Congratulations on the tremendous accomplishment you achieved in your election to the U.S. House of Representatives! You have made history- and you have made waves, no doubt about that. You have some very big ideas, and I won’t condescend to you by giving you a head pat and calling you naive, or by damning with faint praise all the ways in which you may be ahead of your time but out of your depth (I don’t think you are). You are obviously ambitious and smart and aware that your ideas, while popular with your constituents, will get push back. I likewise won’t patronize you by saying, hoo boy, is your idealism about to experience a rude awakening. I think you are savvy enough to have some idea how the sausage is made.
Let me go ahead and acknowledge up front that I am aware you have heard all of this before, and that it will sound trite and condescending no matter how I say it. But I want to see you succeed, so I’m going to say it all anyway.
Alexandria, you are overplaying your hand. I don’t necessarily believe in all of your ideas, but I do believe in smart, strong, ambitious young women. Others do, too- that is how you got where you are. But please, remember that others have gotten there first. Much as I am not sold on you as a harbinger of change I want to see, I am likewise not overly enamored with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. But I do respect her. She has been there for thirty years, never even coming close to losing her seat through 16 elections. She knows that, like it or not, if you want to be around to advance your agenda when it really counts, you have to play nice.
Once again I feel myself slipping into patronizing territory with my urge to tell you to pay your dues before you try to upend the institution in which you find yourself newly installed. And I know that you have sort of cultivated this reputation as a rogue, unconventional go-getter who won’t be a wallflower or simply fall in line. That’s great, because I think you will need that going forward. Washington is obviously no place for push-overs (or maybe it is and that’s a problem). But I think you need to consider that your support at home is only half the battle, and will mean nothing if you make powerful enemies of those who you will need as allies if you are to accomplish anything.
I do admire your guts, participating in a protest over climate change in Congresswoman Pelosi’s office only a week after winning the election.1 Nothing changes if nothing changes, after all. But she is likely to be the Speaker of the House again this coming term, and you may want to think carefully about making an enemy of her. To that end, I’d like you to consider how Ms. Pelosi responded to your sit-in:
In a response to the protests, Pelosi said in a statement that she was “inspired by the energy and activism of the many young activists and advocates leading the way on the climate crisis.”
“I have recommended to my House Democratic colleagues that we reinstate the select committee to address the climate crisis,” she said in the statement. “We welcome the presence of these activists, and we strongly urge the Capitol Police to allow them to continue to organize and participate in our democracy.”
This is the grace of a career politician. There is no denouncement of your protest or those involved, no bristling at the disrespect, no hint at all of the creation of any bad blood between the two of you. It could be out of the goodness of her heart; it more likely is optical awareness. Either way, you should take note. And recognize that she gave you a win with that committee recommendation. Maybe consider that a freebee and don’t squander the good will.
I am not suggesting that you should kowtow to the most powerful, or that they are somehow your betters. I’m just thinking that if you want to be able to be the catalyst for change that you were elected to be, you’re going to need to have your colleagues willing to vote with you. One single member of congress can’t pass legislation. Sure, grudges and interpersonal conflict should have no influence on legislative policy, but we are kidding ourselves if we think they don’t.
Everyone loves a plucky, unlikely heroine taking on the establishment. But be mindful- there is a point at which a “list of evils we must fight” crosses the line into “ways in which I am a victim”. For example, you received a lot of eye-rolling criticism for your musings about how you might afford an apartment in DC before your congressional salary kicks in. When you complained about it, your detractors spun it as a failure to plan financially for the realities of your win, and used it as fodder to further mock your economic knowledge.
And then, there was this:
People keep giving me directions to the spouse and intern events instead of the ones for members of Congress ?????
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) November 14, 2018
This feels a little too on brand, too on the nose. But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that there are people working in the halls of Congress who made it through election season and still don’t know who you are, and that this not only really happened but happened more than once. I do relate. I am a female attorney who has been mistaken for a receptionist, a paralegal, an intern, and once even a criminal defendant. I get the indignity of it all, the righteous anger you feel, and the urge to put it out there.
But we get the point.
We know you are a young woman of color from a modest background, a demographic which stands out in Congress. I appreciate your attempt to relate to other young people by pointing out that you face the same struggles. But I am afraid that how you do so degrades your message and your ability to deliver it effectively. It can make you look unserious, weak, or incompetent. Sure, it is absolutely a bunch of garbage when conservatives laugh at a young woman who dares not to be independently wealthy before winning a seat in congress. It’s frustrating when someone takes one look at you and the assumption is “wife” or “intern”, as though you couldn’t possibly be more than that. Fight that not by whining, but by winning.
But what you see as using your own situation and struggles to highlight those issues is being used against you. As someone said in the replies to your tweet, “act like you’ve been there before.” I know you haven’t- and I know that’s part of your appeal: you are a newcomer, an outsider, the anti-establishment. But the whining about your own situation is a bad look. I would much rather see you highlighting the difficulties a middle class family has trying to find housing in DC, or the marginalization of a woman of color who has not won a seat of power in congress.
You have agency, Alexandria. You’ve won yourself some privilege through your hard work and ambition. So calm down a little. You don’t have to keep pointing out all the ways in which you are just a regular girl from the Bronx- we all know. I love the perspective that will give you when you argue and fight for your ideals and I wouldn’t for a moment suggest you forget your roots. I won’t tell you to shut up, get down off the table, and sit down. I don’t think you will. But showing some polish, some strength in your position is crucial, if you are to be an influencer among your colleagues.
You have a lot to be proud of- even before your run for office, you were impressive by most any measure. And your win was historic. But that novelty can only carry you so far; if you want to make anything of it, you’ll need to learn the ropes.
In short, Alexandria, be careful who you decide to make enemies out of, and act like you belong there. I promise, we won’t fault you for that.
- This originally stated that Ocasio-Cortez “staged” the protest; further reporting suggests she merely attended and spoke to the other activists. Furthermore, to be clear, the protest was to urge action on climate change, not to protest Pelosi herself. -EC [↩]