AOC faces challengers on the right who cite her 'socialism'

A Jamaican immigrant businesswoman from Queens and a Latino councilman from the Bronx are among 10 candidates who have filed with the Federal Election Commission to unseat the charismatic star of the freshman Democratic class in Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. And both are running on the same issues: “socialism” and the aborted plan to bring Amazon’s East Coast headquarters to the district, which Ocasio-Cortez opposed and helped kill.

Republican Scherie Murray, 38, objects to Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of progressive presidential contender Bernie Sanders, which the congresswoman delivered at a rally in late October “with the backdrop of the Queensbridge Park Houses,” Murray noted. The residents of that public housing development would have been candidates for some of the 25,000 jobs that Amazon said it would bring to the area.

“It was a slap in the face to hard-working people,” said Murray in an interview with Yahoo News. “And to force a narrative of a socialist agenda. What we saw was AOC deliver socialism to America. And we ought to be afraid of that.”

“She literally ran Amazon out of New York City,” said Fernando Cabrera, 55, a Democratic member of the City Council whose Bronx district, across the East River from Queens, overlaps with part of Ocasio-Cortez’s 14th District. “Most cities were craving, yearning, negotiating to have them in their city. And here we had a freshman congresswoman literally [run] out 25,000 jobs,” he told Yahoo News.

Cabrera, a church pastor who describes himself as “pro-capitalist” and has served as a City Council member for 10 years, said that was the key moment that inspired him to run against the rookie congresswoman.

Cabrera is one of two Democrats hoping to challenge Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic primary, scheduled for June 23, 2020. Murray has seven rivals so far for the Republican nomination. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic.

Ocasio-Cortez told Yahoo News in April that she didn’t regret opposing the Amazon deal.

But her opposition to the project, based largely on the enormous tax breaks the company had negotiated from the city and state, has underscored what Murray and Cabrera see as the bigger problem — socialism.

“There’s a shift in politics as we know it now,” Murray said. “And we see the movement of this far-left socialist narrative that’s seeping into the political arena.”

She called policies introduced or supported by Ocasio-Cortez, such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All and free college, “detrimental to America.”

“I am very concerned about the trajectory that this country is going in, and it’s not the future I want for my kids and grandchildren,” said Cabrera, calling capitalism “part of the heart” of why he’s running. He described socialism as “a pipeline of dreams that is not even a dream. It’s a nightmare, because the reality is you can’t pay for that.”

He added: “I know what it is to come from nothing. I know what it is to sleep on the floor on a mattress. I didn’t come from big wealth. I came from a broken home ... and it was free enterprise that gave me an opportunity.”

The councilman formerly served as a program director for the mental health and counseling program at Mercy College in New York and is currently the senior pastor at New Life Church International, a nondenominational church in the Bronx.

Following Cabrera’s announcement, in which he called out Ocasio-Cortez and charged her with failing her district, the congresswoman’s campaign — in a fundraising email that did not mention Cabrera directly — said, “Corporate Democrats have been waiting for their chance to strike back” after her victory last year.

“Our opponent doesn’t play by the same rulebook we do,” the email went on to say. “He’ll be more than willing to raise huge dollars from wealthy donors, take special interest PAC money, and pander to corporate giants like Amazon.”

Cabrera also faced backlash from the Working Families Party, which Sanders in 2016 called the “closest thing there is to a political party that believes in my vision of democratic socialism.” The party, in a fundraising email, came out in support of Ocasio-Cortez against primary challengers such as Cabrera, a local news organization, NY State of Politics, reported in mid-October.

“We can’t let attacks like this go unanswered. No one has fought harder for working families in the Bronx and Queens than Alexandria. Whether it’s Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, her progressive agenda puts ordinary people first, and is overwhelmingly popular as a result,” the email read. “That’s why we were so proud to announce AOC as one of our first 2020 endorsements. And it’s why we need to come together and have her back now.”

