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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a rally

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a rally in New York City on June 5, 2021. (Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Breaking News: AOC's District Has Opinions

Her ability to capture the limelight makes it easy to suggest she isn't the working-class defender she says she is. But again and again, these attacks fall flat under scrutiny.

The residents of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district, like all New Yorkers, love to argue. No one can agree which Colombian bakery has the best empanadas. Given that the district is in both the Bronx and Queens, it is home to both Mets and Yankees fans.The state’s 14th congressional district is well-known for its diversity. It’s the type of place where you might find a Bangladeshi woman in full body covering selling Korans next to a sex worker. Everyone has their differences, but for the most part people get along.

So it’s not surprising that if you walked around Roosevelt or Tremont Avenues and asked 10 people for their thoughts on a particular political subject, you’d probably receive about 13 different answers. Alas, the New York Times (11/12/21) turned this into a shocking expose: It turns out some people in the district were unhappy with Ocasio-Cortez’s “no” vote on the federal infrastructure bill.

The Times noted that the federal infrastructure bill would bring billions for the state, but that “Ocasio-Cortez and five fellow progressives voted against it; they argued that the bill was too modest”—before adding the actual reason that these lawmakers voted against it, that they “sought to use their votes to pressure wavering moderates to support a bigger climate and social safety net bill that is pending.”

The six progressives were sticking to what the plan had been all along, which was that the infrastructure bill would be passed after the social spending bill, to get conservative Democrats an incentive to vote for the latter; without that incentive, the fate of the social spending bill is now very much in doubt.

‘Sharp disagreements’

The Times piece—which was co-authored by Kate Glueck, the paper’s chief metro political reporter, with Nicholas Fandos—explores the reaction of the district to this break with the rest of the Democratic Party. The piece says, “There are sharp disagreements unfolding over how far left the party should go,” based on “interviews with more than three dozen constituents, elected officials and party leaders.”

Given her stature as a progressive leader, it is fair game to get responses from AOC’s district to a controversial vote. Yet we’re not used to seeing other elected leaders receiving this kind of coverage. First-year New York Rep. Ritchie Torres has a district that borders AOC’s, and has been heavily touted by media as a better model of “progressive” up-and-comer (FAIR.org1/26/21). Yet we don’t see a lot of in-depth coverage of how the poorest district in the country feels about his prioritization of US aid to Israel, when that money could be spent at home; instead, he’s treated to a puff piece from conservative Times columnist Bret Stephens (9/21/21).

The most telling part of the November 12 article is when it quotes Tony Avella speaking negatively of AOC, calling her a “lightning rod.” The Times describes Avella as a “moderate Democrat who appears to have lost a City Council district in Queens that includes a more moderate part of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional district.”

So many words, and yet it leaves out so much. Avella isn’t a nobody. He is a former Democratic state senator who joined the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), a renegade group of conservative Democrats who caucused with Republicans, thereby handing the New York Senate majority to the GOP. He lost his re-election primary, along with most of the other IDC senators, in 2018, in the same wave of progressive electoral energy that swept AOC to victory in her primary (Intercept9/13/18); in Queens, the anti-IDC campaigns often included volunteers who also worked for AOC. This is a key piece of context that helps explain Avella’s antipathy toward AOC’s success and her leftward stances, and the Times leaves it out.

But the other quotes don’t seem random, either. Another quote taking a swipe at AOC comes from Thomas Grech, the CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, a business association whose natural inclination is to remain at the business-friendly center. Further, Grech made several contributions to the mayoral campaign of Eric Adams, the mayor-elect who has vowed to wage political combat against AOC and her allies (New York Post7/27/21).

The Times also quoted a negative comment from Jennifer Shannon, who is identified as a local activist, but the Times doesn’t say what kind of activist. Well, she helped organize a protest against a new homeless shelter (Queens Chronicle12/6/18), and appears to be an active member of a Facebook group for a civic association that backed at least one Republican candidate in a local election. That’s a bit of context the Times should share when it comes to a story like this.

To understand the degree to which these voices are outliers and not the norm, remember: AOC won re-election in the general election with 72% of the vote.

