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'We Need New Leaders, Period': Progressive Newcomers Urge Democrats to Embrace Bold Agenda or Face Primary Challenges

"If today's Democratic leaders won't advance policies to create a safe future for all, they should expect a new generation of candidates to stand up and take their places."

U.S. Rep Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) watch during the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives January 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. This is the first State of the Union address given by U.S. President Donald Trump and his second joint-session address to Congress. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In a national strategy call with progressives nationwide on Saturday evening, a newly-elected member of Congress—and some of the top organizers who led her successful campaign and others—committed to a strategy of holding the Democratic Party's feet to the fire in order to "save the country" by rejecting the corporate-friendly politics and submission to right-wing talking points that have shackled the ability to forge bold solutions to the most pressing crises.

"I don't think people who are taking money from pharmaceutical companies should be drafting health care legislation. I don't think people who are taking money from oil and gas companies should be drafting climate legislation." —Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez"All Americans know money in politics is a huge problem, but unfortunately the way that we fix it is by demanding that our incumbents give it up or by running fierce campaigns ourselves," said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the representative-elect from New York, on the call organized by Justice Democrats.  "I don't think people who are taking money from pharmaceutical companies should be drafting health care legislation. I don't think people who are taking money from oil and gas companies should be drafting climate legislation."

Becky Bond, a political strategist and veteran of the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, applauded Justice Democrats as being" founded by some of the best strategists in the progressive movement" and said she believes "the group's young, vibrant leaders are going to recruit and usher in the next generation of diverse working-class leaders into Congress."

According to Politico's report of the strategy session,

The group said they want Democratic members of Congress to be representative of their diverse communities and support liberal policies like Medicare for all, abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department, implementing a "Green New Deal," and rejecting corporate PAC donations. On the campaign trail, Ocasio-Cortez talked about forming a "corporate-free caucus" as a means to push for reform. That type of group, if it forms, could turn out to be the left's counterpart to the Freedom Caucus, which pushed Republican leadership to the right.

During his remarks, Saikat Chakrabarti, a Justice Democrats co-founder and now Ocasio-Cortez's chief of staff, told the more than 500 people on the national call that the heart of their new  campaign will be this: if they feel their elected leaders in Congress are not getting the job done, or going far enough, people should get behind someone who will.

"We need new leaders, period," Chakrabarti said. "We gotta primary folks."

As The Intercept reports on Sunday, Rep.-elect Rashida Tlaib, another Justice Democrat-endorsed candidate who just won a U.S. House seat in Michigan, was not on Saturday's call, but released a statement endorsing the group's new campaign. "Powerful women coming together to reclaim our government is exactly what is needed right now," she said. "Help uplift women like us at all levels of government. We still need more of you to run with us. So get your squad together. We are waiting for you."

It was a message many progressives have been waiting to hear made louder for some time:

For her part, Ocasio-Cortez said that her decision to run for the U.S. House against the powerful incumbent Joe Crowley began on a very similar strategy call.

"If you're a strong progressive leader in your community and committed to getting money out of politics, I want you to join me in Congress. I want you to run," Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet ahead of the call. "To run in 2020 without corporate money, you need to start considering now."

According to Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that rank-and-file Democrats are suppportive of primary challenges, especially against more right-leaning lawmakers:

"The anti-primary argument is baffling to me," added McElwee. Two women of color won primaries this cycle against white dudes who were going to try to hold onto their seats (in majority POC districts) into the afterlife. If we want a party that reflects our voters and values we need primaries."

According to Claire Sandberg, another key progressive campaign strategist and veteran of Sanders' insurgent 2016 run, "Every Democratic politician who has prioritized bank deregulation over responding to the threat of catastrophic climate change deserves to worry that they might be next to face a primary challenge from the left."

At this point in history, added Sandberg, if "Democratic leaders won't advance policies to create a safe future for all, they should expect a new generation of candidates to stand up and take their places."

The wave of new progressive candidates like Ocasio-Cortez, Bond added, "has been a breath of fresh air for the entire country. We can demand so much more of the Democratic Party, especially through primary challengers."

Correction: An update was made to this piece to better clarify who was on the strategy call.

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