Congressional Primary Upset: Setback or Disaster?

The Borough of Queens, which has been my home for more than three decades, is known for many things — as the home of the Mets, the host of the US Open, and  the site of two historic World’s Fairs (1939 and 1964), among other things — but political revolution is not one of them.  Yet last Tuesday, June 25, in New York’s 14th Congressional District (which also includes part of the Bronx), Democratic voters created a political cataclysm that has reverberated throughout the country.   They defeated 10-term-incumbent Congressman Joseph Crowley, who is also the leader of the Queens Democratic Party and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, and gave the party’s Congressional nomination to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  a 28-year old political novice, who had been an organizer for the Presidential campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and who had strong support from the self-styled progressive wing of the party.

What caused this cataclysm, and what does it bode for both the short- and long-term future of our country, the Democratic Party, and those issues that matter to me as an American and a Jew?

These are easy questions to ask, but  difficult to answer with  certainty.  All politics is local, the late Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said,  and a primary upset of this magnitude clearly turns in significant part on local concerns.  I have not studied the make-up of this district in detail, but a couple of factors are clear.  One is that the ethnic breakdown of the district  — it is now estimated to be 70% non-white — has changed a lot since Crowley entered Congress, and that change militated in favor of a young energetic Latina like Ocasio-Cortez.

It is also clear that Crowley had to some extent lost touch with his constituents.  That wasn’t reflected in his voting record — there was actually very little on which Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez disagreed — but by his insufficient presence in his district, even during the campaign.  Ocasio-Cortez, in the course of the campaign. repeatedly  criticized Crowley for moving his family to the Washington area and sending his children to school there. I think that criticism was unfair —   it’s to his credit, as far as I’m concerned, that he valued his role as a father sufficiently to move his family to Washington, rather than see them only on weekends — but it was an effective way of signaling to many voters that he wasn’t really one of them.

Before his unexpected defeat, Crowley had been frequently mentioned as a likely successor to Nancy Pelosi as the House Democratic leader (and, if the Democrats gain control of the House in November, the next Speaker).  He spent much of his time solidifying his support among his House colleagues by campaigning and fundraising for them,  IN focusing on national concerns, he  may have fallen victim to a trap that sometimes ensnares local legislators who rise to positions of state or national leadership — taking their hometown voters for granted..  Such legislators may assume that  the advantage of incumbency and the ability of prominent leaders to bring goodies to their home districts will be enough to prevail.  When voters detect such an attitude, however, they sometimes respond as the Democratic voters of the 14th Congressional district did last week, pointedly reminding the legislator in question that his first loyalty must be to his constituents.

But while local factors may explain a great deal, they’re not the whole story.  Ocasio-Cortez is not a lone wolf.who came out of nowhere and got lucky.  She is part of a national progressive network that has grown out of   Bernie Sanderrs’ 2016 Presidential campaign and has been energized by its opposition to the Trump presidency.  It’s a loosely organized and somewhat diverse collection of individuals and groups that share certain principles and goals.  Some are well known, while others are obscure.  Some focus on one specific issue, while others promote a broad ranging set of policy positions  They promote specific candidates who conform to their principles in the hope of promoting their own policy prescriptions. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  was one of the candidates whom the progressive network supported and their highest profile win to date.

A small exchange between Ocasio-Cortes and Crowley near the end of the campaign illustrates the importance she attached to the support of that progressive network.  During a debate on New York One’s Inside City Hall, Crowley challenged Ocasio-Cortez, pledging to support het if she won the primary an asking her to make the same pledge if he won..  Her answer was telling:

I represent not just my campaign but a movement.  I am proud  to be endorsed by organizations like  Democratic Socialist of America, the Movement for Black Lives, and so on.  As a result, we govern ourselves democratically, so I world be happy to take that question to our movement for a vote.

There is nothing inherently nefarious about the process of creating such networks.  Throughout American history, we have had, in addition to formal political parties, informal groupings and coalitions that have come together to achieve one or a set of goals.  It’s a part of American democracy. But when a candidate for public office identifies herself as part of a network, voters are certainly entitled to evaluate that network, and to judge the candidate in part by what the network. stands for.  Conversely, the victory of a high profile candidate like Ocasio-Cortez can affect races elsewhere, particularly if it occurs in several places over short period of time.

The critical short-term  question as we approach the mid-term elections, is whether the democratic Party can regain control of the House of Representatives.  Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is unlikely to affect that prospect one way  or the other,  The district is safely Democratic, so the general election will not present a serious challenge.  And despite the attention that she received upon her upset victory, she is hardly a household name whose ascendancy is likely to hurt the party elsewhere in the country. Republicans in search of a bogeyman to scare wavering voters are more likely to focus on better known figures like Nancy Pelosi or Bernie Sanders.

The long-term effect of this upset victory may be more problematic, but that effect relates not to any one race standing alone, but rather to the successes of the progressive network in the aggregate . That network makes no secret of its aspiration to take over the Democrat Party. Its leaders believe that the party today is too moderate to motivate its base, especially, and that  more stridently progressive candidates are likely to fare better.  The premise seems counterintuitive – but so does Donald Trump as president.

Whether this emerging progressive network will succeed in capturing the Democratic Party without strangling it in the process remains to be seen.  We live in a time of bipartisan dissatisfaction, and the progressive coalition is essentially the mirror image of its evil twin, the Trump base.  Both are the products of desperation at economic stagnation.  While Trump’s “solution” involves blaming immigrants, imposing counterproductive tariffs and offending allies,, Ocassio-Cortez’s preference is for universal health care subsidized higher education and a sharp increase in the minimum wage. ff you’re going to vote out of desperation, it seems to me, hers is a more constructive platform.

All told, I could view Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win with equanimity except for one problem — her position on Israel.  Like many in the party’s progressive wing, she views the Palestinians with instinctive sympathy and Israel with reflexive hostility Her tweeted response.  to the recwnt unrest in Gaza is worrisome:

This is a massacre.

I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such.

No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else.

Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.

This response displays a deep ignorance of the situation in Gaza and an alarming lack of sympathy for Israel’s need to protect its citizens from Hamas terrorism.  I am sure that AIPAC and others in the pro-Israel camp, as they have done with many other members of Congress over the years, will try to educate her as to the realities of the situation.  What I’m not sure of is how receptive she will be.  Her receptiveness may depend pn whether she is willing, once she has been elected, to stand independent of the progressive movement from which she comes.

There is reason to worry but not to panic.  Time will  tell.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.
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