The piece does offer a favorable quote from Assemblymember Zohran Kwame Mamdani, who the paper calls “a democratic socialist who represents one of the most left-leaning neighborhoods.” But even that makes Mamdani sound like an outlier of support. AOC’s district also includes part of the City Council district that recently elected Tiffany Cabán, who was also backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. The congressional district is also home to state Sen. Jessica Ramos, a progressive although not a socialist, who was an anti-IDC challenger swept in during the same wave that brought in AOC in 2018. AOC is probably the most familiar expression of progressive electoral success in western Queens, but she is hardly alone.

‘Self-proclaimed woman of the people’

This type of article, which frames the district revolting against the congressmember with quotes that are questionably presented as a random sampling, isn’t new.

The New York Post (8/20/19) wrote a long piece on Ocasio-Cortez’s insufficient office phone system; communications problems at one’s district office aren’t nothing, but hardly an outlier in the world of automated phone systems. The Post (3/30/19) also claimed AOC’s “constituents turn against her,” a fiery headline for a story based on quotes from exactly two people. One of those people is Anthony Vitaliano, whom the Post refers to as an ex-cop, who was later not reappointed to his community board post after allegations surfaced that he had discriminated against a board staffer (The City8/10/20). This is one of the best people the Post could find to sully AOC’s performance, apparently.

The Post (11/15/21) also lifted one of the takeaways from the Times piece, that her district office is physically open only twice a week, saying “this self-proclaimed woman of the people thinks they are best served from afar,” adding that on the “other three weekdays, AOC’s district office appointments are held virtually.”

Not until the 14th paragraph does the Post mention the obvious reason for the closures: The country is still in the midst of a pandemic, killing on average more than a thousand people a day across the US in early November (a statistic not mentioned by the tabloid). Whether one likes it or not, many businesses, nonprofits, unions and institutions of higher learning are still operating remotely at least part of the time. Turning this into a news story suggests that Post reporters are forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel; one pictures an AOC-obsessed editor barking for literally anything to hit the congressmember with. (It doesn’t hurt that this particular story ties into the Murdoch empire’s opposition to anti-Covid public health measures—for the public, of course, not for the conglomerate’s own staffers.)

And one can’t really blame this desperation on the Post’s conservative politics. The Times piece on the reaction to AOC’s infrastructure vote quoted state Sen. John Liu taking a dig at the congresswoman’s presence in the district, referring to “her visibility in the district—ubiquitous online, less so in person.” This follows previous AP coverage (6/11/20) which quoted a pro-business advocate on “this perception of her being this Hollywood glam girl,” which the AP said was part of “accusations that she’s lost touch with her district.” The AP’s alarm bell turned out to be nothing: AOC sailed to victory in her primary later that month (CNN6/24/20), with 75% of the vote.

Ask yourself, how often do you actually see your congressional representative just hanging around your neighborhood? I am a resident of AOC’s district, and while I can’t tell you how many actual hours per week she spends on the streets of the district, I can say that I’ve laid eyes on her at my local farmers market, my nearest park, a meeting on public education, a Hanukkah party for the community and a rally for LaGuardia airport workers. According to her social media, we also just missed each other at the same Tibetan momo joint (Twitter9/30/19). And that’s just one corner of the district. To suggest that she’s somehow not around is just not based on reality.

And, of course, none of these swipes at AOC’s physical presence take into account that she has had to face death threats in the district (Daily News4/26/21). This is all happening as Republican Rep. Paul Gosar shared a video cartoon depicting him murdering her (Newsweek11/15/21), and then reshared it after he was censured by his colleagues (CBS11/18/21).

The anti-spending socialist

Negative coverage of AOC has a tendency to drift into surrealism. Take Fox News’ response (11/7/21) to her infrastructure vote: The conservative network took the opportunity to quote Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, who voted with the Biden administration because the bill will pour money into the city, to blast AOC for her no vote. So here you get an anti-spending news organization quote a lawmaker from the anti-spending party blasting a socialist for voting against spending.

It’s not hard to understand why AOC gets this type of attention. Given that she is the de facto leader of the Squad, an alliance of democratic socialist congressmembers, she is the obvious target for both establishment centrist papers like the Times and conservative outlets like the New York Post. Her ability to capture the limelight, like being on the cover of Vanity Fair (12/20), makes it easy to suggest she isn’t the working-class defender she says she is. But again and again, these attacks fall flat under scrutiny.


© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Ari Paul

Ari Paul

Ari Paul is a New York-based journalist who has reported for the Nation, the Guardian, the Forward, the Brooklyn Rail, Vice News, In These Times, Jacobin and many other outlets.

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