona College.

“But we can’t forget the larger forces, there’s a real frustration… with the establishment,” she added. “I’m not sure she’d have won if her opponent wasn’t a leader of the Democratic Party.”

New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addresses supporters at a fundraiser on August 2, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Pragmatists say she will eventually have to compromise her ideals. Debt-free college and universal health care sound appealing, but are expensive propositions.

Neither is it clear what kind of power she and other progressives will yield in the years ahead.

“A lot depends not just on what happens in 2018, because we will not see large numbers of progressives elected in office, but 2020-2022. These movements take a long time,” Zaino cautioned.

Ocasio-Cortez reportedly lives in a modest apartment in the South Bronx with her boyfriend. She rents frocks she wears on the campaign.

“It’s very inspirational to go from bartender to candidate for Congress,” said supporter Kaitlyn Richter, 25.

“She will definitely be small fish in a big pond,” Richter added. But she has high hopes that Ocasio-Cortez will “speak her own mind.”

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