No more ‘wait your turn’ politics

7/13/2018, 5:19 p.m.
I’ve never met Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year old New York activist, but I am surely looking forward to it. This ...
Julianne Malveaux

Julianne Malveaux

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 U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination campaign — was out-spent, but certainly not outworked, by her opponent, Congressman Joseph Crowley.

Rep. Crowley of New York had served in Congress for 10 terms and was the fourth highest-ranking Democrat in Congress, one who had openly coveted Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s position as House minority leader. He spent $1.5 million in his first primary race since 2004, while Ms. Ocasio-Cortez spent just a fraction of that.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez won the recent Democratic primary because, despite less money 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 Rep. Crowley spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez used social media to get the word about her candidacy out.

She didn’t mind being sharply critical of Rep. 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-year-old-plus white man representing a district that is majority minority. Ms. 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 of Georgia, the Democratic powerhouse who made history when she became the first African-American woman to win a primary nomination for governor — and in the South at that. When Ms. Abrams first declared her candidacy, she was met with skepticism, 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 in November.

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 state Senate. 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 was 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?  Former President Barack Obama didn’t wait his turn when he was advised to and he beat Hillary Clinton soundly for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and out of turn!

Mainstream Democrats didn’t get the Bernie memo, but Sen. Sanders had a good night on June 25. Not only did he have the victory of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez to savor, but another of his acolytes, former national 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 incumbent Gov. Larry Hogan. But Mr. Jealous had the Bernie machine and the enthusiasm of younger people who saw Mr. Baker as “business as usual.”

In Boston, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley has challenged incumbent Democratic Congressman Mike Capuano for his seat. Rep. 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 Pressley. If some of the CBC representatives spent time with Ms. Pressley, they’d like her and wish they had someone with her passion as a colleague. But Rep. Capuano thinks his seniority — he has only been in office five years — should be persuasive and dismissed Ms. 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 back the U.S. House of Representatives. Or if Democrats win the House, it will put Ms. Pressley in line to be a committee chair just a few years from now.

Younger, more progressive Democrats like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Ms. 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 Sen. Sanders nearly beat Ms. Clinton for the Democratic presidential 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.”

The writer is an economist and author.