House Democrats Don't Know What to Make of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Staffers and aides to party leadership say they love her enthusiasm. But they’re worried her approach will threaten caucus unity.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

She came into Washington like a wrecking ball.

Just on Saturday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced that she will be working with progressive activists to bring primary challenges against some of the more conservative Democrats in Congress, her own soon-to-be colleagues.

This was after she joined a protest in the office of Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and after she’d spent a week doggedly documenting congressional orientation on Instagram for her followers and clapping back at her many critics on Twitter.

There are, in other words, several early indications that Ocasio-Cortez will do things differently from the typical legislator, acting as a bomb-thrower and agitator in the People’s House. It’s something her supporters want very much—and something many of her Democratic colleagues aren’t sure how to feel about. According to interviews with a dozen House staffers and aides to members of party leadership, veteran Democrats are happy about the youth and enthusiasm Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive cohort bring to the caucus. But at the same time, these Democrats are worried that their approach might sometimes prove counterproductive.

It’s “incredibly energizing to have such a new and diverse group of members coming in,” one Democratic staffer told me, but “we’ve been back a week and we’re already bickering.”

Much of that bickering stems from a debate over Democrats’ strategy around climate change: what their approach should look like and how aggressive it should be. Ocasio-Cortez and many other incoming freshmen made climate change a centerpiece of their campaigns, and they want to come out of the gate pushing for progress—protocol be damned. Ocasio-Cortez is urging her fellow Democrats to establish a “Green New Deal” committee, a 15-member operation that would be tasked with drafting a 10-year plan to neutralize the United States’ output of greenhouse-gas emissions and adopt 100 percent renewable electricity. The protest she attended in Pelosi’s office last week, organized by the environmental group Sunrise Movement, was focused on pushing for such a committee.

So far, 10 members of Congress have signed on to the plan, but several senior Democrats, including Frank Pallone, who is expected to take over as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, have criticized it. A new select committee, they argue, would take power away from existing committees and from experienced legislators who’ve been working on policies related to climate and energy for years. “We have very strong champions for addressing climate change—not only on my committee, but the other committees of jurisdiction—that are going to move very aggressively on the issue of climate change,” Pallone, who represents New Jersey, told reporters last week. “So I don’t think it’s necessary to have a special committee.”

Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s incoming chief of staff and a co-founder of the progressive political-action committee Justice Democrats, denied that incoming progressives want to take power from anyone. “We think climate change is important enough to get its own select committee,” he told me. “It would be in addition to the Energy and Commerce Committee’s jurisdiction.”

But several Democratic staffers I talked with, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly, expressed their agreement with Pallone. Experimenting with committee structure just as the Democrats are reclaiming the House majority is “not the most informed choice,” said one House leadership aide. Of course, the aide added, the new members’ excitement is understandable—they just “haven’t learned how everything works yet.”

“While I think it’s fun she’s shaking things up,” said another Democratic staffer, “there are reasons there are committees and jurisdiction.” The move, he added, could “actually weaken [Pallone’s] committee.”

The discussion surrounding the select committee is just a small squabble, one that is hardly acrimonious and that involves an issue most Democrats seem dedicated to. And the focus on the few more outspoken progressive freshmen, such as Ocasio-Cortez, is disproportionate to the amount of power they’ll actually have in the House.

But the debate has nevertheless provided a preview of what will likely become a familiar dynamic in the early months of the 116th Congress: Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive colleagues will demand bold reforms; other Democratic lawmakers will praise their zeal, but encourage them to rein it in a little. It’s an important dynamic to understand. The Democrats don’t have a huge majority, so just a few votes could make or break party unity on legislation.

Even the response to Ocasio-Cortez’s social-media activity fits this pattern. Part of her popularity is centered on her presence online, where she’s been dutifully documenting new-member orientation: On Instagram, she’s shared her discovery of the underground tunnel system that connects buildings on Capitol Hill, and she’s introduced her followers to members of her “squad,” which includes other progressive freshmen, such as Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley, and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar. Ocasio-Cortez can also be counted on to forcefully respond to her critics on Twitter, including late last week when she chastised a Washington Examiner writer for scrutinizing her appearance.

While some of the Democrats I spoke with praised her “transparent” and “refreshing” approach, other staffers were worried about the potential downsides to being that present on social media. “She’s so focused on truly Instagramming every single thing that, aside from the obvious suspects in her friendship circle, she’s not taking the time to capitalize on building relationships with members as much as she should,” said one staffer for a representative on the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Chakrabarti’s response to this strain of criticism is that Ocasio-Cortez is doing what she was elected to do. “The job of an elected official is to communicate, to talk with constituents, to talk with the people of America, and I think Alexandria is excellent at doing that,” he said. Other progressives I spoke with told me they hope she keeps it up. “I see a lot of members who are idealistic and starry-eyed and [then] they get beaten down by the system,” said Dan Riffle, the communications director for Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison. “My hope is that doesn’t happen to her—that she keeps being the outsider radical that she is, finding new ways to do things, rather than trying to work within the system.”

Nothing, though, puts the unity of the Democratic caucus at risk as much as a recent pledge from Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib to primary other members of Congress. Less than two weeks after Election Day, Ocasio-Cortez announced in a press call, on Saturday, that the two will be joining with Justice Democrats to help recruit working-class challengers to take on more conservative Democrats. Justice Democrats calls the campaign #OurTime, and it’s asking its activists across the country to suggest possible challengers for House incumbents who are “demographically and ideologically out-of-touch with their districts.” “We need new leaders, period,” Chakrabarti said on the press call. “We gotta primary folks.”

The move has earned some praise from progressives. “I think it’s super courageous,” said the Congressional Progressive Caucus staffer. But it’s highly unusual for a member of Congress to support initiatives targeting his or her own colleagues. The initiative is likely to be perceived among some Democrats as nothing less than a threat to the House majority. “Ultimately, for the Democrats to retain control over anything, the House or the Senate, you have to be a big-tent party,” said Kristen Hawn, a consultant for moderate Democrats. “Taking an approach where it’s your way or the highway isn’t good for the party and isn’t good for the long-term control.”

These emerging tensions foreshadow potential problems for the next Congress—and they could come into full view as soon as Democrats hold their leadership elections on November 28. As many as 20 Democrats currently oppose Pelosi for speaker of the House, promising to vote for new leadership in the caucus’s internal elections next week. More than 100 are either publicly undecided or haven’t given clear answers about where they stand. That includes Ocasio-Cortez, who still hasn’t said whether she’ll vote against Pelosi.

Even if they end up backing Pelosi, the new progressives’ criticism of their own party—and their push for reforms—is sure to continue in the coming months, as House Democrats begin prioritizing issues and introducing new legislation. But as their ambitions grow, so, too, may some Democrats’ fears that the newcomers’ zealousness is a liability.

“We do have the majority, but it’s a slim majority,” said one Democratic House staffer. “So [if] you have a couple people who oppose something, you’re gonna have trouble.”