Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old socialist and Bernie Sanders organizer who wants to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), routed Representative Joseph Crowley, the Queens County Democratic leader, fourth-ranking House Democrat, and would-be Speaker, by 58 percent to 42 percent in Tuesday’s primary in New York’s 14th congressional district.
Turnout was 13 percent, typically low under New York’s absurd system of holding a separate June congressional primary (to comply with federal law) while retaining its September primary for state and local offices. This arrangement certainly helped Ocasio-Cortez (notwithstanding her clichéd talk about mobilizing non-voters), given the tendency of small primary electorates to skew to the extremes. But Crowley would have fallen eventually, given demographic changes in his district stemming from immigration and gentrification, as well as the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left. The irony: Crowley lurched left, too, but it did him no good.
Crowley succeeded Thomas Manton, another Queens Democratic leader, as the congressman from the old 7th District in 1999 and later took over the party organization, as well, when Manton died in 2006. The congressional seat was previously held by Geraldine Ferraro from 1978 to 1984, and for many years before that by James J. Delaney, a Democrat who ran with Conservative Party support, staunchly backed the Vietnam War, and opposed school busing.
Delaney’s views, particularly on social issues, reflected those of the then-heavily white, Catholic, and blue-collar congressional district, which voted strongly for John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon in 1960 but three-to-one for Nixon over George McGovern in 1972. The opening-credits scene for All in the Family was filmed there, in Glendale. But the district, and the Queens Democratic Party, were already changing when Delaney retired in 1978 and Ferraro won an upset primary victory (over Manton) in the race to succeed him. Ferraro compiled a mostly liberal record, but nevertheless opposed busing and supported the death penalty, for example, thus making her attractive to Walter Mondale as a vice presidential running mate: he hoped that she would appeal to working-class voters nationally and inoculate the Democratic ticket against charges of cultural liberalism.
Manton, a former police officer and Marine who had run unsuccessfully against Delaney in 1972 and Ferraro in 1978, finally won the seat when Ferraro got the vice presidential nod in 1984. While he’d challenged Delaney from the center-left, he was a pro-life social moderate who had opposed gay rights as a New York City councilman (though he later moved left with his party); even in his last term in Congress, he received an 89 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC)—and only a 17 percent score from NARAL Pro-Choice.
Crowley started out in a somewhat similar mold, at least on abortion, receiving 50 percent scores from both NRLC and NARAL in his first years in Congress and opposing partial-birth abortion. On most other matters, though, including other cultural issues like gay rights, he tacked hard left from the beginning. By 2005, he’d given up the ghost on abortion, describing himself as proudly “pro-choice,” and consistently bringing home 100 percent report cards from NARAL. Nonetheless, the press continued to portray him as an outer-borough moderate—a “jocular Irish Catholic machine pol and police officer’s son”—an image that proved useful in putting himself forward as a potential alternative to Nancy Pelosi, especially in a new political age dominated by another Queens native with blue-collar appeal.
The district was no longer hospitable ground for such an old-style pol, though. Even in the 1990s, the district’s white population was down to 58 percent; by the 2002 redistricting, that figure had plummeted to 28 percent. Even with the influx of generally lower-income and less-educated minority groups, however, median-income and education levels edged up, reflecting the tentative beginnings of gentrification in the neighborhoods closest to Manhattan. Redistricting in 2012 merged the old 7th district into a new 14th district, with some 35 percent of its voting population in the Bronx, including some neighborhoods, like Throgs Neck, resembling the bygone white-ethnic neighborhoods in Queens, but with even more Latino communities. Moreover, some of the old “Archie Bunker” areas like Maspeth and Middle Village were eliminated from the new district. The current district is 46 percent Hispanic, 11 percent black, 16 percent Asian, and 25 percent white, and many of the whites are affluent hipster transplants to gentrifying sections of Astoria, Sunnyside, and Jackson Heights.
This newly drawn district proved perfect for Ocasio-Cortez, who beat Crowley not just among Latinos but also in many white areas, where “woke” Bernie Bros voted but the Democratic Party organization couldn’t turn out the vestiges of its old ethnic base. Crowley carried only the relatively small black vote. In the end, the perception of his long-abandoned moderation, which he’d hoped to parlay into a challenge to Pelosi for Minority Leader or Speaker, enraged the party’s activists (who, unassuaged by his recent years of perfect NARAL ratings, blasted him for his 15-year-old anti-abortion votes), while his radical pandering may have kept the old-line Democratic voters at home. Though Crowley participated in every anti-deportation sit-in or march, Ocasio-Cortez cast him as a kind of Trump-lite; he had, after all, voted to establish ICE.
So Crowley was turned out. As New York Parks Commissioner Henry Stern once said of a different defeated New York pol, who lost a Democratic and Republican primary on the same day: “Neither fish nor fowl, now he’s toast.”
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