She is young and famous. No, she isn’t a Jenner or someone else who lucked into the spotlight. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a newly elected member of the House of Representatives from New York’s 14th Congressional District. The 29-year-old launched her political career in last year’s midterms, taking on 10-term incumbent, Democratic Caucus Chair, and fourth-ranking House Democrat Joe Crowley in the primary election. Crowley hadn’t faced a primary challenger since 2004 and had a massive funding network in place that raised nearly $3 million for his re-election bid. Ocasio-Cortez raised roughly $600,000 from small donations, refusing to accept large donations. Placing herself far to the left of Crowley as an unashamed socialist, Ocasio-Cortez beat Crowley by nearly 15 points. Her victory propelled her into stardom for liberals who feel like Democrats are not moving far enough left and elicited concern from moderate Democrats about the direction of the party. To conservatives, she has become a subject of obsession. Her clothes, college dancing skills, and looks have received comments from right-wing media looking to knock her down a peg. Regardless of Ocasio-Cortez’s politics, her rise into D.C. politics should be refreshing for Democrats, Republicans, and anyone who cares about the transparency and accessibility of our government.
Flashback to November 2017. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, often called AOC, is working as a bartender at a taco and tequila bar. After shifts, she would knock door to door to drum up support for what most would see as an impossible challenge to an incumbent. Despite trying to campaign, she was attempting to save her mother’s home from foreclosure. What makes this journey unique? Take a look at the New York Times graphic on how every member of Congress found their way into power. Some highlights are that more than a third of Congress holding law degrees, less than five percent have blue-collar or service-job experience, and only twenty percent of lawmakers never held public office before Congress. In other words, Congress is a professional organization. Furthering the difficulty of entering D.C. politics is the age standard. Prior to last year’s midterm, the average ages of representatives and senators were 57 and 61, respectively. These hurdles were irrelevant to AOC, who showed the world that a regular person can get into Congress. Sure, you can argue that having law degrees and years of experience is a good thing for politicians. However, both sides of the aisle aired complaints with the D.C. establishment in 2016. Whether it was Trump supporters shouting to “drain the swamp” or Bernie loyalists championing his outsider socialist status, the public is growing tired with the Washington establishment. How much further from the swamp can you get than a 29-year-old Puerto Rican bartender from the Bronx?
Another complaint from Americans is the corruption and lack of transparency in Washington politics. Largely in part to her young age, Ocasio-Cortez has mastered social media outreach as a political tool. During her rise to stardom, she has accumulated 2.4 million Instagram followers and over 3.1 million followers on Twitter. Compare those numbers to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who has 392k Instagram followers and 2.25 million Twitter followers, and it is clear that Ocasio-Cortez is getting attention. With this following, she has posted live streams of herself as a freshman Congresswomen, giving the public a glimpse of D.C. politics. From answering constituent questions while cooking to showing us the intricacies of Congressional orientation, AOC emphasizes the public in public servant. For people who might not have time to follow politics closely in off-years, or when there is no election imminent, Ocasio-Cortez provides a direct glimpse into the complicated land of Congressional policymaking. You might not agree with some of her proposals like the Green New Deal or raised tax rates, but her efforts of transparency set a model that more politicians should follow.
Finally, Ocasio-Cortez displays impressive courage in taking on her own party. In an era of high party unity, many lawmakers balk at the idea of challenging party leadership. It can cost them electorally, and the display of confusion in the ranks is a bad look on a national level. However, AOC is in a safe Democratic district, and her constituents voted for her to bring an anti-establishment streak to Congress. In some ways, she is similar to Trump in her ambition and boldness without fear of repercussions. She says what she wants, and isn’t afraid to take her ideas to party leadership and demand they listen. Sure, her speed has resulted in some bumps, including an awkward interview with Anderson Cooper. But she’s 29 and is giving attention to issues that threaten future generations’ economic well-being: historic levels of income inequality and a rapidly changing environment.
Regardless of your politics, respect AOC for the way she has risen to power from humble roots. In a time of lagging socioeconomic mobility, super-PAC driven elections, and out-of-touch politicians, her energy and passion should be lauded. As the youngest women ever elected to Congress, her brand of politics is here to stay.
Jack Leger is a member of the Class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.