Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, first-term congresswoman and emerging star in the Democratic Party, styles herself as a grassroots-activist-turned-politician. However, further scrutiny into her campaign finance disclosures and subsequent voting record reveals a more nuanced story.
Ocasio-Cortez, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, gained national attention in 2018 by staging an upset victory against 10-term Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District. She ran to Crowley’s left, painting her opponent’s relatively moderate positions as indicative of his allegiance to corporate power. Ocasio-Cortez proclaims herself a staunch opponent of corporate influence on American politics, vocally denouncing dark money and questionable campaign finance practices during her campaign and her short tenure in congress.
“100% people-funded,” her Twitter bio boasts. “No corporate PAC $.”
While not outright fallacious, the young representative’s claims to be “100% people-funded” are, at the very least, misleading. Although she is correct in asserting that her campaign did not receive any corporate PAC money, it was hardly funded by small grassroots donations. Labor unions, an enormously powerful force in Democratic Party politics, represent a significant number of Ocasio-Cortez’s top donors.
Communications Workers of America, Service Employees International Union, American Federation of Teachers, United Auto Workers, and National Education Association were all included in the list of Ocasio-Cortez’s top 20 campaign donors. All of these unions have historically been centerpieces of the Democratic Party’s campaign finance apparatus, making Ocasio-Cortez’s self-styled persona as an anti-establishment outsider somewhat more questionable. In fact, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s frequent denunciations of “big money in politics” is made more ironic by the fact that labor unions consistently represent some of the largest campaign donors in America. In 2018, the year that Ocasio-Cortez was elected, the oft-maligned Koch brothers were outspent in campaign contributions by six different labor unions, respectively.
These generous donations to Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign might explain her puritanically pro-union voting record. In the opening months of 2019, the junior representative voted to increase public sector employee pay and to supplement it during the government shutdown, as well as on three different bills that appropriate tax money toward government departments that fund (unionized) federal employees.
Beyond cheerleading for labor unions, Ocasio-Cortez has spent a significant amount of her time in congress making a public show of her distaste for the state of campaign finance laws. A video of her grilling a House Oversight Committee witnesses on dark money and corruption became the most viewed video of any politician in Twitter history, and she has called dark money “the enemy to democracy.” However, Ocasio-Cortez’s call for stricter campaign finance legislation is somewhat ironic considering that she has recently dealt with legitimate complaints of campaign finance misconduct within her own campaign.
According to a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission, Ocasio Cortez’s chief of staff used her Political Action Committees to funnel over $1 million in political donations to two of his own private companies. The case is still unfolding, but it certainly runs counter to Ocasio-Cortez’s calls for increased transparency and stricter campaign finance regulations in politics.
As a junior representative, Ocasio-Cortez does not have an extensive voting record, and the effect of campaign contributions on her voting habits remains to be seen. But even the premise that campaign contributions influence politicians’ votes is flawed: more often than not, organizations will donate money to political campaigns that are aligned with their interests, rather than paying politicians to change their votes. There is a misconception on the Left that organizations like the NRA pay off Republicans, and a similar misconception on the Right that powerful labor unions pay off Democrats. In reality, most politicians run on pro-gun or pro-union platforms for ideological reasons, and potential beneficiaries of their policies donate to their campaigns.
For this reason, Ocasio-Cortez’s pro-union voting record shouldn’t be attributed to her donors — it’s more than likely that Ocasio-Cortez is simply pro-union, and unions were therefore inclined to fund her political ascendancy. It is, however, somewhat ironic that she ran against big money in politics while embroiled in a dark money scandal herself, as well as openly accepting donations from notoriously enthusiastic big campaign donors.