Categories: National CommentaryPolitics

A Wake-up Call for Democrats

( – I’ve never met Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year old New York activist, but I am surely looking forward to it.  This giant-slayer of an organizer (she worked for Senator Bernie Sanders during the 2016 campaign) was out-spent, but certainly not out-worked, by her opponent, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY). 

Crowley had served in Congress for ten terms and was the fourth-highest ranking Democrat in Congress, one who had openly coveted Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s position as Minority Leader in Congress.  He spent $1.5 million in his first primary race since 2004, while Ocasio-Cortez spent just a fraction of that.

Congresswoman-elect Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (wow!  It feels good to type that, and she is a shoo-in because the district is mostly Democratic) won because, despite fewer funds and less name recognition, she had a ground game that did not quit. The day after her election, she told CNN that her team “knocked on doors that had never been knocked on, reaching voters who had been dismissed.”  Lacking money for the television ads Crowley spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on, Ocasio-Cortez used social media to get the word about her candidacy out. 

 She didn’t mind being sharply critical of Crowley, highlighting his disconnection from the New York district that includes parts of the Bronx and Queens, and focusing on the demographic mismatch between a 50 plus white man representing a district that is majority minority. Ocasio-Cortez’s hard work paid off – she had more than 57 percent of the vote, hardly a nail-biter.

In some ways, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez sounds something like Stacey Abrams, the Democratic powerhouse who made history when she became the first-African American woman to win a primary party nomination for governor and in the South, at that.  When Abrams first declared her candidacy she was met with skepticism, and especially from some in the Democratic Party establishment.  But she had been registering some of the voters that the party had ignored, and if she can get about 100,000 more registered and voting, she has an excellent chance of being elected governor.

Unfortunately, the national Democratic Party and some state parties have done a poor job of dealing with the nation’s shifting demographics, and with the demand from younger, browner, and more focused voters to dispense with business as usual. 

In Washington State, for example, Tirzah Idahosa is a candidate for the 30th Senate District.  The union member, volunteer lobbyist, former correctional officer and foster parent is a founder of Democrats for Diversity and Inclusion and a precinct captain.  In a primary race with another Democrat, she tells me that she has been advised to “wait her turn” or to run for something “lesser” like the school board.  Don’t these mainstream Democrats get that advising folks to “wait their turn” is what is turning so many away from the polls?  President Barack Obama didn’t wait his turn when he was advised to, and he beat Hilary Clinton soundly and out of turn!

 Mainstream Democrats didn’t get the Bernie memo, but Senator Bernie Sanders had a good night on Tuesday, June 25.  Not only did he have the Ocasio-Cortez victory to savor, but another of his acolytes, former NAACP President Ben Jealous, won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Maryland.  His opponent, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, was in many ways both the superior candidate and the one better poised to beat Republican governor Larry Hogan.  But Jealous had the Bernie machine and the enthusiasm of younger people who saw Baker as “business as usual.”

In Boston, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley has challenged incumbent Representative Mike Capuano (D-Ma) for his congressional seat.  Capuano has used the power of his incumbency to persuade members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis, to support him, a colleague, instead of Councilor Presley. 

If some of the CBC representatives spent time with Ayanna Pressley, they’d like her and wish they had someone with her passion as a colleague.  But Capuano thinks his seniority (he has only been in office 5 years) should be persuasive and dismissed Pressley’s candidacy by telling the Boston Globe “if we decide to send junior people, good luck.” 

His rank will yield his a key subcommittee chairmanship in Congress if Democrats can take the House back.  Or, if Democrats can win the house, it will put Pressley in line to be a committee chair just a few years from now.   Capuano forgets that demographics have shifted in his Congressional district, which is now majority-minority.  He also ignores that fact that not so long ago he, too, was a junior person in Congress.

Younger, more progressive Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley aren’t trying to “wait their turn,” they are trying to turn our country around.   The Democratic Party ought to look at these candidacies as a second wake-up call.  The first happened when Senator Bernie Sanders nearly beat Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and lit a fire among young change agents that won’t be contained by the power of incumbency or the condescending rhetoric that folks should “wait their turn.”
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist. Her latest book “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy” is available via for booking, wholesale inquiries or for more info visit

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