(EDITOR’S NOTE: 6/26/18, 10:05 PM ET: The Associated Press is reporting that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has defeated Joe Crowley in the NY-14 primary.)
28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary challenge against Rep. Joe Crowley (D-New York) exemplifies the ongoing battle for the soul of the Democratic Party.
In one corner, Ocasio-Cortez is a millennial who has never held elected office, running on an unapologetically pro-working class platform (including Medicare for All, abolishing ICE, and a universal job guarantee, among other policies). Despite raising just over $300,000 — two-thirds of which is from small-dollar contributions of less than $200 — she’s won the endorsement of several powerful groups, including the New York State AFL-CIO and the SEIU unions. If she wins Tuesday’s primary in the deep-blue district, she may very well become NY-14’s first Latina representative in history.
In the other corner, Rep. Crowley is someone who inherited his position in Congress by being hand-picked by outgoing Congressman Thomas Manton, who used his own influence as the former Queens County Democratic Party boss to replace his own name on the general election ballot with Crowley’s (who used to work for him as a staffer) before Rep. Manton even publicly announced his retirement. Crowley — the current chair of the House Democratic caucus and the Queens Democratic Party, has raised more than $3.3 million in this cycle, and has been unopposed in every primary election dating back to 2004.
“He never won an election to get the seat in the first place,” Ocasio-Cortez told Grit Post in a phone interview.
Rep. Crowley did not return Grit Post’s requests for comment sent via email and by phone to his Congressional office and Queens office. A call to a phone number registered to his million-dollar home in Arlington, Virginia (250 miles from his home district), was also not returned as of this writing.
Rep. Joe Crowley: A modern-day Boss Tweed
Since taking office in 1999, Crowley has amassed immense power at the local level in his position as the chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party, which is arguably the most powerful party organization in the entire city. City & State New York recently ranked Crowley as the 12th most powerful person in New York City — ahead of U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and former mayor Michael Bloomberg.
As county party chairman, Rep. Crowley is a kingmaker, able to control appointments to various local judicial posts and Democrats who appear on special election ballots. Crowley’s control over the Queens Surrogates’ Court — which appoints guardians who make exorbitant fees handling the estates of residents who die without a will — illustrates how he’s built a Tammany Hall-like machine, with himself at the helm as a modern-day Boss Tweed.
In 2016, the New York Post reported on how current Surrogates’ Court judge Peter Kelly is the brother of Anne Anzalone — Crowley’s district chief of staff in Queens. Because Kelly himself lived in Westchester County, to the north, he wouldn’t have been able to meet the residency requirements for the post without being able to claim Anzalone’s home as his official residence. Kelly was initially nominated for the post by the Queens Democratic Party and ran unopposed for the position, which has a 14-year term.
As Surrogates’ Court judge, Kelly appointed attorney Lois Rosenblatt to be the court’s public administrator, who in turn re-appointed Gerard J. Sweeney as court counsel. Sweeney has, according to the Post, donated at least $6,000 to Rep. Crowley’s past re-election campaigns. The New York Times reported that in 2010 alone, Sweeney made $2.284 million administering estates for the Surrogates’ Court.
“Do I know [Gerard] Sweeney’s related with the Democratic Party and close to Congressman Joe Crowley?” Judge Kelly said in an interview with the Times, which called the Surrogates Court “an eternal source of easy money for the politically wired” in a 2011 report. “I would be a moron if I didn’t know that.”
In addition to processing estates, the Surrogates’ Court also handles foreclosure proceedings. Ocasio-Cortez says it’s in this particular function where Crowley’s machine directly profits off of the misery of his constituents. According to a 2015 report from New York Communities for Change, several Bronx neighborhoods within New York’s 14th Congressional District — like Throgs Neck and Morris Park — are inundated with underwater mortgages.
“Basically anyone who gets foreclosed on or dies without a will goes to the Surrogates’ Court, which Crowley controls,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “The more people foreclose, the more he profits. This is a tremendous conflict of interest.”
“They take all of that money and those proceeds and they distribute it through campaign contributions and things like that to maintain and propel this machine,” she continued. “Crowley takes some of the most money from Wall Street and luxury real estate developers out of any member of Congress, so he lobbies for their interest in Congress.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: A crusader for affordable housing
Roughly two years ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s mother was forced to sell her childhood home in a suburban community roughly an hour north of the city, because she could no longer afford to live in it. While she eventually sold it to a working-class family with children, the initial offer came from a shady foreign corporate entity.
“She was offered something like 150 percent of her asking price, all cash, by a no-name LLC that originated in the Middle East,” Ocasio-Cortez told Grit Post. “This was a corporation that wanted to raze the home and extract profits from the land. On principle she didn’t sell it to them.”
“Affordable housing is a huge, huge problem,” she added.
