OK...What Just Happened In Queens? And Why Are Politicos Really Flipping Out?
First off, when I posted on Facebook about how I need to write something about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dramatic upset in her race against Rep. Joe Crowley, I meant I wanted to rant for two pages about how ecstatic I am about that outcome. However, since so many people asked for analysis, here’s a little something for everyone.
For readers totally unfamiliar, we’re going to start with some basics and build the NYC political ecosystem, and national fundraising environment from the ground up.
Joe Crowley (left), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (right)
Who is Joe Crowley and why is this such a big deal?
Joe Crowley holds two important positions. First, he is a Congressman from Queens. In that role, he is the fourth highest ranking Democrat in Congress. That means he has a lot of influence over things like what Democrats in Congress do and how they negotiate on the Federal budget. This is the position Crowley lost last night.
Second, Joe Crowley is the Leader of the Queens County Democratic Party. And the Queens Democratic Party is the machine of machines. It is the envy of anyone hoping to build a political machine and secure their dynasty. Crowley still retains this post.
The Queens Machine?
Without going too much into it, county parties are responsible for electing Party members to local office. However, in doing so, they often hand-pick who those members will be. These decisions are often made based on who’s been the most loyal to Party leaders and are enforced by Party backing in primary elections with money, volunteers and endorsements from County aligned organizations and politicians.
By way of example, Crowley was hand-picked by his predecssor in Congress and, through some underhanded machinations, arrived in Congress without any challenge. How? His predecessor, Thomas Manton, was a 6 year incumbent who was running unopposed. After he made the ballot, he dropped out giving Crowley his spot in an uncontested race. You don’t need a machine to do that. But without a machine it’s unlikely anyone would think a 20 year incumbent who never faced an election is completely safe; especially after a major redistricting.
Who cares about Queens?
Now we’re at the meat of it. Ocasio-Cortez’s win upsets the power balance not just for NY but for the nation. A power balance which has implications for the very nature of our democracy.
Aside from the fact that Crowley was poised to become Speaker of the House and would have live or die power over any legislation or budget item, he was also so secure in his County machine that he was expanding. Many people involved in the nuts-and-bolts of politics (like myself) saw a slow but steady encroaching by Queens’ power over the rest of NYC.
For example, his support for Yuh-Lin Niou was critical in securing a former Queens staffer and resident an Assembly seat in Lower Manhattan. Endorsements from folks like Scott Stringer, who may be involved in a contested race for Mayor in 2021, came in since Queens votes will be needed by anyone who wants to win.
Crowley also played a decisive role in turning City Council votes from Queens and the Bronx - with whom he had developed an alliance - to Corey Johnson for Speaker.
These examples are not meant to cast aspersion on those candidates who received Joe Crowley and the Queens Party’s blessing. Nor is it a comprehensive list. Getting votes and endorsements is a fact of political life. This is meant to illustrate the incredibly nimble moves Crowley was making to expand the influence of the machine he ran. And he was very, very good at it.
This was the potential renaissance of machine politics and political bosses in NY.
With a county machine ascendant in the Bronx (which is home to the NY Assembly Speaker), and a deeply entrenched and well resourced machine in Queens (which was lead by the potential House Speaker), these two organizations were poised to press their influence and model into Brooklyn (who’s machine is on the backfoot, thanks to organizations like NKD), and Manhattan (which has no machine). Evidence of seeds having already been planted in lower Manhattan abound.
With Ocasio-Cortez’s win there’s a little breathing room. The Bronx is still growing in strength and a politically astute Crowley still runs an extensive Queens organization. We’re not out the woods yet, but we’re at a clearing.
But one thing is over for sure, the imminent coronation of the Boss of Bosses. To a strategic politician (which I believe Crowley to be) this expansion was a means to an end. Along with California, NYC is the political piggy bank for America. Locking up that ecosystem under a single Party leader would have not only secured Crowley the Speakership of the House, but made him a King, a Kingmaker and an insanely powerful speaker.
If that’s true, it was a masterful plan and Joe Crowley is a brilliant man with vision. But he looked too far from his own district. The voters of New York have been given an opportunity to ward off this outcome, and the ramifications of this could be monumental (though they needn’t be, so more on that at the end).
How did this happen?
I want to talk about three things: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the District and the Machine’s approach to elections.
She came out of nowhere and people are making a big deal that she’s a socialist and socialists can win. That is absolutely irrelevant and I wish people would stop saying it immediately. Of course socialists can win, anyone can win. Donald Trump can win. The trick there is to be aligned with the voters of your district, to do what it takes to make them think you care about them.
So let’s look at Ocasio-Cortez as a candidate. I’d say, three things you need to know about Ocasio-Cortez which are more general than a specific policy platform:
First, she is charismatic. Whenever I’ve met Alexandria she was open, friendly and optimistic. She didn’t let Crowley’s incumbency, political positioning or the fact everyone was afraid to talk to her get her down. In person, Crowley is also charismatic, I think. Just check him out playing “Born To Run” for Ocasio-Cortez at his concession. But Ocasio was approachable, did not come off as someone with a savior complex and is a good talker; voters like that. But let’s move on…
Second, she is tough. Not because she ran against Crowley, per se. The reason young upstarts run against incumbents and not successful public servants is because elections are a zero-sum game: either you get all the power, or you get none of it. People who are already successful have too much to lose. New people, not so much.
Ocasio-Cortez is tough for taking on Crowley, sure. But the toughness that mattered was her unyielding dedication to campaigning and being out there. She knocked doors and was willing to break boundaries to get elected. The most substantive conversation I had with her was at Caucus Weekend in Albany. Caucus Weekend - a conference of electeds and Party insiders - I’m sure a million people told her she’s ruining her life. If they did (which, again, I’m sure of it) she didn’t seem to mind. Speaking of which…
Third, she matched the district, and she knew it. Not just politically, but demographically. I’ve been fighting machines for a decade. I’ve had many encounters with Queens and learned a lot about how they operate; for good or ill. When my friend in the Queens reform movement told me someone was running against Crowley, my words were “I doubt it.” At Caucus weekend I spoke to this challenger for about an hour where she told me about her district. My words were “You definitely have a path”.
