But several life-changing events altered that belief for the third-generation Bronx native, leading her to run for Congress against one of the most powerful elected officials in New York City and Washington.
Ocasio-Cortez, 28, is challenging Congressman Joseph Crowley, chair of the Queens County Democratic Party and the House Democratic Caucus. Crowley, first elected to Congress in 1998, is seen as a top contender for speaker should the Democrats retake the House of Representatives.
It’s a tall task for a political newcomer, but one that she feels is needed to change the direction of the country toward a progressive future. With the expected “blue wave” of Democratic turnout coming later this year, Ocasio-Cortez believes this is the right time to run.
“If we elect the same Democratic Party that we did going into this mess, we’re going to get the same results,” she said. “We have to translate these movements into electoral wins to push the right policies.”
Ocasio-Cortez was born in a one-bedroom apartment in the Parkchester area of the Bronx to a working-class family. Her father, an architect, ran a small business, while her mother cleaned houses.
When she was five years old, Ocasio-Cortez’s family looked at the unsatisfactory public schools in the Bronx during the late 1980s, when dropout rates soared. They decided to go a different direction.
Her family, including grandmother, aunts, uncles and parents, scrapped together what little money they had to put a down payment on another apartment in Yorktown Heights, a small town in Westchester. Ocasio-Cortez spent nearly half her life upstate.
“From a very young age, navigating between these two worlds, the reality of income inequality was always very apparent to me,” she said. “I knew that in this zip code, I had opportunities. In that zip code, I didn’t.”
But the move worked out. With a science scholarship, Ocasio-Cortez attended Boston University to study pre-medicine. She was the first person from her mother’s family to go to college.
While in college, the Bronx native studied differences in health outcomes, whether it was maternal health in West Africa or child asthma rates in the United States. She realized that “everything kept coming back to policy.”
She got her first taste of public service working for the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. As the only Latina and bilingual person in the office, she worked in constituent services in the foreign affairs and immigration team.
“I had been given this insane responsibility of picking up the phone when women would call and their husbands or sons were missing because they were picked up by ICE,” she said. “That responsibility was then on me to try to work with the other folks in the office to find solutions, to cut through red tape for these families.”
While she loved her time at Senator Kennedy’s office, and felt honored to work with “such conscientious and committed” people, she left feeling that electoral politics “wasn’t for me.”
“The only way that I felt, at the time, a person could succeed in electoral politics is through either a lot of money, having a connection to a very powerful family or having a lot of dynastic, influential and social networks,” she said.
Rather than continuing down that path, Ocasio-Cortez instead returned to her roots and worked directly with people in the Bronx. Through a social entrepreneurship grant, she worked with young students on literacy and focused on developing solutions in early childhood education.
Eventually, she became the educational director for the National Hispanic Institute.
But tragedy struck, when the country was hit by the Great Recession. Ocasio-Cortez’s father, her family’s breadwinner, died during the financial crisis, and the family’s small business closed.
“It really just felt like these 25 years that my parents spent building up a family and building up a life here was just wiped out in an instant,” she said. “We’re all the way back. My mom was back to cleaning homes and driving buses.”
After her day job, Ocasio-Cortez began picking up shifts as a waitress and bartender in New York to support her family. Those long days working 18 hours in environments “with few labor protections” proved to be a pivotal experience for the Bronx native.
“I really saw how far even Democratic policies were from the reality of working-class people in this country,” she said.
Then came the 2016 presidential election. She found that one particular candidate, Bernie Sanders, had a message that resonated with her and working-class America. Ocasio-Cortez signed up to organize the South Bronx for Sanders, including helping plan a large rally at St. Mary’s Park.
Thousands of people showed up to that event, demonstrating to her that “so many people had felt the same way.”
Sanders eventually lost New York and the Democratic Primary, but his campaign inspired young people across the country to carry his message. Ocasio-Cortez walked away feeling that “our work wasn’t done.”
She packed up a few belongings into an old Subaru and drove across the country with a friend. They visited states like Michigan, Ohio and Indiana to speak to community organizers to figure out what happened.
They ended up at the Standing Rock Reservation, where they witnessed Native Americans and their supporters protest the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.
