Barbershop: AOC's Launches Progressive PAC

Feb 23, 2020
Originally published on February 23, 2020 5:41 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's go back to politics for a few minutes. But now we're going to look to House and Senate races that matter quite a bit if a new Democratic president wants to make any big moves or get any legislation passed. Specifically, we want to take a look at a recent move by Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - AOC - that made quite a splash. She announced via Twitter - of course - that she has endorsed seven progressive women running for Congress and the Senate through a new political action committee called Courage to Change.

Why does a move by a freshman lawmaker rate headlines in the major journals? Well, the first-term New Yorker who unseated a veteran in the leadership on her road to her seat is supporting a couple of candidates looking to do the same thing. And it also looks like another inflection point in what has been one of the themes of this election year, which is, what exactly does it mean to be a Democrat right now? And how do the progressive and so-called moderate wings coexist?

We've called upon some guests with insights into how this is all playing out. Joining us now in our studios in Washington, D.C., is Ian Russell. He's a former executive director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That's the campaign arm for Democratic congressmen. He's now with Beacon Media. That's an advertising company that focuses on political ads.

Ian, thanks for joining us.

IAN RUSSELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also here in Washington, D.C., is Alexandra Rojas. She is the executive director of Justice Democrats. That's a progressive organization that endorsed Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez in 2018.

Alexandra, thank you so much for joining us as well.

And finally, here with us is Dru Ealons. She is a Democratic strategist who served in the Obama administration.

Dru, welcome back to you as well. Thanks for joining us.

DRU EALONS: Good to be here.

MARTIN: OK. So, Ian, I'm going to start with you because in an article about AOC's new PAC, you said you've never seen somebody break onto the scene with this amount of potential and ability to drive the conversation and financial commitments. Now, I think anybody who follows politics knows that AOC is a celebrity. She punches far above her weight. I mean, the fact that - I'll just say it - she seems to drive the Republicans crazy.

RUSSELL: She does.

MARTIN: They just seem to be sort of obsessed with her and the conservative media obsessed with her. So - but what's your takeaway here? I mean, does the creation of this political committee signal something bigger than just her?

RUSSELL: I think it does. It's a tactically sophisticated move. What she's doing with this PAC is demonstrating that she wants to shape the House Democratic Caucus for years, potentially decades to come. I think it's particularly savvy to focus on these safe Democratic districts, where she's potentially going to win some primaries for her endorsed candidates, and they'll be around for many, many years. And that shapes policy, and it shapes politics in the caucus, and it shapes personality as well.

MARTIN: Alexandra Rojas, your group, Justice Democrats, helped support Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez early in 2018, when she beat an incumbent in the primary, as we said. She went on to win the general. I mean, what's your take on this? I mean, what is the importance of this to you?

ALEXANDRA ROJAS: I think that this is massively important to obviously the progressive movement, but I also think the Democratic Party. When we think about the ecosystem that surrounds our democratic politics, it currently leaves a lot of working-class people out from being able to attain, you know, power, like, in members of Congress.

So I think AOC and Justice Democrats have inspired a lot of young people, a lot of people of color to run for office. And what we're trying to do is build this alternative infrastructure that currently just does not exist for working-class people to enter the halls of power. And I think that is massive for the Democratic Party.

MARTIN: Dru, one of the reasons we're glad we invited you here - it's that you come from a conservative state originally, and you have the experience of trying to run a Democrat in a state that is - there may be one Democratic seat...

EALONS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Or two Democratic seats - but trying to run a Democrat in a red state, and also trying to sort of look at the big picture and see how you can sort of support the larger democratic project...

EALONS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...While still being true to your sort of candidate. So what's your takeaway from this?

EALONS: So my take is obviously, I do admire AOC. I was part of the group that wrote this op-ed to say we support them as far as when the guy in the White House said some negative things about the whole four, right? But I also think that at the end of the day, my concern with the Democratic Party right now is we are burning down or attempting to burn down our house while the other side is continuing to build floors.