Fernando Cabrera. (Photo: New York City Council)

Fernando Cabrera. (Photo: New York City Council)

Socialism has moved from the fringes of politics since the 2018 midterms, when Ocasio-Cortez won with the support of the Democratic Socialists of America. A self-proclaimed democratic socialist, the 30-year-old Bronx native unseated establishment-backed 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley in a surprising upset, with some of her celebrity aura rubbing off on the DSA, which was founded in 1982.

“Nearly 100 democratic socialists now hold elected office across the country, from school boards to state legislatures and Congress, where Ocasio-Cortez and the Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib have become avatars of an emboldened leftwing insurgency,” wrote the Guardian. “The Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, whose popularity has helped soften public perception of socialism though he is not directly involved with DSA, is a top-tier candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination while Donald Trump is running for re-election on campaign slogans portraying socialism as a direct threat to America.”

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the State of the Union 2019
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the State of the Union 2019
US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), dressed in white in tribute to the women's suffrage movement, arrives for the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, speaks with colleagues during a State of the Union address by U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. President Donald Trump cast his fight against illegal migration to the U.S. as a moral struggle, and charged in his second State of the Union address that partisan investigations threaten economic progress under his administration. Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Representative Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat of New York, from left, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat of New York, and Representative Judy Chu, a Democrat of California, speak prior to a State of the Union address by U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. President Donald Trump cast his fight against illegal migration to the U.S. as a moral struggle, and charged in his second State of the Union address that partisan investigations threaten economic progress under his administration. Photographer: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg via Getty Images
US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) smiles, dressed in white in tribute to the women's suffrage movement, as she arrives for the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on February 5, 2019. - Omar wears a pin of Jakelin Caal, the Guatemalan migrant girl who died in US custody after illegally crossing the border with her father. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, smiles as U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, delivers a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. President Donald Trump cast his fight against illegal migration to the U.S. as a moral struggle, and charged in his second State of the Union address that partisan investigations threaten economic progress under his administration. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) speaks with other women wearing white ahead of the State of the Union address before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. The Democratic women wore white as a reference to the suffragette movement. This year marks the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) high-fives other congresswomen after President Donald J. Trump acknowledged newly elected female members of congress during the State of the Union address before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) ahead of the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. President Trump's second State of the Union address was postponed one week due to the partial government shutdown. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 05: First row from left, Reps. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Judy Chu, D-Calif., and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., are seen in the House Chamber as President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union address on Tuesday, February 5, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 05: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., right, high fives Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., as Democratic members celebrate in the House Chamber as President Donald Trump recognized their achievement of electing a record number of women to Congress, during the State of the Union address on Tuesday, February 5, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 5: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., right, walks with her State of the Union guest Ana Maria Archila to the House chamber for President Donald Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) watches President Donald Trump's State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. A group of female Democratic lawmakers chose to wear white to the speech in solidarity with women and a nod to the suffragette movement. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) watches President Donald Trump's State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. A group of female Democratic lawmakers chose to wear white to the speech in solidarity with women and a nod to the suffragette movement. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and other female lawmakers cheer during President Donald Trump's State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol Building on February 5, 2019 in Washington, DC. A group of female Democratic lawmakers chose to wear white to the speech in solidarity with women and a nod to the suffragette movement. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 05: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., attends a group photo of House Democrats in the Capitol Visitor Center, who plan to wear 'suffragette white' to the State of the Union address to show solidarity for women's agendas on Tuesday, February 5, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 05: First row from left, Reps. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Alma Adams, D-N.C., pose for a group photo of House Democrats in the Capitol Visitor Center, who plan to wear 'suffragette white' to the State of the Union address to show solidarity for women's agendas on Tuesday, February 5, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 05: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., right, greets Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., after a group photo of House Democrats in the Capitol Visitor Center who will wear 'suffragette white' to the State of the Union address to show solidarity for women's agendas on Tuesday, February 5, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
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Yet, despite evidence of anti-capitalist views going mainstream, at least among Democratic primary voters, Cabrera and Murray say they doubt that constituents in Ocasio-Cortez’s district support her ideology.

“The problem with socialism is it’s an attack on the middle class,” said Cabrera, though the median income of the district falls below what is considered middle class.

