Four months before her BU graduation, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke at the University’s Martin Luther King Day commemoration about her generation, addressing the topic, “How can we be great?”
She put a down payment on that hope yesterday. The 28-year-old first-time candidate toppled a US House speaker-in-waiting twice her age in New York’s primary election.
Ocasio-Cortez (CAS’11) is almost certain to win the seat this November in the heavily Democratic 14th District after defeating Rep. Joseph Crowley. The district straddles the Bronx and Queens.
“What I see is that the Democratic Party takes working-class communities for granted, they take people of color for granted, and they just assume that we’re going to turn out no matter how bland or half-stepping these proposals are,” Ocasio-Cortez, who was an organizer for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, told the New York Times before the primary.
Political reporters struggled to find words to capture the measure of Ocasio-Cortez’s achievement. “She is likely to be in headlines for years to come,” the Times summed up, describing the outcome as “the most significant loss for a Democratic incumbent in more than a decade, and one that will reverberate across the party and the country.”
“A breakthrough for the left wing of the Democratic Party, in a primary season where they haven’t been able to cause too many headaches for the establishment,” National Public Radio reported.
Crowley, considered a possible speaker if Democrats take the House in November, hadn’t faced a primary opponent in 14 years—“when the woman who beat him Tuesday was just a teenager,” the Associated Press noted.
Kenneth Elmore (Wheelock’87), associate provost and dean of students, recalls meeting Ocasio-Cortez—“I knew her as Sandy”—when another student brought her to one of his weekly Coffee & Conversation forums. She was studying international relations at what is now the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies.
“Sandy’s friend introduced her as ‘the smartest person I know,’” Elmore says. “Through frequent conversations with her, it didn’t take long for me to agree.
“Sandy is brilliant—she is boldly curious and always present,” he says. “She makes me think and could always see multiple sides of any issue. Sandy is also heart and soul real. It is wonderful to see Sandy emerge as a leader—I can’t wait to see what happens when her time truly comes.”
The friend who introduced them, Mina Vahedi (Wheelock’11,’14), says she mentioned Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign to her political junkie cousin last summer, who replied, “She has no chance at all.”
But Vahedi, who lived on Ocasio-Cortez’s dorm floor freshman year (“Warren Towers, 16B”), was not surprised by the political upset. “She just has this energy that’s so motivated and ready just to work and make things happen,” Vahedi says. She recalls walking through the George Sherman Union with Ocasio-Cortez and joking with her about “when you’re president one day.”
“She didn’t make it seem like it was totally out of the question,” says Vahedi, who says she burst into tears of happiness when a Buzzfeed news alert announcing her friend’s victory crossed her phone Tuesday night while she was at a concert.
Raul Fernandez (COM’00, Wheelock’16), a Wheelock College of Education & Human Development lecturer, says that “while the political world is in shock, those of us who know Sandy best are beaming with pride, but unsurprised.” Her student years, he says, revealed a “rare combination of heart, smarts, and the ability to use her voice to bring people together,” along with an uncommon trait: “She listens—I mean, actually listens—when you speak.”
For example, she held back during Elmore’s weekly forums to hear others speak before sharing her views, Fernandez remembers.
The ultimate tribute may have come from her vanquished opponent. Knowing he was beaten, Crowley, a guitarist, strummed “Born to Run” and dedicated it to her.