The day she got back from Standing Rock, Ocasio-Cortez received a call from Brand New Congress, a national organization created by former Sanders campaign staffers to elect new members to Congress. Their goal was to find and draft “non-career politicians” with a history of service in their communities to run for office.
Out of 11,000 nominations, Ocasio-Cortez was chosen as one of eight initial congressional candidates Brand New Congress supported. The organization now supports more than 50 candidates nationwide.
“I had no plans to run for office at all,” she said. “When I got this call, I had been animated to this point where seeing where we’re at in this democracy, and especially seeing our community here and this race in particular, this has to be done.”
The timing was right. Seeing all of the grassroots energy across the country, Ocasio-Cortez said not winning electorally would have been a “massively wasted opportunity” for progressives seeking change, even against Democrats.
“Now is the moment,” she said. “This is about bringing a confluence of movements together into power that, in New York City, traditionally has gone ignored.”
Ocasio-Cortez isn’t blind to the current political current. She knows Crowley is not only a powerful elected official, but also a prodigious fundraiser. But as his first primary challenger in more than a decade, Ocasio-Cortez said she would better represent New York’s 14th congressional district.
She noted that 75 percent of the district is made up of people of color, and the mean income is $47,00 a year.
“For a district as diverse, working class and progressive as NY-14, I don’t think he’s the appropriate representative,” she said. “In speaking with constituents here, I don’t think they think that either.
“This is not a Supreme Court seat, this is not a lifetime appointment,” she added. “A 20-year service to our community is a very long time. I think that’s a fine tenure to have.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign is running on issues Bernie Sanders championed in his presidential bid two years ago. The first-time candidate is pushing for, among other proposals, a $15 national minimum wage and paid leave, Medicare for all, and tuition-free college.
Describing herself as “unapologetically progressive,” Ocasio-Cortez said she stands for racial and gender equality, LGBT inclusion and equal rights for all.
“That to me is foundational,” she said. “That’s not even up for debate.”
Though many Democrats also support similar economic stances, Ocasio-Cortez criticized Crowley and the current Democratic establishment for only backing watered-down versions of those proposals.
“What I find kind of disheartening sometimes about the establishment is that they’re compromising before they even get to the table with Republicans,” she said. “Why don’t we just go to bat, swing for the fences, and then when we sit down with Republicans, we can talk about what we can pass?
“But before we even get to the table, we’re talking about ‘taking it easy,’” she added. “It’s no wonder so many of our policies have been dragged to the right.”
Another aspect that separates Ocasio-Cortez from the incumbent is her position on fundraising. She has pledged not to take any corporate donations, including from political action committees representing corporate industries.
The candidate said she believes her campaign is able to do things that money typically buys, such as employing a strong canvassing and voter outreach operation.
Ocasio-Cortez is also refraining from “dialing for dollars,” or spending hours during a campaign to call for donations. Rather than fundraising directly, Ocasio-Cortez said she has spent more time talking to constituents and grassroots organizers.
“As things tighten up, I may,” she said. “But those will never go to corporate executives. Those are not the phone calls I’ll make. They’re to neighbors.”
With changes in technology, Ocasio-Cortez said she’s reaching a new crop of voters in a different way. Rather than spending money on television ad buys, they’re turning to social media and engaging with constituents online.
Though Crowley has significant name recognition in the district, Ocasio-Cortez said she feels her strategy is quickly paying off. After six months of introducing her campaign, people in the district are starting to recognize her and her message.
“We’re starting to build momentum,” she said.
Win or lose, Ocasio-Cortez said she’ll be around for the long haul. She didn’t rule out running again should the results not go her way in the primary.
Early on in the campaign, Ocasio-Cortez met with Ruth Messinger, former Manhattan borough president and a Democratic nominee for New York City mayor. Messinger told her that when running for office, a candidate should commit to running three times.
“This process is exhausting, it’s a tax on my family, a tax on my relationships,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “There’s a lot of considerations you make before you run for office, let alone run again.
“What I will say is I’m not going anywhere,” she added. “This campaign and what we’ve done has highlighted really important issues a lot of people want to keep quiet. We’re not going to keep quiet about it.”