The Night Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Made History
March 31, 2021
In 2018, the country watched as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rose from unknown part-time bartender to the halls of Congress at the age of twenty-nine and became a household name for her progressive, passionate politics. In The AOC Generation: How Millennials Are Seizing Power and Rewriting the Rules of American Politics, journalist David Freedlander gives firsthand accounts detailing the final days of her campaign, which he spent beside her as she fought for every last vote. He also connects her ample political talents and ability to command the media and the public’s attention to the newfound political awakening of millennial activists. This selection from his book details the last moments of her campaign as she ran against her opponent, former US Representative Joe Crowley, and the night she made history on many fronts—including women’s history.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did something unheard of in politics: she skipped town.
While the Crowley forces were holding a big rally on a rainy Saturday, Ocasio-Cortez was thousands of miles away at the US-Mexico border to protest the Trump administration’s child separation policy.
It led to striking visuals that rocketed around social media of Ocasio-Cortez pleading with guards at the gate, but it seemed suicidal politically. It was Ocasio-Cortez’s idea, and no one tried to talk her out of it.
“As a campaign manager, yes, it is hard not to have the candidate present for the final weekend,” said Vigie Ramos Rios. “But here’s the thing: You are talking about a district that is 50 percent immigrants. And so you’re talking about a candidate who is recognizing what’s important to them and is highlighting it.
“We could see a path to victory at that point, but she also had a spotlight and if she could take that spotlight and highlight something that mattered to the people in her district, that’s what she was going to do. It wasn’t about winning. It was a movement. Victory comes in getting people to see somebody who’s willing to represent her district wholly, even if that means for her personally, it might not be a gain. She might go back to being a bartender and a waitress. She was going to take that little bit of spotlight and highlight an issue, and that was incredibly important to people in her district.”
On Election Day, the streets of the district were flooded with volunteers from both sides, but it was clear that many of the those there for Crowley were connected in some way to the Queens political machine; they were staffers for local elected officials or members of a local political club. Shawna Morlock, the hairdresser from Astoria, stood outside of a polling place in her neighborhood to urge voters to pull the lever for AOC, but she thought something was up when she got to talking with a person, a firefighter, who was there on behalf of Crowley’s campaign. He was a union guy, and as they started talking, she was surprised to hear him say good things about Donald Trump and bad things about immigrants. Later, he admitted he wasn’t a Democrat at all but was there at the polling place because his union asked him to be.
Ocasio-Cortez spent much of Election Day tweeting photos of places where she thought the Crowley forces had hung illegal signs, and then accusing the Crowley forces of taking down her signs and putting theirs up illegally. There was no evidence of it, and it wasn’t the only baseless accusation thrown out by Ocasio-Cortez during the campaign. She accused the incumbent of not having bilingual campaign literature, which was false, and of Crowley acolytes tampering with election machines, which would have been a violation of state law and for which there was also no evidence. Crowley couldn’t make one of the debates because he had a previous commitment in another part of the district, so he sent a surrogate in his place, a local city councilwoman named Annabel Palma, and Ocasio-Cortez accused him of deliberately attempting to confuse voters by sending a Latina in his stead.
Ocasio-Cortez’s mother, Bianca, joined the campaign for the final days. She became a regular campaign volunteer, joining the others who had been inspired by Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, and allowing herself to feel the faint hope that her daughter could actually win. As they were waiting for the election results, Morlock told Bianca to just relax, saying, “She is going to be president one day, just you watch,” to which Bianca replied, “Don’t jinx it!”
As the team members finished their day on the streets, Ocasio-Cortez gathered with a few of them in a pocket park in the Bronx. At polling stations across the district, the enthusiasm for her seemed palpable, yet, still, no one believed she could win. Surely, they figured, there was a reserve army of Crowley supporters who could pull this off.
“No matter what happens, this does not stop here,” Ocasio-Cortez said to her supporters as evening fell. “I want every single one of you, to stay active, to keep pushing. Once people have been woken up, they don’t go back to sleep.”
The minute the polls closed, the Crowley forces knew the race was over. There had been massive turnout in areas good for Ocasio-Cortez and very limited turnout in Crowley’s precincts. The Crowley election night party was a new bistro on Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights. The room didn’t have any TVs, and so the people in attendance, who were most of the city’s political class, including at least three people then planning on running for mayor in three years and hoping to pay homage to one of the most powerful people in the city, had no idea what the early returns showed: that Ocasio-Cortez had opened up a big lead on Crowley. As more votes came in, the lead only widened. Crowley staffers were in tears. Local elected officials stormed off in disgust, with one suggesting that was why primaries were a bad idea. Some, seeing which way the wind was blowing, dashed out and headed up to Ocasio-Cortez’s election night party in the Bronx. Crowley came in eventually to cheers. An amateur musician, Crowley’s band was set up in a corner of the restaurant and, with the congressman on guitar and vocals, launched into a rip-roaring rendition of “Born to Run,” dedicated to AOC.
“I may not have gotten proper credit for all the things I have done,” Crowley said afterward while sipping on a beer as the band played “Ramblin’ Man” behind him. “The people in this district know me. It was a Democratic primary at a time of low turnout. It is what it is.”
“People know me as a national figure, not a local one,” he added. “I think I always maintained my connectivity to the district. But at the end of the day it’s not about me. It’s about the people. I give my opponent, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a lot of credit. She ran a good race.”
Meanwhile, up in the Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez was in a car with her partner, Riley Roberts, and a few campaign staff were on their way to her election night party at a pool hall in the Bronx.
Naureen Akhter had made two cakes for the occasion, figuring that win or lose, the occasion called for cake. Ocasio-Cortez refused to look at the returns coming in, and so was genuinely shocked when a reporter for NY1 pulled her aside as she was declared the victor. Actor and activist Cynthia Nixon showed up to celebrate. Most media had been banned since they had not bothered to cover the race in the first place.
“I told you!” Morlock said when she saw Bianca Ocasio-Cortez standing off to the side, weeping tears of joy. “She is going to be president. I am calling it right now!”
Roberts was interviewed by People for Bernie, which livestreamed his words to the group’s Facebook account, and he said they always had talked about something like this happening but never thought it would happen so soon. The crowd began to chant, “AOC! AOC!”
Ocasio-Cortez stood up on the bar and addressed her exhausted supporters: “This room won this seat! Every person out here changed America tonight. What is very clear is that this is not the end, this is the beginning. The message we sent to the world tonight is that it is not okay to put donors before your community. The message that we sent tonight is that sometime between midnight and darkness there is still hope for this nation. You have given this country hope that when you knock on your neighbor’s door, when you come to them with love, when you come to them and tell them that no matter their stance, you are there for them, we can make change. What you have shown is that this nation is never beyond remedy, it is never beyond hope.
“Every person in this room is going to DC with me,” she added. “We have to dedicate ourselves to this fight because I can’t do it alone.”
About the Author
David Freedlander is a contributor to Politico Magazine and New York Magazine, and writes for a variety of publications about politics, the arts, and New York City, including The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Slate, Rolling Stone, and Town and Country. Freedlander is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where he teaches politics and political theory, and is frequently called onto CNN, MSNBC and national radio programs to discuss current events. He lives in Jackson Heights, NY. Connect with him at davidfreedlander.com and on Twitter (@freedlander).