And what I mean by that is, they are consistently - no matter what's going on while they're in power - consistently getting the federal judges, pack the Supreme Court, doing the things that they need to get done. They deal with the craziness that they have to deal with, but they're getting it done. While the things that we care about as Democrats - immigration reform, health care, gun control - none of that is happening.

MARTIN: Well, but what's your...

EALONS: It's all getting...

MARTIN: OK, but what's your specific concern? Because she's...

EALONS: So my...

MARTIN: ...Supporting two candidates who are...

EALONS: So...

MARTIN: ...Currently incumbents...

EALONS: So...

MARTIN: ...Daniel Lipinski of Illinois and Henry Cuellar of Texas...

EALONS: Right.

MARTIN: ...Who has an A rating from the NRA. Daniel Lipinski...

EALONS: Right.

MARTIN: ...Opposes abortion rights. I mean, for...

EALONS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...People, they're sort of a thorn in the side of a lot of people in the Democratic caucus.

EALONS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So at the - you know, it's - is it your - what's - so what's your concern?

EALONS: So my concern is strong. I think strategically, at the end of the day, what we want is a party, if everyone says, these are the tenets that we believe in, then we as a party need to make sure we build a coalition. I know that's an antiquated word.

But as we start thinking about what we want passed, and if we focus solely on - and I do say part of this is media undergirding that - but if we focus solely on what's going on on our purity test, and everything is within our party and not really focus on getting things done and getting things passed, recognizing that we've got to compromise, we have to deal with the other side - all that stuff - then where are we going to be?

And, yes, it is a long game, and I'm not knocking a long game. But my concern is, what are we trying to do now to get the things passed and get things done? Because right now, we're at a stalemate.

MARTIN: OK. So let's go back to Ian and Alexander on this. OK. In 2018, Justice Democrats endorsed 78 candidates. They recruited 12 to run for office. Of the 12, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the only one who won her...

ROJAS: Yes.

MARTIN: ...General election. And six of the endorsed candidates also made it. All seven are in the House. But, I mean, the larger and sort of unspoken concern is, yes, you're narrowing your focus this time. You're kind of consolidating your energies on fewer candidates. But the argument is that if you create kind of an aura that dissipates people's energies, you might drag down - you know, yes, these are considered safe seats, but are they really safe seats?

ROJAS: Yes.

MARTIN: And does it create sort of an aura that affects the Senate candidates in red states, where there's a much tougher terrain? So, Alexandra?

ROJAS: Yeah. No. I want to address that in just a second. I also want to address, I think, one thing. You know, I think it's important to contextualize, you know, Democrats getting things done. If we remember the DREAMer fight back during the Obama administration, it wasn't the Obama administration that necessarily moved with young Latinos. It was young Latinos building a movement to be able to get that passed.

MARTIN: Right.

ROJAS: So when it comes to when Democrats have had full control of the House and the Senate, and we have an opportunity to get health care done, when we have an opportunity to get immigration done, we haven't taken it. So it is critically important, I think, that as we move forward and build a Democratic Party of the future leading into the 21st century, we have to acknowledge the next generation of Democratic voters that look a lot more like AOC than they do Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden.

MARTIN: But critical to that is the Senate. And that is sort of...

ROJAS: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...The question here. So, Ian, what about it? I know that you primarily worked on the House side of the...

ROJAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...The DCCC. But the key to that is the Senate, which is why the DREAMers are still in a precarious...

RUSSELL: Well, and I would say there's...

MARTIN: ...Precarious legal situation, and in part because of the federal judgeships - which is, again, the Senate.

ROJAS: Yes.

MARTIN: So, Ian?

RUSSELL: There's really three battlefields here.

ROJAS: Yes.

RUSSELL: There's the Senate. There's the House battlefield - the swing districts...

ROJAS: Yes.

RUSSELL: ...Where the front-liners are running for reelection to preserve our House majority...

ROJAS: Yes.

RUSSELL: ...Keep Nancy Pelosi as the speaker. That's incredibly important. And then there's these safe seats. I think that the emphasis on getting people into safe districts makes a ton of sense. It takes something different, though, to get elected in these battleground districts where we picked up seats and won our majority in 2018.