Progressive ideas supported by Ocasio-Cortez, such as Medicare for All — a single-payer program in which the government pays for everyone’s health care — have come under scrutiny as questions have been raised about how they will be financed. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been repeatedly pressed to say that taxes on the middle class will go up under the plan, but she has consistently declined, emphasizing instead that total costs will go down for families because they’ll no longer have to worry about the costs of premiums, copays or deductibles. She is expected to release a financing plan soon.

Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive take on health care, immigration and climate justice contributed to her campaign’s success, the Gotham Gazette reported in a closer look at her district’s voter turnout in 2018.

“This wasn’t a fluke,” Steven Romalewski of the Center for Urban Research told the Gotham Gazette. “She was able to get voters from almost every neighborhood to come out and support her.”

The district is a Democratic stronghold in which “no Republican congressional candidate has cracked more than 21.6% of the vote this century,” reported the Washington Examiner, a conservative-leaning news outlet. But that hasn’t deterred Murray, who in 2015 ran as a Republican for a vacated New York State Assembly seat in another Democratic stronghold and lost.

“If the national Republican Party wants to make inroads in a community that they have long struggled with, this is the perfect race to throw their support behind,” said Murray, who defended her political affiliation against critics who doubt her conservatism and say the national GOP would be “insane” to put “one ounce of support” into the district race.

While Murray said she was inspired to get into politics in 2009 by President Barack Obama, for whom she voted twice, the businesswoman is also a strong supporter of Trump, whom she voted for in 2016 and plans to do so again in 2020.

“I think what has been happening to the president is unfair to any human being,” Murray said, referring to the impeachment inquiry. “Picture you getting a job, and you get a promotion. And nobody in the office liked that you got the promotion, so everybody in the office is just out to get you. You’re doing an excellent job, but they’re still out to get you. And that’s a Democrat in contrast to President Trump and President Trump’s agenda. He has delivered on his promises for the American people, and I do believe he will be elected in 2020.”

Murray said that as a Republican state committeewoman who represents a portion of Queens, she has faced ostracism in her community, but “holding that title certainly put me in a position to have to engage my community as an opposition leader.”

“We support family. We support religion. We support low taxes,” she said of the GOP. “So when you have someone who can articulate this message to the American people, to everyday people, it takes away that ‘white old man’ that we see being labeled as a racist and being labeled as a part of the Republican Party.”

But Cabrera dismisses the idea that Ocasio-Cortez could be defeated by a Republican.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorses Sen. Bernie Sanders's presidential bid at a campaign rally in Queens, N.Y., on Oct. 19. (Photo: Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorses Sen. Bernie Sanders's presidential bid at a campaign rally in Queens, N.Y., on Oct. 19. (Photo: Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“Here’s the reality: Republicans have no chance of winning,” he said. “That district is 11 percent Republican. The only one that can win that race there has to be a moderate who is a Democrat. And when you look back, when you look at the makeup of that district, the values reflected on that district, that district is moderate to the right. That district is not a far extreme left like she is.”

There are 214,570 active registered Democratic voters in the district, compared with 33,020 registered GOP voters, according to the New York State Board of Election’s 2018 voter enrollment records.

“I’m the only real threat to her and the only one who has a real path defeating her in the upcoming primary, and then from there on winning the general election,” added Cabrera, who self-identifies as a centrist.

He says Ocasio-Cortez won, in part, because she was running against an older white man in a largely minority district, but “the [racial] demographic question doesn’t become the main issue now, because we both share Latino roots.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s reelection campaign has raised over $1.4 million since July, dwarfing Murray’s $424,000, raised from 8,106 contributors over the last quarter. Cabrera’s campaign contributions are not yet included in federal financial data. Yet AOC’s long-shot challengers say they are optimistic about their chances.

“Out of everyone who’s running against her, I’m the only one who has been an elected official. As a matter of fact, out of all the candidates, including AOC, I’m the one with the most experience and the most educated and has accomplished the most,” said Cabrera, referring to his master’s degree and doctorate, and to his 31 bills passed in the City Council.

“Those are things that people can measure,” he said.

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