Ocasio-Cortez’s Unusual Place in N.Y. City Council Races: The Sidelines

Two years ago, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set out to put her imprint on New York City government, using her personal clout and a leadership PAC to boost dozens of left-leaning candidates.

Yet as New Yorkers prepare to go back to the polls next week to begin electing a new City Council, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has been practically invisible.

Courage to Change, her political action committee that backed 60 candidates in 2021, has gone dormant. Her advisers have warned campaigns not to recycle past statements of support. And while she has offered to quietly help left-leaning incumbents who dissented from last year’s city budget, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has yet to issue any actual endorsements — and may not, as early voting began Saturday.

“Our team will be in touch about any endorsements the congresswoman plans to make in the 2023 cycle,” a representative from the PAC wrote to candidates in late March, according to a copy of the message viewed by The New York Times. “But in the meantime, please do not use Courage to Change PAC or A.O.C. branding in your current materials.”

The shift is partly a reflection of this year’s lower-volume elections. The mayor and other citywide officeholders won’t face voters for another two years, and because of a redistricting quirk, there are fewer competitive Council primaries.

But allies say it also reflects Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s evolution from an insurgent intent on pushing in a new generation of revolutionary leaders to a more conventional Democratic figure buffeted by electoral realities, prioritizing her growing duties in Washington and wary of overextending her political capital.

“If we called on her for support in the future, I’m sure that she would definitely step in,” said Chi Ossé, a Brooklyn councilman who is among the handful of budget dissenters Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has helped behind the scenes. “But she’s very focused and busy on what’s happening in Washington right now.”

Chi Ossé, a Brooklyn councilman, has received behind-the-scenes help from Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.Credit…Ahmed Gaber for The New York Times

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s own political operation is also in a moment of flux. She fired her campaign manager this spring in the wake of a scathing congressional ethics report related to her attendance at the 2021 Met Gala. A replacement, Oliver Hidalgo-Wohlleben, the former political director for Senator Bernie Sanders, just started last week.

A spokeswoman for the congresswoman, Lauren Hitt, said on Thursday that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was “still considering” whether to wade into any races. Ms. Hitt also said her silence should not be read as a permanent retreat from New York City politics.

“It’s just a very different election cycle,” she said, pointing to the number of incumbent Council members who are unopposed or not in serious races. “That was the overwhelming reason here and the primary reason here.”

It is not unusual for members of New York City’s congressional delegation to try to throw their weight around in races for the 51-seat Council. But where others typically stick to contests within their own districts, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez took an unusual and much more expansive role in 2021, supporting candidates far outside her East Bronx and Northwest Queens political base.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s electoral engagement in New York races — which can come with a boost in money, volunteers and media attention — has fluctuated since her upset primary victory over a longtime congressman in 2018. The results have been mixed.

Dozens of candidates clamored for the support of Courage to Change in 2021, but the group also caused confusion. The PAC’s endorsement process hinged on a questionnaire that asked candidates where they stood on certain liberal policy issues, like cutting funding for the New York Police Department. It did no additional vetting, giving nods of approval to a noted opponent of bike and public transportation projects in Manhattan, as well as a former political aide accused of being a North Korean “sympathizer.”

Some candidates treated the PAC’s backing as an Ocasio-Cortez endorsement, which her team insisted it wasn’t (she only personally endorsed nine candidates).

During the 2022 midterms, she personally backed a successful democratic socialist insurgent in a State Senate contest in Queens, among other races; sat out the primary for governor, to the frustration of some allies; and took a high-profile loss after backing a long-shot primary challenge to the chairman of the powerful Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But unless she issues a rush of 11th-hour endorsements, 2023 is shaping up to be her quietest election year yet, in contrast to her House colleagues from the city.

In Harlem, for instance, Representative Adriano Espaillat endorsed Inez Dickens in a three-way race. Ms. Dickens’s chief rival, Yusef Salaam, has asked for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s support, according to people familiar with the request, but no decision had been reached.

In Queens, Representative Nydia Velázquez, an ally of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, has endorsed Councilwoman Julie Won in a tight race against Hailie Kim, a housing organizer. Ms. Kim’s spokesman, Chris Sosa, said she had not asked Ms. Ocasio-Cortez for help, and that she understood “her decision to focus on the urgent matters before Congress this year.” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s PAC gave its approval to Ms. Won in 2021, but has not done so this year.

Councilwoman Julie Won, left, has received the endorsement of Representative Nydia Velázquez in Queens, but has not been formally backed by Ms. Ocasio-Cortez.Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Many of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s allies said they were not bothered by her retreat.

Even Jeff Leb, a political operative known for running super PACs that pound left-leaning city candidates and democratic socialists like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, said he could not argue with a decision to more selectively insert herself in the contests — albeit for different reasons.

“A lot of the luster of A.O.C.’s endorsement has really gone out the window,” he said. “The more she endorses candidates, and loses, it devalues her.”

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has not shied from picking other recent battles in the city. She criticized Mayor Eric Adams, an outspoken centrist, last month after the choking death of a 30-year-old homeless man, Jordan Neely. Mr. Adams, who recently endorsed Ms. Dickens in Harlem, has also largely adopted a hands-off approach to Council races this year.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez also stepped into a fight last summer between six City Council members and their speaker, Adrienne Adams, accusing Ms. Adams of trying to punish them for voting against the annual budget over cuts to education spending.

Those lawmakers appear to be the only candidates Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has helped so far ahead of the June 27 primary, including Mr. Ossé and Councilwoman Tiffany Cabán of Queens.

In an interview, Mr. Ossé said Ms. Ocasio-Cortez agreed to headline a fund-raiser for him last October, and proved a “big draw” at a time when he was trying to solidify his political standing. No real primary challenge materialized.

Another budget dissenter, Councilman Charles Barron, a self-described Black radical from Brooklyn who is locked in a tight primary challenge, said he had not heard from Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, whom he views as a force for good in city politics.

“No, we got no calls,” he said, before playing down what she could do for him. “I’m more concerned about block association presidents, tenant association presidents.”

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