ROJAS: I think it's...

MARTIN: Alexandra.

ROJAS: Yeah. No, I think it's important to...

MARTIN: Alexandra.

ROJAS: ...Also acknowledge that, you know, the Democrats of today and the ones that were elected in 2018 look a lot different than the Democrats in 2006. They have gotten far more progressive. So I think it's really important, especially when we look at issues like climate change, when we look at issues like impeachment, that we're really acting as sort of the tip of the spear, I think, bringing attention to issues that need space. Climate change - you know, whether we like it or not, we have to go big. It is our future...

MARTIN: OK...

ROJAS: ...On the line.

MARTIN: But can you answer Dru's question...

ROJAS: Sure, yeah. What was the question?

MARTIN: ...Though, which is to say that at the end of the day, you still have to get legislation passed. You still have to - if you want to have control over the federal judiciary in this future, you have to get some Senate seats.

ROJAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: And the question is that the progressives will kind of move the party...

ROJAS: I think that...

MARTIN: ...To the point where they can't win. Can you answer her question?

ROJAS: Yeah. And I think that, you know, to defend the young people that are really outgunned in this fight by the center left and the far right right now that are listening to the call of getting engaged for the first time, we're doing this. So I think in a - like, in terms of where Justice Democrats is, I hope we get to the point where we can levy in Senate. And I think that we are being as helpful as we can for Democrats across the board to win for the Senate. We are all on that team.

But I think it is also critically important to make sure that we are actually upholding our democratic values in the Democratic Party. And I think when you have the House speaker campaigning with someone who has an A rating from the NRA, who is anti-choice, who is taking more money from corporations than anyone else, I think that skews where, you know, the values of the Democratic Party are.

(CROSSTALK)

EALONS: I was going to say, I thought, for me, the Democratic Party - we claim that we are a big tent, which means in order to be a big tent, you're going to have people who have varying backgrounds, varying differences. Whether I agree with everything Lipinski does, et cetera - but what I do want to see is that he vote on the things that we know as a core we want to get done.

And I'm not saying that he should not be challenged. But what I am saying is when you're trying to move things through both houses of Congress as well as trying to get what we need in the White House, we have to be more strategic.

MARTIN: But is there a core...

EALONS: And this...

MARTIN: ...Or not, though? I mean...

EALONS: I believe there is a core. To me...

MARTIN: And what is it? If it's not...

EALONS: ...The core is...

MARTIN: If it's not abortion rights, and if it's not gun safety measures...

EALONS: So for me...

MARTIN: Then what is it?

EALONS: So for me, the core is health care. The core is for everyone. The core is gun control. The core is all of those things that we're talking about. However, when you are talking about how we get there, I think that's where the change comes between progressive and conservatives.

MARTIN: Alexandra, you got the last word?

ROJAS: Yeah. Well, I think...

MARTIN: Briefly.

ROJAS: ...That if we're going to be Democrats, we've got to fight for all universal health care, not just a little bit and compromise with Republicans when we've been trying that for decades, and it simply hasn't worked. I think that we...

EALONS: But that's what Obamacare is.

ROJAS: ...Acknowledge that this is...

MARTIN: OK.

ROJAS: We're building upon that, and we have to - there's still...

EALONS: Exactly.

ROJAS: ...Millions of people...

EALONS: Yes.

ROJAS: ...That are left off, and that's where "Medicare for All" single-payer...

EALONS: Yes.

ROJAS: ...System will...

MARTIN: Well, this has been very interesting.

EALONS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: And I guess it's going to continue, so...

EALONS: Yes.

MARTIN: We got a preview of what the argument is right now. OK.

EALONS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Here in studio, Ian Russell, former executive director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And thank you. Dru Ealons, Democratic strategist, and Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats. I guess they're all Democratic strategists.

EALONS: We are.

MARTIN: And they were all here in our studio in Washington, D.C., having a civil but spirited discussion.

We appreciate it. Thank you all so much.

EALONS: Thank you.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

ROJAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.