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Anything Can Happen: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Victory Shows Stunning Energy of the Democrats' Progressive Arm

A stunning demonstration of the energy in the progressive base of the Democratic Party

"The 28-year-old Democratic Socialist ended the career of Joe Crowley, a 14-year incumbent who was even-money to be the Speaker of a Democratic House one day." (Photo: Getty)

"The 28-year-old Democratic Socialist ended the career of Joe Crowley, a 14-year incumbent who was even-money to be the Speaker of a Democratic House one day." (Photo: Getty)

There’s a lot to be said about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s earthquake of an upset in the Democratic primary to represent the 14th Congressional District of New York. The 28-year-old Democratic Socialist ended the career of Joe Crowley, a 14-year incumbent who was even-money to be the Speaker of a Democratic House one day. It was a stunning demonstration of the energy in the progressive base of the Democratic Party.

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It also has some local interest up here in the Commonwealth (God save it!) because a similar scenario is playing out in the Seventh Congressional District. Ten-term Incumbent Michael Capuano is facing a strong challenge from Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley. The surface similarities are remarkable. Capuano’s district has undergone the same sort of demographic shifts that Crowley’s has. Pressley is a young, tough, talented woman of color who is challenging Capuano’s progressive bona fides. (In 2008, Capuano was one of the first Massachusetts Democrats to endorse Barack Obama and, recently, he called on Congress to study impeaching the current president*. He also paid a recent visit to the Texas border.)

 

However, Capuano has done a better job tending the local vineyards than did Crowley, who declined even to debate Ocasio-Cortez. Pressley and Capuano held a spirited debate in Roxbury back in May, and Capuano had a healthy 12-point lead in a poll taken back in February. Still, the results from New York should energize the Pressley campaign, and they also should serve as a cautionary tale for the incumbent. Politics are very fluid and very strange right now.

The New York results also have a sort of ominous historical resonance for the current president* to ponder. In 1972, Emanuel Celler was a powerhouse. He represented the 11th Congressional District of New York and he was the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a liberal firebrand who’d been in office for going on 50 years. (Celler’s maiden speech in the House was made in opposition to the Johnson Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted immigration from both southern Europe and East Asia–which latter meant Arabs and Jews. Plus ca change and all that.) However, Celler had grown old and detached from his district. In June of 1972, a young New York lawyer named Elizabeth Holtzman ambushed Celler and beat him in the primary. Not long after, some burglars got busted trying to bug the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee located in the luxurious Watergate complex in Washington.

In his lucid account of the impeachment summer of 1974, How The Good Guys Finally Won, the late Jimmy Breslin correctly asserts that Celler’s loss to Holtzman in 1972 was pivotal to the dramatic events of 1974. With Celler’s loss, the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee passed to Peter Rodino of New Jersey. Where Celler was abrasive, Rodino was affable. Where Celler was imperious, Rodino was conciliatory.

In 1974, if the Articles of Impeachment against Richard Nixon were to have maximum credibility, the vote on the Judiciary Committee—and, later, in the full House—had to be a bipartisan one. With Celler running things, a bipartisan vote might have been next to impossible. Rodino’s calm, unobtrusive style was perfect for convincing Republicans like Thomas Railsback of Illinois to vote to impeach a Republican president. (In his book, Breslin mentions a conversation he had with Celler in which the ex-congressman scorned Rodino’s attempts to get a bipartisan vote, which rather underscores Breslin’s point.) That vote, plus the release of the “smoking gun” tape, was the effective end of the Nixon presidency.

Again, as with the current New York and Massachusetts races, the parallels here are interesting, but far from exact. However, when the voters of New York turn out a veteran congressman in favor of an upstart female candidate in a period in which a presidency is headed toward the rocks and shoals, history says anything can happen. Just sayin’.

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Charles P. Pierce

Charles P. Pierce

Charles P. Pierce is a writer-at-large for Esquire and his work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the LA Times Magazine, the Nation, the Atlantic, Sports Illustrated and The Chicago Tribune, among others.

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