Unbeknownst to me, or like, anyone, NY 14 is majority minority; with Hispanics being nearly HALF population at 46%. Ocasio-Cortez is Hispanic, Joe Crowley is white.
36% of the district under 40. Ocasio-Cortez is 28, Joe Crowley is 56.
A third of the votes came from The Bronx. THE BRONX. Crowley is a Queens guy. He’s THE Queens guy. But, he was redistricted to cover it in 2010. Ocasio, on the hand, is from (you guessed it) The Bronx. I’ve been in local politics for 10 years and I never realized Joe Crowley represented The Bronx, I bet Bronx voters didn’t either.
It’s true that Crowley performed decently there (still getting a minority of the votes), probably in part due to his alliance with the Bronx County Party. But, I mean, what the ever loving ****?
There’s two halves of this. The campaign Crowley ran, which was exceedingly conservative - focusing on tried and true methods like direct mail, and the County Party’s inability to perform.
I’m not going to attempt to legitimize dissecting a campaign I wasn’t on. Instead, I will only say that Crowley had every possible institutional advantage. Incumbency, money, networks and Party backing. It is completely understandable that someone in that situation would run a conservative, predictable race. Why take chances? Just drop some money on proven campaign methods.
In my purely speculative mind, though, the Crowley campaign overestimated how important his incumbency was. Joe Crowley may have been extremely well known to anyone in Democratic politics, but the instinct of machines to fly under the radar makes me think that, for many, this was a race between two unknowns.
And if you’re unknown, then you need an aggressive campaign which builds trust and rapport with voters. Something mail alone - no matter how much you send - cannot do. Compare this with the responsive text messaging the Ocasio campaign undertook to develop feedback loops. And this ties into the failure of the machine.
Succinctly put, the machines place A LOT of emphasis on client-patron relationships. You can hear it in the way they talk about voters. Watch for the following logic in how they, and wannabe bosses, behave: Leaders are elected, but voters follow the leader.
As a result, earnest voter contact is not a machine strong suit. While they can mobilize people to knock on doors, the main rationale for machine participants is maintenance of power and advancement in the client-patron hierarchy. That comes across.
Additionally Machines don’t want to be too active or too well known - expanding engagement to people you haven't vetted, or aren’t referred to you, could upset the power balance. And that is what Ocasio’s active campaigning did. By creating a conversation and engaging voters.
Could Crowley have won? I honestly believe he could have by investing in other types of campaigning. But I don’t want to give machines any ideas here. And I am super freakin’ ecstatic the machine model failed to generate the turnout it needed. Afterall, in NY-14 only 27,658 voters turned out. Across the river in NY-12, 41,218 voters came out in a mostly non-machine district.
A special note, you may be wondering why I didn’t mention the overall political climate. Good question. A lot of what makes a winning candidate are fundamentals.
What does this mean?
I am so ***** *****ing happy this happened. When I heard Alexandria won I was basically manic for three hours.
In 2007 I joined the Obama Primary campaign. When he became President, there was a moment of soul searching in the Democratic Party. An instant when people thought to take his campaign’s national model of grassroots organizing and apply it locally. That moment fizzled and died.
But it did live on in Manhattan Young Democrats, which I had joined as Vice President. And it worked. We grew rapidly, and as we did, we butted heads with Queens. I like the folks from Queens, I consider many of them friends and I have honestly learned a lot from them. But holy *** did we not agree on how politics and the electorate should be organized.
Over the last decade I’ve been successful in pressing for reform in Manhattan County; becoming Secretary of the County Party and joining the State Party governing committee. But even as I felt progress was being made in Manhattan, I felt an unease about a deepening retrenchment of machine politics everywhere else.
I am ashamed to say that I did not vociferously endorse Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because I thought it would be political suicide for myself. I felt the gains reformers had made were being threatened and I wanted to protect them the best I could by hanging tight in Manhattan. When Joe Crowley flexed his muscles in lower Manhattan and the Speaker’s race, I decided not to take the gamble. I was already a vocal critic of another powerful Democrat - Governor Cuomo - and had voted against him at the State Committee. I thought it would be a fool’s errand to go hard for someone likely to lose.
Why am I telling you this? No machine is stronger than the people. No detached incumbent can stop someone who truly cares about their district and the people in it. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election has renewed my faith in power of grassroots organizing and political courage.
Is It Over? Nah.
Now, I promised to talk about how we’re not out of the woods yet. And that’s true. The County Party organizations will always exist. And they’re still run by people who know politics, who are smart and, above all, who are patient. But how they behave is up to voters. Voters choose their electeds. Voters choose their Party leaders when they VOTE IN PRIMARIES and, in systems where Parties are so important, voters have to hold them accountable.
That’s how I started. Running young people in the County Party. But if voters don’t take the reigns, reversion to the machines, insiders and unaccountable politics will happen. Now, is a unique opportunity to reshape our political landscape. Not just here in NY, but everywhere. Donald Trump is doing it, you can too.
If you want to learn more, check one of the civic workshops I teach. It’s like this, but in person with slides. You can sign up for the mailing list at benjaminyee.com or find me on facebook at facebook.com/BenYeeNY.
An Additional Note
I would like to add a point not included in the original. As one of the graphics shows, about 28,000 voters participated in NY-14's election. That's around 12%.
28,000 people just upended the political structure of New York City, the Democratic Party and, possibly, the United States.