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Urban Newcomers Respond To Candidates Who Make Them Feel Like Part Of A Movement

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is photographed while being interviewed in Rockefeller Center on June 27 in New York. The 28-year-old political newcomer who upset U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley in New York's Democrat primary says she brings an "urgency" to the fight for working families.
Mary Altaffer

Even before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had been declared the winner of a spectacular primary upset Tuesday, political pundits (myself included) began speculating about what it would mean for Ayanna Pressley’s challenge to Michael Capuano.

The comparisons only accelerated after the incumbent, Joe Crowley, conceded defeat. Articles in Politico, Huffington Post, The New York Times, and elsewhere asked whether Pressley will be the next Ocasio-Cortez. Those two candidates, who had struck up a recent comradeship, spurred the notion themselves on Twitter. And, if nothing else, the attention has given Pressley’s campaign a jolt — though it might have woken up the Capuano-support network even more.

Most of the talk centered on the fact that both districts — Crowley’s 14th in the Bronx and Queens, Capuano’s 7th in and around Boston — have shifted demographically in the two decades since their white congressmen first took office.

That means an increase in non-white residents. But the more important change might be among the white residents themselves.

Yes, Ocasio-Cortez, a Sanders supporter, out-polled Crowley in the heavily Hispanic Bronx precincts. But she crushed him in many white precincts, in Crowley’s home borough of Queens. As New York Magazine summed up: “Crowley won the African-American precincts and performed well in the Hispanic and Asian ones, but he got overwhelmed by white gentrifying liberals in Astoria, Jackson Heights, and Woodside.”

“Young white turnout was off the charts,” tweeted David Shor, of Civis Analytics in Chicago, after dissecting the district’s voter files and primary results. “That helped her a lot.”

Astoria, where Ocasio-Cortez arguably won the election, was once the fictional home of Archie Bunker. Today’s residents could be his grandchildren — raised by earnestly open-minded Meatheads and Glorias in the suburbs, but returned for a city life they crave.

American cities are increasingly filled with these young, well-educated, professional millennials. They are unlike white city dwellers of previous generations, for whom urban life was a necessary evil, and who sought comfort and safety by grouping with members of their own heritage.

A new study, by researchers at Rutgers University and Baruch College, found that “Millennials are the only generation that is happier in places with a population of more than 250,000,” as reported in CityLab. In part, the study found, that’s because they crave the diversity that scared — and clearly still scares — their elders.

They are virulently opposed to Donald Trump, according to Democratic strategists I talk to, but also generally uninspired by most entrenched Democratic party leaders. And they aren't deferential to incumbents. In three close New York primaries, including Ocasio-Cortez’s, “challengers did best in gentrified/gentrifying areas,” tweeted Steven Romalewski of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

These urban newcomers respond to candidates who make them feel like they are part of a movement. Bernie Sanders made many of them feel that way. Certain unabashedly strong women and minority candidates seem to represent that as well.

“It’s the older millennial generation,” says one Boston-based political consultant who, like many, did not want to be identified discussing the locally divisive Capuano-Pressley race. Now in their late 20s and early 30s, experiencing their first mortgages and babies — and watching the Trump administration with horror — many are truly caring about politics for the first time, and “they’re looking for movement-based candidates.”

All the way across the country in Seattle, those voters helped make civil rights activist and Sanders supporter Pramila Jayapal the first Indian-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. That district is three-quarters non-Hispanic white and had been represented by white men since it was created in the 1950s — until Jayapal won it in 2016.

They made their mark in Boston just last year, as Lydia Edwards defeated Stephen Passacantilli for a city council seat. She was helped in large part by white liberal millennials in Charlestown, which is also in Capuano’s congressional district.

Edwards had strong support among the growing Hispanic communities of East Boston. But that wouldn’t have been enough. It was her appeal to younger white voters, especially women, in Charlestown that put her over the top. Edwards won Charlestown outright, a first for a woman of color in any election.

These are not your grandfather’s Charlestown residents; the neighborhood is now teeming with Starbucks-sipping, Whole Foods-shopping professional couples. They are in Capuano’s district, as are other, similar millennial first-time homeowners in Everett, and even Chelsea. Jamaica Plain is packed with them.

And then there’s Somerville, home to roughly 80,000 of the district’s residents, where Capuano served as mayor before heading to Washington. Just as Astoria is no longer typified by Archie Bunker, Somerville’s Winter Hill Gang days have given way to newcomers of a very different sensibility.

Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by 15 points in Somerville in the 2016 Presidential primaries. Then last year, the city’s Sanders-supporting Our Revolution chapter got a slate of seven candidates elected as alderman. The group has not yet endorsed in the Capuano-Pressley race.

Not your average white guy

The victories of Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Jayapal in Washington replaced white men with women of color, in two of the country’s 30 most heavily Democratic congressional districts, as calculated by Cook Political Report. With Ocasio-Cortez's presumed November win, at least half of those 30 districts will be represented by women, 13 of whom are black, Hispanic, or Asian-American.

Capuano, if re-elected, would be the only white man representing one of those 30 districts.

Don’t write Capuano’s political obituary yet. He’s hardly a stuffy, centrist impediment to progressives. His liberal record is well-established, and in community forums — including one on racial justice held in Roxbury — he has gone toe-to-toe with Pressley, demonstrating passion and results equal to hers.

Capuano has been taking Pressley’s challenge seriously for quite a while; he won’t be undone by complacence like Crowley was. Any supporters who weren’t before, have been awakened by the Ocasio-Cortez shock and are getting involved now.

Limitations of his ground troops, which some point to, will be compensated by support from labor groups, endorsers such as Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and others — plus the money to fill in the gaps.

The same should be true of Capuano’s social media reach. He has fewer than 10,000 followers each for both his official and campaign Twitter accounts, less than a third of Pressley’s and a pittance compared with Seth Moulton or Joe Kennedy. (Though Capuano does have an outstanding email newsletter, for those who sign up at his official website.)

Just as Capuano isn’t the typical old white guy, neither is Pressley, a highly visible Hillary Clinton surrogate during the 2016 campaign, necessarily the gate-crasher that Our Revolution and other Sanders supporters are looking for.

Perhaps more importantly, even some Pressley supporters concede that her campaign has not yet developed the organizational reach she needs, to win over the millennial left while also firing up turnout in black communities. Her ability to transform the new attention into effective field deployment in the final two months before the primary will test her team, particularly campaign manager Sarah Groh and consultant Wilnelia Rivera.

And besides, it’s not as if 2018 has been a terror for Democratic incumbents. Crowley is the only one to be defeated this year, after more than 300 congressional district primaries.

Regardless, the Ocasio-Cortez victory has demonstrated that the new, young urban voter is a powerful and growing force. They will undoubtedly have a say in choosing Boston’s next district attorney. Up in Lawrence, Lowell, and Haverhill they may be decisive in the primary to replace Niki Tsongas in Congress. And their representatives, whoever they may be, will soon be making real waves in Washington.

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