YORKTOWN, N.Y. - In a 24-hour span, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went from a relatively unknown political newcomer to one of the faces of the Democratic Party.
Last week, the 28-year-old Yorktown High School graduate pulled off an upset victory in a primary for the 14th Congressional District (eastern Bronx and north-central Queens), ousting 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, who was in the running to be the next Speaker of the House.
Her 4,200-vote victory gives her a good chance to become the youngest-ever female member of Congress. Among registered voters, Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 6:1 margin in the 14th District, making Ocasio-Cortez a heavy favorite to defeat Republican challenger, Anthony Pappas.
Ocasio-Cortez, a native of the Bronx, graduated from Yorktown High School in 2007. There, known by students and staff as “Sandy,” she was a member of the Science Research Program taught by Michael Blueglass.
“She was amazing,” Blueglass said. “Aside from her winning one of the top spots and going to the [Intel International Science and Engineering Fair], she was just one of the most amazing presenters in all of the years I've been at Yorktown. Her ability to take complex information and explain it to all different levels of people was fantastic.”
After high school, Ocasio-Cortez attended Boston University, where she majored in economics and international relations. Blueglass said he has kept in touch with Ocasio-Cortez, having breakfast with her just two months ago. He said he tried calling her after her primary victory, but, unsurprisingly, her voice mailbox was full.
“She's always wanted to make a difference,” Blueglass said. “She cares about other people tremendously, always did. She was always friendly with all different groups of students and she always cared about doing the right thing. Even if the easiest thing was not expedient, she would do whatever it took to help people.”
Following her victory, Ocasio-Cortez became an overnight celebrity, attracting social media shout-outs from Bette Midler, Mindy Kaling, and Cynthia Nixon, a Democratic candidate for governor. The Thursday after her primary win, she appeared as a guest on “The Late Show” hosted by Stephen Colbert.
Her campaign was documented by photographer José Alvarado, also a 2007 Yorktown High School graduate. After high school, he studied at Westchester Community College and the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Alvarado said he learned of Ocasio-Cortez's campaign in June 2017 after seeing her posts on Instagram. Alvarado viewed the campaign as an opportunity to document her “humble beginnings and run for office.”
“After diving in and doing some research and gauging the political climate of the U.S. after the Trump election, Bernie Sanders' Democratic primary loss, and countless others, I had a strong feeling that Alex’s story would be quite a remarkable one regardless of the outcome of the primary,” Alvarado said.
Alvarado said he attended social demonstrations, political events and went door-to-door with Ocasio-Cortez, as she met voters in her district. He said Ocasio-Cortez ran her campaign out of her Bronx apartment while she worked three days a week at a Latino restaurant up until November. To appear on the ballot, she garnered 5,480 signatures from registered voters, Alvarez said.
“Fast forward to now, and the people of NY-14 have spoken, and now she is only an election away from getting into Congress and being the first woman of color to represent her native Bronx neighborhood and district of NY-14,” he said. “Her story is unique, inspiring and historical.”
Attempts to reach Ocasio-Cortez were unsuccessful. A self-described Democratic Socialist, Ocasio-Cortez said on Colbert's show that eradicating homelessness and providing affordable health care and secondary education are at the top of her agenda: “I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.”
Commenting on her upset victory and polling that, several weeks ago, showed her trailing Crowley by 30-plus points, Ocasio-Cortez said, “People (pollsters) try to identify who is the most likely person to turn out. What we did is we changed who turns out,” noting that many Millennials voted for her.
In the days following her victory, Ocasio-Cortez's upbringing in Yorktown Heights became a target for many critics, who said it ran contradictory to her claim of being “a girl from the Bronx,” a phrase she used on Colbert's show. Responding to a critic on Twitter who insinuated that Yorktown Heights is nicer than the Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez said: “It is nice. Growing up, it was a good town for working people. My mom scrubbed toilets so I could live here & I grew up seeing how the zip code one is born in determines much of their opportunity. Your attempt to strip me of my family, my story, my home, and my identity is exemplary of how scared you are of the power of all four of those things.”