Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, used an appearance before an overflow student crowd in New York Thursday to stake out a justice, immigration and housing agenda aimed squarely at appealing to the youthful constituency critical to her party’s chances for victory in 2020.
Saying she represented an America that felt alienated from mainstream culture, Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), called for policies that “reassert and renew the values of justice, freedom, liberty, human dignity, humanity, and looking after one another.”
“People say that we’re trying to change our country [in] this radical new direction,” Ocasio-Cortez, whose name is often shortened to “AOC,” said during a free-wheeling Q&A at John Jay College.
“But in some ways, I feel like we’re just trying to come back home. In this moment, I think it’s no secret that a lot of us feel that we have strayed from those values as a government, as an administration, sometimes just as a culture.
“What this means to me is hope [and] the idea that we can actually be engaged and excited—not just about politics, but about policy.”
Underlined her growing role as a lodestar for the Democratic Party’s progressive wing—and its hopes for attracting a younger generation of voters— students lined up for nearly five hours for her talk, which was not publicized in the media.
On justice issues, AOC took aim at harsh school disciplinary policies and immigration policy.
Ending policies that “treat schools like mini-jails” is critical to preventing the criminalization of young people through the justice system, she said, calling on schools to rethinking policies of detention and suspension for students that shuttle them into a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The policy rethink should be part of the “greater agenda of prison abolition,” she said.
“One of the main ways we address juvenile detention is by stopping policies that treat schools like mini jails,” Ocasio-Cortez said, adding that community engagement and service programs are more effective substitutes for harsh disciplinary policies.
Asked by a student for her position on current youth incarceration policies that disproportionately affect “black and brown, or merely economically deprived juveniles,” AOC connected a series of issues ranging from brutal immigration enforcement and detention affecting families and children, to the school-to-prison pipeline and educational funding.
She argued that local educational funding structures have contributed to segregation and created zones of poverty. The criminal justice system then criminalizes that poverty, breaking apart families in the process, she said.
In response to another question on private immigration detention centers, she cited her efforts to end the Congressional subsidies that support the corporations which operate them. She noted her confrontation on the Financial Services Committee with leading banking executives, and the subsequent efforts by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to oppose increases in Homeland Security funding for detentions, deportations and the border wall.
But AOC struck the deepest chords with her audience with a vivid description of the hopes by of congressional colleagues to “change our country [in] this radical new direction.”
While the event was billed by some as “coming home” to her New York constituency since she was elected in a surprise victory in 2018, she argued that her distinctive brand of Democratic politics represented a similar journey for the American progressive movement.
“This right here, this is the work. This is change,” she said. “I’m just really excited.”
During the event, AOC answered several specific policy questions that in many ways reflected John Jay’s identity as a deeply multicultural, urban public university in the heart of New York City.
For example, a student from the Political Science Student Association asked what steps she has taken to fight housing inequalities in her district, and if she believes the federal government should be doing more to protect tenants’ rights.
Explaining that housing is an integrated issue between all levels of government, she argued that the combination of local community board zoning policies, city council decisions on land use, and major capital improvements (MCIs) submitted by landlords and approved by state governments are more central decision points than Capitol Hill in shaping the ongoing housing crisis related to gentrification in major urban cities.
But she also pointed to her predecessor, former Rep. Joe Crowley, as a source of longstanding housing woes in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“We’ve called a lot of attention to a major tax cut specifically for foreign real estate developers made about three years ago, that actually came from New York City,” she said. “It was a big issue in my race because it was introduced by my predecessor.
“This huge rush that we see, of these shadowy LLCs funded by millionaires or billionaires from outside of New York City, where they’ll buy a whole brownstone or building [at market value] and the rents get raised in the area as a result, has to do with federal tax code.”
She went on to explain that she has devoted efforts as a member of the House Financial Services Committee to call attention to such rule changes relating to the federal tax code.
Moving to the topic of student debt, which she openly admitted she still holds, she was adamant that for the cost of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the federal government could cover loan forgiveness for all outstanding student debt in the country.
And the audience voiced its raucous approval.
“This is not a pie-in-the-sky thing,” said AOC. “This is the narrative that always comes out from the right: ‘This is unrealistic. This is this or that.’
“For the cost of the GOP tax cut that was passed in 2017, we could have forgiven every single student loan. So the question is not about possibility; it’s a question of priority. And what they told us is that a handful of billionaires are more important than educating our entire populace at the level that our economy demands.
However, while loan forgiveness certainly could be a matter of federal spending priorities, she painted a somewhat oversimplified picture of government budgeting, given that the decrease in federal revenue from the 2017 tax cut did not take from previously available funds that could have been allocated to loan forgiveness.
Instead, the GOP tax bill plunged the federal government deeper into a fiscal deficit.
That’s to say that the money she claimed was given to corporations over student loan forgiveness did not exist in the government’s coffers. Rather, it was never collected through taxation and stayed in the form of untaxed private wealth.
If the tax cut had not gone into effect and the government collected that money, it would have gone to other expenses to narrow the deficit, unless Congress decided to change its spending priorities.
Some of the most magnetic portions of AOC’s appearance had less to do with policy wonkery, and more to do with the advice and encouragement she offered to young people, particularly women, first-generation college students, people of color, and others interested in politics who find themselves underrepresented in the halls and dialogue of Congress.
She first argued that aspirants should spend less time searching for opportunities on ‘The Hill’ and immersing themselves in abstract, technocratic white papers, and more time immersing themselves deeply in the communities and issues they would like to represent and address.
“Especially in our community, when you’re first-gen and battling in all these spaces [for representation], what we need to do is master the high-low,” she said.
“And you can’t think the ‘high,’ the prestigious things [like Washington internships], are what is going to qualify you to your community. Those are important, though—they’re not things to throw away […] but it is not enough.
“And we need to have those direct experiences in our community, you need to organize and be on the front line with your community.”