Ocasio-Cortez navigates the expectations that come with fame

NEW YORK (AP) — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was all but hidden from the street as she stood behind a nondescript building in Queens that a local nonprofit is buying with federal money. But people saw her anyway, walking slowly up the sidewalk and forming a small line to take a photo with her.

The New York congresswoman wrapped up her visit, conducting a brief interview with a Bengali-language television crew and posing for photos with people who hung around nearby.

For most members of Congress, such district changes are routine, an opportunity to connect with voters at home and remind them of the tangible impact of their work on Capitol Hill, like the $2 million Ocasio-Cortez helped make the Queens nonprofit obtained as part of a $1.5 trillion government-wide spending bill. But for Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most prominent progressive voices in American politics, such visits have additional meaning.

Four years ago, Ocasio-Cortez became famous when shot down one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress with the message that he was more focused on his political ambitions in Washington than on the working-class voters he represented in New York. As she seeks a third term this year and navigates the implications of being a celebrity in her own right, she is determined to avoid any suggestion that she is losing touch with her constituents.

“It’s always a concern that that’s a perception,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview.

“I have never had any control over the fact that that kind of phenomenon started the moment I was elected,” she continued. “If anything, that’s why it’s really important for me to continue here in the community.”

The intensity of interest in Ocasio-Cortez, and the sometimes mistaken belief that she can solve any problem, comes through during her visits to the district.

A March town hall in the Bronx drew the likes of Daron Jones, a 21-year-old who was among those lining up for a photo with Ocasio-Cortez. He doesn’t live in the district, not even in New York. He drove about an hour from Hoboken, New Jersey, to see Ocasio-Cortez after watching “Knock Down The House,” a Netflix documentary chronicling his 2018 campaign against the then-representative. Joe Crowley.

“I knew it was big,” he said. “I am inspired by how she is a normal person. She’s just here trying to help the community.”

As I reviewed a slideshow of U.S. local government projects and newly available tax credits under last year’s pandemic relief laws, it was hard to miss the young people in the audience raising their phones to take pictures of her or the security guards stationed near her. at the front of the room.

Nancy Johnson, who lived in the neighborhood, attended the event hoping Ocasio-Cortez could weigh in on a dispute with her condominium board over elevator failures and other complaints. The congresswoman expressed her sympathy for the challenge and said that she was aware of the issue. But, pointing out that the condo board was a private entity, she said her office could only advise her and other residents about her options.

“I was very impressed with her and what she’s doing,” Johnson said, but “just a little disappointed that she couldn’t help us or even respond.”

The high expectations of Ocasio-Cortez, 32, were a reminder of how fame is both an asset and a liability for the congresswoman.

With 13 million followers on Twitter alone, a single social media post from Ocasio-Cortez can garner the kind of attention many veteran politicians can only dream of.

He has raised huge sums of campaign cash from mostly small donors which he distributes to candidates who share his progressive worldview. His leadership political action committee has donated at least $207,500 to other campaign committees since the beginning of 2021, according to federal election data.

But his attempts to use his platform to draw attention to candidates or causes he cares about sometimes have mixed results. His picks in several high-profile congressional primaries this year, from Cleveland to South Texas, were defeated by more moderate candidates backed by the Democratic establishment.

Even in her hometown of New York City, the Ocasio-Cortez-backed mayoral candidate was defeated by the more moderate Eric Adams in a crowded Democratic primary last year. The two have developed a strained relationship, arguing over everything from the city budget and the police to her choice of words when she describes some workers as “low-skilled.”

Perhaps most memorably, she drew scrutiny in September for wearing a dress to the celebrity-packed Met Gala with the words “Tax the Rich” scrawled across the back. While it drew praise from some for the bold message, it was also criticized by some who found it hypocritical to attend the ultra-exclusive event filled with the wealthy and connected.

Ocasio-Cortez is now at something of a crossroads.

With Democrats facing headwinds to maintain control of the House after this year’s midterm elections, she is poised to be in the minority for the first time. She is often mentioned as a possible candidate for the Senate, or even the presidency. But she has opted out of opportunities to seek higher office, even this year when there was speculation she could challenge Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and Senate majority leader, in a primary.

Needing to appeal to both liberals in New York City and moderate voters upstate, the Democrats who win statewide are often centrists, which would make it harder for Ocasio-Cortez to survive a primary if look for a higher position.

“Outside the far left online, she’s not popular,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic political strategist in New York. “She is considerably to the left of the vast majority of New York voters.”

Ocasio-Cortez said she doesn’t have a clear plan for what comes next.

“It’s a common question I get and it’s not even meant to be cautious or dismissive. It’s just that I really don’t know,” she said. “I really try to assess the landscape and see how I can best serve.”

“Personally, this is, I’m already way beyond anything I thought was possible for my life,” he added. “So, I don’t have this inner longing.”


Associated Press writer Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.


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