Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says women like her are not supposed to be elected to Congress. She is the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a South Bronx-born father, doesn't belong to a New York City political dynasty, and comes from a borough where nearly half of the neighborhoods are considered high poverty or extreme poverty areas.
"I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny," she said in a viral ad released in May.
At 28, she's a candidate on the New York 14th District's primary challenging Rep. Joe Crowley, one of the most powerful Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. It's the first time she's running for office.
The idea that women, particularly non-wealthy young women of color, are not supposed to run for office is not off-mark: The current Congress is among the oldest of any in recent history, despite the U.S. median age being 37 years old. (The average age is 58 years old for House members and 62 years old for the Senate.) The body is also still roughly 78% white and 80% male, even though people of color and women make up about 39% and 50.8% of the U.S. population, respectively. As of 2015, the median net worth for House members was $900,000 and for the Senate it was $3.2 million, while the average American household's net wealth was around $80,000.
Ocasio-Cortez might defy all the ideas of what an elected official should look like, but that's not stopping her. If anything, she's ready for the fight.
"We have had our country on autopilot and we’ve been accepting what’s been happening," she told Refinery29. "And what's happening in this country is indicative that we need new leadership. We need new leadership in the Democratic party and we need new leadership in the country."
Born in the Bronx and raised in Yorktown, Ocasio-Cortez witnessed the impact of inequality in New York City early in her life. While she had better opportunities because of her parents' efforts, most of her family stayed in the Bronx facing a very different quality of life. That planted the seed of the type of service-oriented work she would pursue as an adult.
She attended Boston University, where she studied economics and international relations. As a student, she interned and worked at the foreign affairs and immigration constituent office of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Her father, a small-business owner, died of cancer at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. In order to avoid getting their house foreclosed, her mother was forced to to go back to work cleaning houses and driving a bus. After graduating in 2011, Ocasio-Cortez returned to the Bronx. While she became an educator with the nonprofit National Hispanic Institute, she also waited tables and bartended to help out.
Last year, Ocasio-Cortez announced she was running for office, but her congressional bid hasn't been without controversy. Crowley, known as the "king of Queens," is one of the most powerful Democrats in the House and New York City politics. The 56-year-old congressman was first elected in 1998 and the last time he was challenged in a primary was 2004. He is now the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and is reportedly aiming to succeed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as the next Democratic speaker.
But Ocasio-Cortez argued that for all the power Crowley wields in Congress, he has failed to serve the people of Queens and the Bronx. Though she never planned to run for office because she didn't like the culture behind it, she decided she couldn't continue to stand-by.
"While it's not that nothing has happened in the Bronx, it feels that we are dealing with the same problems 20 years later," she said. "I'm an organizer here and I know no one ever sees him, he doesn't have a presence in this community. It would be different if he was around."
She added: "This is why I'm challenging this seat. It's because we deserve real representation and not representation that phoned it in. Our community deserves better, especially our community which is 70% people of color, half Latino, overwhelmingly immigrant, very working class and we can’t afford representation that just doesn't even think that we're worthy of living next to [us.]"
If women and gender-expanding people want to run for office we can’t knock on anybody's doors, we have to build our own house.
Ocasio-Cortez pledged not to take money from corporate political action committees (PACs.) For her, it boils down to taking a stance against the political machine.
"Most Americans understand and acknowledge that the biggest problem that we have in our democracy is the roll of money in politics," she said. "But we just throw our hands up and say, 'Oh, well there’s no other way to run.' We know that money in politics is why our water is dirty, why climate change is accelerating, why communities are being gentrified and we can't afford to live in New York City anymore. But we just give up and we accept the continued worsening of our condition. What it takes it’s a stance of political courage."
Ocasio-Cortez volunteered for the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders. As a Democratic socialist, her platform includes creating a single-payer healthcare system, also known as Medicare for All; reforming the criminal justice system; abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency; establishing a federal jobs guarantee, which would establish a minimum wage of $15, full healthcare, and paid family leave; protecting reproductive freedom; and establishing a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico, which would allow the U.S. territory to continue recovering from Hurricane Maria.
The June 26 primary is just around the corner and the odds are still stacked against Ocasio-Cortez. She's raised about $250,000 to Crowley's $1.5 million, according to Open Secrets. And he's got the backing of many big names, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. In her firebrand style, Ocasio-Cortez called out Gillibrand in a tweet this week: "Unsurprising, but disappointing that @SenGillibrand didn’t even bother to talk to nor consider me before endorsing. You'd think a progressive leader would at least be interested in how a no-corporate money Bronx Latina triggered the 1st NY-14 primary in 14 years on prog issues."
Despite the obvious challenges presented by the lack of establishment support, Ocasio-Cortez remains unfazed.
"Lots of these folks were mad that I didn’t ask for permission to run, that I also was not using the traditional structures of power in New York City to try to run," she said. "I just started building this coalition and this power outside of the traditional system. In my opinion, if women and gender-expanding people want to run for office we can’t knock on anybody's doors, we have to build our own house."
When asked what would mean to become the 14th District's next representative, Ocasio-Cortez spoke with the gravity of someone who understands the weight that could carry.
"It’s so important for our community to see itself reflected in leadership. This could be the first time in a generation that the Bronx elects a new member of Congress — that's huge," she said. "And what we've shown is that you don’t need access to money, to special social circles, to privilege in order to run for office. ... If I win, imagine how many other people are going to do it."