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On Our Radar: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Her impassioned environmental plea has been viewed millions of times online, but just how did a young woman from the Bronx – who was waiting tables a year ago – become the poster girl for political change in America?

By Natalie Cornish

The Latest

Her impassioned environmental plea has been viewed millions of times online, but just how did a young woman from the Bronx – who was waiting tables a year ago – become the poster girl for political change in America?

By Natalie Cornish

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (or AOC as she’s quickly become known) is the youngest female senator in US history. And she is angry.

After bringing her first piece of legislation, The Green New Deal which calls for bipartisan action on climate change to the Senate in February, her bill was voted down without so much as a debate on the chamber floor last month. The result? AOC’s impassioned takedown of her Republican critics which has been watched by millions of people online. “This is not an elitist issue, this is a quality of life issue,” she says, directly addressing the other side of the chamber in the unflinching, eloquent manner which has propelled her to become one of the most popular US politicians in just 12 short months.

“You want to tell people that their concern, and their desire for clean air and clean water is elitist?” She added. “Tell that to the kids in the south Bronx who are suffering from the highest rates of neighbourhood asthma in the country… People are dying. This should not be partisan. Science should not be partisan. We are facing a national crisis and if we do not ascend to the crisis… if we tell the American public that we are more willing to invest and bail out big banks than we are willing to invest in our farmers and our urban families, then I don’t know what we’re here doing.”

Image credits: Instagram @ocasio2018

To say AOC has disrupted the political landscape would be an understatement. For a start, she began her campaign for Congress while waiting tables at a taqueria in New York City, “operating out of a paper grocery bag hidden behind the bar”. Her rival for the 2018 Democratic midterm election primaries was the 10-term incumbent congressman Joe Crowley. With no successful challenger to his seat since 2004, he was thought to be safe. So safe, in fact, that he sent someone else to debate with the then 28-year-old in his constituency. No-one was more shocked than Crowley when AOC unseated him, with 57.13 percent of the vote versus his 42.5 percent  and all on a margin of 18 to one fewer campaign dollars. She then took on Republican Anthony Pappas in the general election and won.

“You can’t really beat big money with more money,” she said after her historic win. “You have to beat them with a totally different game.” That “game” was establishing a dialogue with younger voters through a tech-savvy, social media-heavy campaign. She also engaged underrepresented communities, like those in the Puerto Rican part of the Bronx she hails from; provided progressive thinking on issues such as immigration, education and LGBTQ rights; received endorsement from big names such as Barack Obama and former candidate for New York governor, actress Cynthia Nixon; and courted millennial-focused liberal media like Refinery29 over the traditional mass market outlets. All while being unapologetically herself.

Since then, AOC continues to unsettle established politicians on both sides of the aisle with her thoroughly modern approach to governing whether that’s asking a killer question during congressional hearings, or joining a protest outside speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on Climate Change in her first week. Her progressive viewpoint isn’t without its critics however. Some say her unwavering commitment to socialism is worrying, while others question her controversial anti-Israel stance.

Even Obama, who previously endorsed her, has cautioned against viewing AOC and the faction of the Democratic party she represents as saviours without thinking “in the nitty-gritty about how these big, bold ideas will work and how you pay for them”. AOC, though, is unphased by the fanfare that currently surrounds her. Instead she is putting her advocacy into action, starting with that key passion: the environment.

“We don’t have time to wait five years for a watered down compromise solution,” she told MSNBC on Friday. “To think that we have time is such a privileged and removed from reality attitude that we cannot tolerate.” Perhaps NBC News’ Steve Krakauer summed up our new-found obsession with her perfectly. He wrote: “In a culture where status is increasingly defined by likes and followers, millennials can look at AOC’s success and see that doing the work and finding ways to serve your country — that’s real power. It’s what the 29-year-old does IRL that makes her an excellent role model for her fellow millennials. She is not simply talking the digital talk — she is walking the walk, grinding out real policy solutions in Congress.”

Main Image Credit: Lars Niki/Getty Images for The Athena Film Festival