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Young, Female, and Progressive: The Freshman Congressional Renegades
Friday, 28 December 2018 14:03

Catanese writes: "They're young, they're female, and they're clear-eyed about upsetting the apple cart in Washington."

Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sit at a table together at new House member orientation, November 13, 2018. (photo: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez/Instagram)
Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sit at a table together at new House member orientation, November 13, 2018. (photo: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez/Instagram)

Young, Female, and Progressive: The Freshman Congressional Renegades

By David Catanese, U.S. News & World Report

28 December 18

They’re young, they’re female, and they’re clear-eyed about upsetting the apple cart in Washington.

n the seven weeks since she became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has joined a protest staged in Nancy Pelosi's office, established a new standard to pay interns $15 an hour, tussled with Sen. Lindsey Graham and the president's eldest son on Twitter and made rumblings about stirring a primary challenge against a new member of House leadership from her own state.

Before this 29-year-old Democratic socialist Latina from the Bronx is even sworn in to the House next week, she's become one of the most influential figures in the Democratic Party – and the unordained leader of a flock of progressive renegade freshman females hellbent on breaking the norms of the institution and challenging the notion that seniority means supremacy.

Many of their electoral victories were had by skipping the established line, so they're wired to approach governing in the same rebellious way. And their sizable followings on social media provide them with an imposing arsenal of support that can be converted into raw political power as fast as one can upload an Instagram.

"The freshman class as an aggregate will have more power than the leadership," says Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat about to start his second term. "The balance of power is shifting in the House. Leadership doesn't matter nearly as much. Ordinary members of Congress have a much bigger platform. The size of your Twitter following and the size of your external base makes a huge difference."

Of the 235-member Democratic House majority that will take power on Jan. 3, just over a quarter of the class – totalling 63 members – will be freshmen. And during the transition period, a handful of incoming members – self-described as the "squad" – have signaled their intentions to rock the boat.

They not only look different than your father's stodgy, old, whitebread Congress, they're making moves both substantive and symbolic that break with protocol and tradition. And they aren't doing it quietly.

Michigan's Rashida Tlaib, who at 42 years old is the first Palestinian-American woman elected to the House, raised eyebrows when she announced she would lead a delegation to her mother's native West Bank rather than partake in the traditional freshman trip to Israel. She said she hoped to humanize the plight of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territory and show new members a part of the story that's not been included in the usual voyage sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. She's also a vocal supporter of the "BDS" movement, which advocates for boycotting, divesting and sanctioning Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.

During freshman orientation, it was Tlaib who joined Ocasio-Cortez in calling out former White House adviser Gary Cohn for telling the newbies, "You guys are way over your head, you don't know how the game is played."

"No, Gary," Tlaib responded, "YOU don't know what's coming – a revolutionary Congress that puts people over profits." Her response earned more than 11,000 retweets and close to 49,000 likes.

She also took to Instagram to reveal what she would wear for her swearing-in ceremony: a maroon-colored Palestinian gown, known as a thobe. Instead of a Bible, she'll take the oath on a Quran.

"It's a real huge symbol," she said. "It's history. It's culture."

Ilhan Omar, a 36-year-old Democrat from Minnesota, will become the first U.S. lawmaker to wear a headscarf or hijab on the House floor. With her November victory, Omar becomes the first woman of color to represent Minnesota in Congress as well as the first Muslim refugee and first Somali-American.

When a conservative talk radio host complained that Omar would now make Congress "look like an Islamic republic," she took him on directly.

"Well sir, the floor of Congress is going to look like America," she wrote. "And you're gonna have to just deal."

"I really do believe the job description has changed," says Sarah Groh, the chief of staff for Democratic Rep.-elect Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. "And I think what we're seeing with this incoming freshman class is, it is not a monolith. We are talking about a diverse class that comes with very personal and professional backgrounds in all walks of life."

Like Ocasio-Cortez, the 44-year-old Pressley won her primary by activating an entirely new coalition. Fifty-three percent of voters in this year's Massachusetts' 7th Congressional District Democratic primary cast ballots for the first time, according to Groh.

That means these freshmen feel more responsive to the freshly emboldened voices in their community than the formal party structure that consists of longtime local chairmen and fundraisers.

During an orientation at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government earlier this month, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez abandoned the program inside for a period to head outside with demonstrators to call for universal health care coverage and legislation to combat climate change.

Groh says the idea was to leverage the moment and set the tone early on that Pressley, along with others, would use their newfound stardom on issues of consequence, rather than simply comply with the established order.

"She's never been someone who's been constrained by formal authority or years served, or really put her aspiration on the shelf because of that." Groh says. "As she enters into this office, so much of the focus continues to be about what can we do that is not constrained by any type of formal authority."

So far, Democratic leaders have publicly embraced these new faces. After Ocasio-Cortez rallied with protesters in Pelosi's office for a "green jobs" bill, the next likely speaker said she was "inspired by the energy and activism."

But it appears that clashes will be inevitable. Pelosi re-established a select committee on climate change, but it's unclear how much of Ocasio-Cortez's "Green New Deal" will be embraced by Rep. Kathy Castor, the appointed chairwoman. During a year in which Democratic leaders will want to show they are capable of governing, these new progressives could become the equivalent of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives that often stymied the agenda of Republican leadership to prove ideological purity.

Eventually, the new Democratic House will forced into toilsome decisions about whether to compromise with a GOP Senate and President Donald Trump or plant a flag as the governing-inspired resistance. The media will fixate on every Ocasio-Cortez utterance and position, giving her outsize influence in her caucus, especially among progressives.

She broke with many Democrats in New York when Amazon announced it would locate one of its new headquarters in Long Island City. Ocasio-Cortez blasted the idea of doling out hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to a $100-billion dollar company "at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need more investment, not less."

Some Democratic strategists believe she'll impact the positions of 2020 presidential candidates as the primary kicks into gear next year.

"When she goes after people, people are going to pay attention to it," says an adviser to one contender. "It's going to resonate."

But she'll also likely become the favorite target of Republicans, who gleefully pounce on her mistakes and mock her as an ill-informed radical. After years of making Pelosi their favorite political pinata, the GOP may have finally found a more resonant antagonist. Additionally, Democrats who narrowly won traditionally red districts in Virginia and Kansas may be loathe to see their party be driven by a hard-line socialist from the Bronx.

Still, Ocasio-Cortez, along with her sisters-in-arms, possess a potent ingredient that will make them formidable even if they aren't foolproof: fearlessness.

"People in her community are coming up to her every day and telling her, 'Don't just fall in line, don't just go in there and do nothing. You need to fight,'" said Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez's incoming chief of staff in a recent Instagram post. "If we're not pushing the chips in every single time, we're not going to get the change we need fast enough to actually solve the biggest problems that we're facing."

Or, as Omar put it, "We did not come to play."

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Last Updated on Friday, 28 December 2018 14:57