By Marisa Schultz
Published January 11, 2020
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez insisted she's a "proud" Democrat despite protesting a Democratic Party arm and withholding $250,000 in "dues" aimed at retaining the House majority.
“I’m a Democrat, I’m proud to be on this team. I’m proud to be part of the Democratic majority,” Ocasio-Cortez told Fox News in an interview Friday amid criticism she should quit the party and become an independent if she won't be a "team player."
As evidence that she's willing to work for the party, Ocasio-Cortez pointed to the more than $300,000 she’s raised directly for progressive Democrats, including incumbents in swing districts. That effort, she said, is for "preserving and expanding the Democratic majority."
Fox News reported Friday that the New York Democrat has been catching heat for failing to pay her $250,000 in dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) in protest of a policy that she says "blacklists" vendors for working with insurgent primary challengers, such as herself.
“I don't see the sense in giving a quarter-million dollars to an organization that has clearly told people like me that we're not welcome," Ocasio-Cortez said in defending her decision.
The youngest female ever elected to Congress also took issue with the amount of money the DCCC wanted her to pay from her campaign coffers.
“It’s pretty nuts -- $250,000 for a freshman member. Can you imagine being 30 years old and getting a bill for $250,000? I still have $20,000 in student loan debt," she said.
All House Democrats are assigned "dues" to pay to the DCCC to help the party win elections and retain the majority. Amounts range from $1 million for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to $150,000 for newer members or less prolific fundraisers. Republicans have a similar system.
Ocasio-Cortez said she respects people who do pay up and that she's not trying to shut down the DCCC.
But she takes issue with a party arm that "want(s) to take my money, but push me out, or push candidates like me out" who are challenging the establishment.
Ocasio-Cortez, with her nationwide stardom, is expected to raise more than $5 million in 2019 for her reelection campaign.
Instead of cutting a check to the Democratic Party, she is building her own grassroots fundraising network to finance progressive candidates by soliciting online donations directly for them.
She argues her actions are aimed at improving the party by lessening the influence of big corporations and lobbyists and giving other upstart candidates a real shot.
“This is a place that should be for everyone,” Ocasio-Cortez said outside the Capitol complex on Friday. “It should be for working people. It should be for everyday people who aren’t connected to big money.”
In her latest move to challenge the Democratic Party establishment, Ocasio-Cortez on Saturday launched a new PAC to raise money for political newcomers and took a swipe at the DCCC in doing so.
“When progressive, working-class candidates look at running for office, organizations like the DCCC dissuade them," the announcement said. "We need voices that will lift up those candidates, not shoot them down. That's why we're founding the Courage to Change PAC."
Galling to some in the Democratic Party is that two of the candidates she’s financed so far are challengers to sitting Democratic members of Congress: Reps. Dan Lipinski of Illinois and Henry Cuellar of Texas. Traditionally, members of Congress don't actively work to unseat their party colleagues.
“I would hope in the spirit of teamwork that we don't see any further incursions with other members," said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. "I would hope at least it stops there."
But Ocasio-Cortez signaled she's not letting up.
Two outside groups that are ideologically aligned with Ocasio-Cortez -- Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats – have already endorsed many more primary challengers. They are hoping to topple Reps. Lacy Clay of Missouri, Eliot Engel of New York, Joyce Beatty of Ohio, Richard Neal of Massachusetts and more.
Ocasio-Cortez said there's a “distinct possibility” she'll be backing more primary challengers, though she said of the two groups: “I don’t anticipate our endorsements will overlap 100 percent."
Because the majority of congressional districts are drawn to be solidly Democratic or solidly Republican, the one chance for competition comes in a primary race, she said.
"Seventy percent of Americans live in a safe blue seat, or a safe red seat, which means the only choice that they have realistically is in their primary election," she said. "The idea that we should take democracy away from people is one that I fundamentally disagree with.”
By pressing for more primaries nationwide, Ocasio-Cortez said she understands that she’ll be at risk for Democratic challengers, too.
"I'm comfortable with that," she said. “I want to earn my seat every two years. I want to earn the right to have this job.”
Some Democrats have complained that AOC is not a team player and her efforts to “purify” the caucus could cost Democrats the House majority by ousting moderate Democrats in swing districts. Ocasio-Cortez recently grumbled that the Democratic Party can “be too big of a tent” if she and former Vice President Joe Biden are considered the same party.
A CNN opinion columnist this week even said Ocasio-Cortez should try ditching the party altogether.
Asked if she’s considering becoming an independent like Sen. Bernie Sanders -- whom she backs for president -- or whether the Democratic Party still serves her, Ocasio-Cortez said: “Being a Democrat, it is a service. It does serve me."
"I think I’m an independent thinker within the Democratic Party for sure. I do things that are unusual and unorthodox," AOC added.
Being an independent voice is important when so many people are "sick "of the two parties and special interests controlling government, she said.
“Washington is so much about Republican versus Democrat," Ocasio-Cortez said. "We don’t realize that some of the largest plurality of voters in America are neither."
She added: "They identify as independent. It doesn’t mean that they are moderate. It doesn’t mean that they are half Democrat and half Republican. It means that they think a lot of the system is BS.”