Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Symbol of a New Democratic Party, Tours S.F.

The new progressive darling is already boosting candidates around the country.

Democratic socialist congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at an event organized by the SF Progressive Alliance at Gray Area Art and Technology in the Mission District on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume)

For eight years, left-leaning Americans got settled into a comfortable routine as President Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat biracial man, held the most powerful office on the planet.

But as they processed the horror of an impending President Donald Trump in 2016, it became clear that having Obama in the White House was merely a facade of nationwide Democratic power. The party went from controlling 59 percent of state legislatures to 31 percent and from 29 governor’s offices to 16, FiveThirtyEight analyzed.

Like Obama during the economy-crashing, civil rights-depleting days of the Bush administration, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is emerging as the next charismatic leader to lead the Democratic Party in a new direction during ever-darkening times. Vastly outspent during her campaign by her opponent, the 28-year-old former bartender with an economic degree still managed to beat the 10-term Bronx congressional representative and fourth-ranking Democrat Joe Crowley in the primaries, and immediately received national recognition. 

At the Mission’s Gray Area Art and Technology on Tuesday night, San Francisco, too, proved they were ravenous for a symbol like her. El Rio was the original venue but 300 tickets sold out in about half a day. Organizers switched venues to Gray Area, which can accommodate 800 people. Tickets once again sold out within a few hours.

“She could sell out a stadium at this point,” said Gabriel Medina, a member of San Francisco Democratic Socialists of America.

Supervisor Jane Kim — who introduced Ocasio-Cortez to the stage Tuesday as requested — was almost that symbol of progressive power in San Francisco, with her unsuccessful run for mayor this year. But as other electoral victories on that same June ballot and Tuesday’s turnout showed, the progressive movement is alive and well without that symbol. (It was also a debut for the new San Francisco Progressive Alliance, made up of four major organizations with the same causes.)

“We’re hungry for a change in our party that claims to represent us,” Kim said, championing causes like affordable housing, free college tuition, and health care. “I want a woman who is going to fight for this in Congress.”

As wild as the crowd went for Kim, they greeted Ocasio-Cortez with feet-stomping thunder-clapping that reached deafening levels. Still humbled by the win, she made the case for trying in jurisdictions despite the odds, for an electoral loss does not necessarily equate a wasted effort.

“A movement is about advancing the front line for everywhere,” Ocasio-Cortez told the crowd. “That next cycle is ours — nobody is thinking about the long term.”

David Campos, chair of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee and a former supervisor, says it’s inspiring for progressives to see an anti-establishment movement taking place in the party. Kim may have lost the mayor’s seat but progressive candidates have enthusiasm in districts up for the taking, like Tony Kelly in Bayview and Gordon Mar in the Sunset.

“I think Ocasio-Cortez represents going up against the system,” Campos said. “It sends a clear message that there’s an appetite for change and new direction in politics.” 

Symbols can be a powerful force, and also a double-edged sword when they’re put in power, allowing followers to relax with a sense of accomplishment. Ocasio-Cortez as the newfound symbol of a new Democratic Party, though, has been adamant right off the bat that it takes more than one leader in one congressional district.

Since her primary win, Ocasio-Cortez has stumped for other candidates around the country, like Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed last weekend. In San Francisco, she emphasized motivating marginalized voters who otherwise felt candidates weren’t fighting for them — especially in the Midwest.

“The Bronx ain’t that different from Detroit. They don’t want us to connect the dots,” she told the crowd. “We’ve got to be doing this work constantly, we’ve got to be supporting each other constantly.”

And her message is taking hold. Ben Speer, a casual member of San Francisco Berniecrats has been politically active much of his life but, until tonight, has had a tough time feeling motivated.

“Since Trump won….” Speer said, then slowly inched toward the ground in a fetal position. “Who would that [speech] not get out of a slump? It’s what we need.”

Now he’s “100 percent” planning on attending more meetings to take action. Ocasio-Cortez’s platform may be much more similar to Sen. Bernie Sanders, but Speer likens him to “a droning TV in the room.” When then-Illinois State Senator Obama spoke at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, it was the only other rapturous political moment he experienced.

“She’s got it,” Speer said. “I’m fucking sold.”

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