Her opponent is a friend of luxury real estate investors and developers, whom Ocasio-Cortez blames for the affordable housing crisis plaguing her district and virtually every other metropolitan area in the country. As Grit Post reported in March, there are three vacant apartments for every homeless person in New York City.
In 2016, Rep. Crowley loosened regulations on foreign investors seeking to buy up property, who frequently do so through shadowy LLCs headquartered overseas. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Rep. Crowley has received more than $1.7 million from the real estate industry over the course of his career, and is the industry’s fourth largest recipient of political donations in the 2018 cycle.
“Over 50 percent of the luxury apartments in Midtown Manhattan are vacant. They’re being used by oligarchs to store and hide wealth. Even though they purchase these homes, they don’t live in them,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “This is Panama Papers, Paradise Papers-type stuff, and it’s facilitated by Joe Crowley.”
“It’s turning this city into a ghost town. If you take a bus through midtown Manhattan, all you see are blocks and blocks of empty storefronts that are just anchored by a multinational bank,” she added. “And now it’s spreading to other parts of the city working-class people used to be able to call home, like Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Spanish Harlem… Small businesses can no longer survive in the city, and people can no longer afford to live in the city.”
In order to address the affordable housing crisis, Ocasio-Cortez wants to see deregulation of foreign investment curtailed, and protections put in place to ensure that communities in NY-14, as well as across the country, have an affordable road to home ownership and the means to have a roof over their head without having to pay a disproportionate percentage of their income.
“It’s not just about prioritizing ownership, but prioritizing affordability as well. We have to reinstitute Glass-Steagall and add teeth to Dodd-Frank so the banking industry is regulated and we don’t see the resurgence of predatory loans, derivatives, and things like that,” she said. “We need to make sure that our real estate protections ensure that people have, at the very least, access to an affordable home, and that the market isn’t being gobbled up by people who are essentially trying to store their wealth instead of live in a home.”
Despite its relative obscurity in the national news cycle, Ocasio-Cortez sees the affordable housing crisis as perhaps the biggest issue for working-class Americans.
“People may think that housing policy is not the sexiest rallying point in the world, but it is extremely emotional. This is really one of the main mechanisms for wealth concentration in the country,” she said. “The 2008 housing crisis represented one of the largest transfers of wealth from the middle class to the one percent in American history, and that was done through mortgages, debt swaps, derivatives, it was all based in real estate.”
“If you’re a working-class person in NY-14, if you’re a working American in this district, chances are, nine times out of 10, you are feeling the pressure of rising costs of rent and costs of living,” Ocasio-Cortez continued. “These economic pressures are at a crisis point for working families in the district. It is one of the most important issues to people in this community, because people in New York City are hanging on by a thread at this point. They are really just one or two rent hikes away from being out on the street themselves.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way. This is due to the massive concentration of wealth at the very top of the top. We’re not talking about lawyers or doctors. We’re talking about billionaires.”
Can Joe Crowley win another election without showing up?
There have been multiple occasions in which Rep. Crowley simply didn’t show up when invited to debate his primary opponent. Earlier this week, a debate hosted by The Parkchester Times (a community newspaper based in the Bronx) featured Ocasio-Cortez and Annabel Palma — a surrogate sent by team Crowley to debate on his behalf. City & State ranked Palma as one of the five-worst New York city council members in 2016 based on number of bills introduced and number of bills enacted. As of publication, the only primary debate Crowley has attended so far was a 20-minute televised debate hosted by NY1.
The New York Times reported that for both this recent debate and another debate earlier this year, Crowley said his lack of attendance was due to scheduling conflicts. The Times’ editorial board criticized Crowley for taking voters of the 14th Congressional District for granted.
“[T]he snubs should be galling not only to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Mr. Crowley’s constituents in New York’s 14th Congressional District, in Queens and the Bronx, but also to anyone who cares about the democratic process… Mr. Crowley is far from the first candidate to decline to debate a challenger he is heavily favored to beat. But as a longtime incumbent with a powerful role as a party leader, he should relish, not shirk, a chance to make his case to voters.”
While Ocasio-Cortez’s chances of winning are long, given her campaign’s lack of a war chest and Crowley’s position as the leader of a powerful political machine, her opponent is clearly feeling threatened by her, reportedly now relying on a pro-Republican lobbying firm to raise additional campaign money. Crowley recently appeared at a fundraiser hosted by BGR Group — a lobbying firm co-founded by Haley Barbour, the former chair of the Republican National Committee who also served as Mississippi’s governor for eight years.
For her part, Ocasio-Cortez says she believes that on Tuesday, June 26, the voters of the 14th Congressional District will vote for new representation.
“I think there is a desire to restore a fairness to our system that has largely been perpetuated by democrats like Joseph Crowley,” she said.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.