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The Gospel of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

La congresista goes to Washington

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., brings a fresh perspective to Washington, Manriquez writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., brings a fresh perspective to Washington, Manriquez writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“I never had a problem showing ya tha real me” — Cardi B in “Best Life”

OPINION | A decade ago, my first job in Washington politics was waiting tables at “an establishment bar” on Capitol Hill a short walk from the House side of the Capitol. The bar’s management offered night-shift employees a side hustle killing rats for eight dollars per carcass.

Capitol Hill is infested with rats. My Honduran colleagues and I stomped rats to death by trapping them in the kitchen or by the sink for cleaning mops in the back. We kept them in a bucket to be counted at the end of the night so we could collect our cash bounty.

It was disgusting work, but it was paid. With rent and a crippling student loan debt from a political science education at Notre Dame, an unpaid internship was out of the question.

That changes with the arrival of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Washington as the incoming congresswoman for New York’s 14th District, which covers parts of the Bronx and Queens. Last week, Ocasio-Cortez announced that her congressional office will pay interns at least $15 an hour.

That certainly beats stomping rats for cash up the street at a bar.

A different kind of public service

Ocasio-Cortez started her campaign while waiting tables and tending bar at Flats Fix, a taqueria in New York City’s Union Square. A Facebook review of Flats Fix from May of last year might be the earliest public glimpse to date into the bar life hustle of Ocasio-Cortez.

“Bartenders were slow and inattentive,” the reviewer wrote, “but the waitress (Alexandra [sic], I believe) and her amazing service and the delicious food and drinks (the latter of which the waitress Also had to make for me) more than made up for it.”

“Alexandra” Ocasio-Cortez embraced service industry work in her campaign narrative.

“When my family was struggling to make ends meet,” she recalled in an upbeat Remezcla interview posted just days before she upset 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley in the district’s Democratic primary, “I had a day job, and I waitressed, and I bartend, and I was shoulder-to-shoulder with undocumented people in the back of the house.”

Bar patrons at Flats Fix were among the earliest allies of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign for Congress.

“The people who made our graphics and our fliers and stuff were regulars at the bar where I was bartending,” she said in a post-primary interview with popular New York City radio host Laura Styles of Hot 97.

Watch: Ocasio-Cortez Choosing Not to Move to DC Until 2019 Anyway

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Origin stories that embrace bar work are hardly unique in Congress. John Boehner famously grew up in the bar his family owned in Ohio before going on serve as speaker. But the empowerment gospel of Ocasio-Cortez is more than just a parable of elbow grease in the service industry. It’s a different kind of American identity politics — younger, browner and more fluent in the language of the streets.

Ocasio-Cortez is a Latina millennial, born of a generation in decline, in a major minority workforce segment that is paid an average of 47 percent less than white men and 31 percent less than white women.

Looking through the lens

“Our identities, whether we like it or not, are a lens. We can never take that lens off,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a pre-primary June interview with Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept. “My identity is important because the district is about 70 percent people of color. The district is about 40 percent primarily Spanish-speaking. It’s at least half-Latino. … It’s not the fact that I’m a Hispanic woman that allows me to better represent this district. It is the fact that that is a lens that I have to better organize and communicate with the people who live here.”

Six months later, she arrived in Washington a Latina political icon.

Within days of winning a primary that catapulted her overnight to national fame, Ocasio-Cortez prayer candles could be purchased on Etsy.  Now they’re a popular Christmas gift in progressive political Washington where Ocasio-Cortez tops the A-List.  And last week, Ocasio-Cortez headlined Elle’s photoshoot of the historic female freshman class of the 116th Congress.

“That’s the clearest message I’ve heard from a Democrat in a long time,” said MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski during the first minute of Ocasio-Cortez’s debut interview on “Morning Joe.”

Ocasio-Cortez is a first in American politics. No Hispanic candidate has ever risen so far, so fast. No Democrat can match her celebrity. No bartender can deny she earned it.

Pablo Manriquez is the news communications director for Roll Call. He was a longtime contributor and worked for the Democratic National Committee as a booker during the 2016 election. Follow him on Instagram at @Pablo.Manriquez.

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