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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Shock, then ambition: Ocasio-Cortez hopes to shake up House

If she wins general election, she will be the youngest member of Congress and one of its most left-leaning

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes a moment between interviews in New York. AP
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez takes a moment between interviews in New York. AP

The video clip, shared widely on social media, shows a candidate in disbelief: it captures the moment Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez realises that, at 28, she has beaten a 10-term congressman in a Democratic primary.

Wide-eyed, she covers her mouth with her hands and appears to scream: "Oh, my God."

A day later, a more poised Ms Ocasio-Cortez seems to have moved on from shock to ambition. She spent Wednesday morning telling reporters of her hope of going to Washington "with an entire caucus of newly elected progressives" who aren't beholden to corporate donors and are willing to shake things up.

"I'm hoping that more candidates like me are victorious in their primaries and I hope that we can focus on getting money out of politics and championing the social economic and racial justice and rights of all working-class Americans," she said.

On her wish list are a lot of things unlikely to pass a Congress held by either Republicans or centrist Democrats. They include tuition-free public college, a US$15 (Dh55) federal minimum wage, an expansion of the Medicare programme to include people of all ages, a universal jobs guarantee and abolishing the country's immigration law enforcement agency.

To underscore that position, she even travelled to the US-Mexico border region days before the election to protest the separation of immigrant families.

"Our campaign was focused, just a laser focus on a message of economic, social and racial dignity for working-class Americans," she said on MSNBC. "We were very clear on our message, very clear on our priorities and very clear about the fact that even if you haven't voted before, we are talking to you."

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If she wins the general election in the autumn – a strong possibility in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 6 to 1 – Ms Ocasio-Cortez would be the youngest member of Congress and one of its most left-leaning.

Supporters in her district said that's what they were looking for when they picked her over Joseph Crowley, a senior member of the Democratic leadership in the House and a longtime party boss in Queens.

"She understood us because she is one of us," said Syed Ali, a 26-year-old Harvard University graduate student from the Bronx who volunteered for her campaign. "The real highlight of her campaign was just how genuine she was. Her voice felt very true."

Ms Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx to working-class Puerto Rican parents and went to high school in Yorktown Heights, a suburb north of New York.

Her first love as a child was science, not politics. She was awarded second place in the 2007 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for a microbiology project and got an asteroid named after her.

She was a 19-year-old student at Boston University when her father died. After his death, the family worried it would lose its home to foreclosure.

While in college, Ms Ocasio-Cortez worked on immigration in the office of US senator Edward Kennedy. After graduating with a degree in economics and international relations, she worked as a waitress and bartender to supplement her mother's income as a house cleaner and bus driver. She was still tending bars as recently as the spring of last year.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for US Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016. In a Reddit forum last year, she described driving across the country with friends after the election.

"We talked to people throughout the Midwest, visited Flint, Michigan; and finally ended our trip with a stay at Standing Rock," she said, referring to the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. "That tipped the scale for me."

When she returned, Brand New Congress, a political action committee formed by Senator Sanders supporters, asked if she would consider a congressional run. It sounded like a crazy idea, but she said yes because Mr Crowley hadn't faced a primary opponent in 14 years.

"It was clear that no one else was going to do it," she said. "We have to stop questioning ourselves and just dive right in."

Several factors may have allowed Ms Ocasio-Cortez to pull off her upset of Mr Crowley, who had been a candidate to succeed Nancy Pelosi as the party's leader in the House.

One was low turnout. There are nearly 236,000 Democrats registered in the 14th Congressional District, which covers parts of the Bronx and Queens. Only about 12 per cent voted.

Mr Crowley didn't ignore the race – he spent $3.4 million – but he may have hurt himself by failing to show up for two out of three scheduled debates with Ms Ocasio-Cortez. For one, he sent a former City Council member to debate in his place, a move The New York Times said in an editorial was "galling... to anyone who cares about the democratic process".

She received some endorsements from national groups including Black Lives Caucus, MoveOn and Democratic Socialists of America.

Ethnicity might have also played a role. Mr Crowley is white and of Irish descent, while the district is half Hispanic.

"I was really motivated," said Daniel Puerto, 26, who immigrated to the US from Colombia. "Because she was a person of colour, representing me."