One year and a month ago, young activists from the Sunrise Movement barged into Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s Capitol Hill office to demand immediate action on climate change.
Their sit-in – and push for a “Green New Deal,” at the time a novel term to most Americans – might have gone unnoticed outside of Washington, DC, if not for the presence of an unexpected guest: then Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The New Yorker had not yet served a day in the House but was, to a mixture of anger and eye-rolling from older Washington hands, already flexing – and testing – her political clout.
Thirteen months on, the experiments continue apace. Ocasio-Cortez told CNN that her time in the city has been in parts “isolating” and invigorating, as she’s sought to navigate an institution she never expected to inhabit.
But as another election cycle spins into gear, Ocasio-Cortez is also working to upset that dynamic from the inside out. That means turning her small-dollar fundraising prowess into a tool for growing progressive power in the halls of Congress. It’s not an intellectual exercise. She is young still, only 30, and – despite some mostly right-wing media caricatures to the contrary – deadly serious about her work.
The underlying question, as Ocasio-Cortez puts it, is “How do I connect with the people who support my campaign in a more holistic, broader sense?”
The answer, she says, is that her unusual-for-Washington schedule – which doesn’t include phone “call time” for contributions – “results a lot in social media, it results in Instagram, but it also results in working on very deep and comprehensive policies. So (the hours not spent seeking support from big givers) completely changes how you approach this job.”
Though firmly entrenched now as a cultural figure, Ocasio-Cortez is still working out the levers of power. Her relationship with Pelosi, at least on a business level, appears to run hot and cold. The House speaker can be mockingly dismissive of the progressive left’s agenda and, when Ocasio-Cortez and “the squad” aligned against the majority’s border funding bill last summer, Pelosi used an interview with The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd to impart some home truths to her new colleagues.
“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi said. “But they didn’t have any following (in the House Democratic caucus). They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
Increasing that number, in order to create and sustain a more formidable progressive voting bloc, is a top priority for activists focusing on down-ballot races in 2020. And Ocasio-Cortez, whose massive small dollar donor base and email list affords her a level of independence – and influence – rare among new members, is determined to help. The first step: bolstering her allies on the Hill and, in two notable House primaries, aiding the challengers to a pair of conservative Democrats.
According to campaign spokesman Corbin Trent, Ocasio-Cortez has already helped raise – using her email list and social media prompts – more than $21,000 for Jessica Cisneros, the progressive primary challenger to Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas.
“It’s important to me that candidates coming to office also have big lists, also approach this job differently and structurally in a different way,” Ocasio-Cortez said of Cisneros. She’s also pushed her supporters to donate to Marie Newman, a liberal who also enjoys the backing of more established groups, like EMILY’s List, in her second shot at unseating Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski.
“I’ve supported new members as well,” Ocasio-Cortez notes, “like (California Rep.) Michael Levin. I’m really proud to work with Michael Levin. He proudly calls himself a progressive in a swing district and that’s very rare.”
Levin flipped Southern California’s 49th Congressional District in 2018 after former GOP Rep. Darrell Issa decided not to seek a ninth term. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign has helped him raise more than $35,000 ahead of the 2020 elections. Levin, California Rep. Katie Porter and Connecticut Rep. Jahana Hayes, are all part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “frontline” list of members likely to face tough Republican challenges.
Ocasio-Cortez has tapped her base in support of Hayes, for whom she’s raised $35,267, and Porter, a strong fundraiser on her own, for about $2,600.
“A lot ‘frontliners’ either believe or have taken the approach that you have to be conservative to win a swing district. And when I look at people like Katie Porter or Michael Levin, I know that that is not a universal truth,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “So I try to go out of my way to share lists and fundraise for them as well, because I want to prove that there isn’t just one way to be a frontline member. It doesn’t just mean that you have to vote with Republicans on many issues.”
In all, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign has said in fundraising emails, her donors – or “members of Team AOC,” as they say – have put about $300,000 into “progressive candidates and causes” like Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, immigrant rights groups like RAICES and Planned Parenthood.
The fundraising emails are blunt about Ocasio-Cortez’s intentions.
In a recent message with the subject line “Shockwaves,” her campaign wrote that money raised from her grassroots donor network “puts corporate Democrats in safe blue seats on notice.”
Going one year inside the belly of the Washington beast, Ocasio-Cortez has seen up-close why the enduring line from her famous 2018 primary campaign ad – “We’ve got people, they’ve got money” – resonated so deeply, especially on the left. She has also witnessed the durability of establishment money, and its shape-shifting influence, on the legislative process.
Even though an growing number of members reject corporate PAC money, many are still reliant on big checks to fund increasingly expensive campaigns. Small donor bases – that is, those reliant on a handful of wealthy contributors – have outsized power, as Ocasio-Cortez described it, not only because of the bottom line, but because they are “more easy to organize” and equipped to “get their ducks in a row” when they want to push, or push back, on a piece of legislation.
The thinking around that could change if the presidential candidate Ocasio-Cortez endorsed, to some fanfare, in October, wins the Democratic nomination and defeats President Donald Trump next November.
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ election, or even that of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom Ocasio-Cortez also considered backing, would immediately upend the status quo in the capital. But it would be up to the new generation of progressive leaders like Ocasio-Cortez and more seasoned allies like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Ro Khanna to drive legislation from the Hill to the White House – a task that would rival in difficulty a President Sanders’ victory.
Asked what she’s learned about power in Washington – how it’s won, lost and wielded – through her first year on the job, Ocasio-Cortez highlighted a specific conversation with another Democratic member who rejects corporate money but, all the same, accepts “max-out” checks and had recently attended a joint fundraiser in New York.
Her colleague, Ocasio-Cortez said, described to her a scene crowded with corporate leaders and Wall Street “types.” But when it was time for the donors to ask questions of the candidates there, the member said, “Every question was about you.”
Ocasio-Cortez continued: “And she says to me, ‘I don’t say this in an offensive way’ – and I’m close with her – but she says, ‘All I could think to myself is, she’s just one vote out of 430-odd votes. Why do you care about a freshman member?’”
The question answered itself. It was, in the other member’s estimation, not simply a matter of distance from corporate money. It was a feeling, she said, that “they don’t have power over you in any way and that they don’t feel like you’re predictable.”
Ocasio-Cortez stopped there and laughed.
“It’s funny,” she said. “I think I’m quite predictable.”