Famous Friday: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

If you’re paying any attention to politics these days, you’ve surely heard a lot about the subject of this week’s Famous Friday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Even if you don’t follow politics, you may have seen her on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The View or The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Or maybe on Twitter (more about that later). Sometimes referred to by her initials AOC, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, 29, is about to become, not only the first woman of color elected to office in NY-14, but also the youngest woman to serve in Congress in the history of the United States!

A year ago she was a bartender but in January she will be representing New York’s 14th District in Congress. Ocasio-Cortez’ primary win in June was described as the biggest upset victory in the 2018 midterm election primaries. The Guardian called it “one of the biggest upsets in recent American political history.” She defeated ten-term incumbent Congressman, Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley, who outspent her 18-1 by almost 15 percentage points. About her huge financial disadvantage, she said, “You can’t really beat big money with more money. You have to beat them with a totally different game.” And that’s what she did!

Then, after the primary and endorsements by Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, she easily won the midterm general election against Republican Anthony Pappas with 78% of the vote helping Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives by picking up at least 39 seats.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who was born in New York City to Blanca Ocasio-Cortez and Sergio Ocasio, has described her background as working-class, and credits her political views to the understanding she gained of what it is like for families to really struggle. Even after graduating cum laude from Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a minor in economics, she moved back to NYC, worked as a bartender and a waitress while her mother cleaned houses and drove school buses. After her father’s death, her mom had to fight foreclosure of their home.

“Many members of Congress were born into wealth, or they grew up around it,” Alexandria told Bon Appetit. “How can you legislate a better life for working people if you’ve never been a working person? Try living with the anxiety of not having health insurance for three years when your tooth starts to hurt. It’s this existential dread. I have that perspective. I feel like I understand what’s happening electorally because I have experienced it myself.”

But don’t be misled. Her work as a bartender was not all this busy young woman was up to. She founded a publishing company specializing in children’s books that show the Bronx in a positive light. She served with the nonprofit National Hispanic Institute and as Educational Director of the Northeast Collegiate World Series. She also began dabbling in the highest levels of politics and government. During college, she was an intern in the immigration office of Senator Ted Kennedy and worked as an organizer the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

But it was a visit to Standing Rock that actually convinced her to run for office herself. Seeing others “putting their whole lives and everything that they had on the line for the protection of their community”, inspired her.

Now that she is headed to Washington, DC, she is excited to make a difference. She supports progressive policies such as Medicare for All, a job guarantee, tuition-free public college, ending the privatization of prisons, and gun-control policies. In June, she told CNN she would support the impeachment of President Trump, stating that “we have to hold everyone accountable and that no person is above that law.”

Most people know Alexandria is Puerto Rican, but far fewer know that she has Jewish heritage. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez shared this at a synagogue in Queens, during a Hanukkah party held by activist group Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, telling the crowd that “a very, very long time ago, generations and generations ago, my family consisted of Sephardic Jews”, but did not practice the faith. She dated her ancestry to those who had to flee Europe during the Spanish Inquisition more than 500 years ago, and sought refuge in the New World. “Some of those people landed in Puerto Rico,” she explained. “As is the story of Puerto Rico, we are a people that are an amalgamation. We are not one thing. We are black; we are indigenous; we are Spanish; we are European. To be Puerto Rican is to be the descendant of: African Moors and slaves, Taino Indians, Spanish colonizers, Jewish refugees, and likely others. We are all of these things and something else all at once — we are Boricua.”

Now, about those Twitter skills!! Ocasio-Cortez was barely mentioned in the media until her primary election win. After her win, that all changed. She quickly got tons of media attention. Today she has 1.6 Million followers on Twitter and 1.1 Million on Instagram! She is quick witted and unafraid to stand up to anyone. She is using social media to connect with citizens in ways that are new to many. It is not uncommon to find her spending the evening in sweats on a zoom video call answering questions from constituents and supporters. This large social media presence may increase her influence in the House. Axios has credited her with as much social media clout as her fellow freshman Democrats combined!

One final fun fact for you… science was Alexandria’s first passion. As a student at Yorktown High School, Alexandria tested the effect of various antioxidants on the lifespan of roundworms. The International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after Ocasio-Cortez when she was a senior in high school in recognition of her second-place finish in the in the Microbiology category 2007 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Karson Baldwin, Project RACE Teens Co-President

Photo Credit: Ocasio2018.com