At an Iowa rally, progressive voters already talk about an Ocasio-Cortez presidency

Hunter Walker White House Correspondent

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — As she took the stage here on Friday night, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., noted it was her “first time” in the key presidential primary state. But many of the thousands of people who came to see her campaign for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, were confident it wouldn’t be her last visit. 

“You’re going to be the first female president,” one woman told Ocasio-Cortez as she met with audience members on a rope line after the event.

“I’m hope I’m not the first,” Ocasio-Cortez said, adding that she’d like a woman president “sooner” than that.

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The Constitution prohibits anyone under the age of 35 from running for president or vice president. Ocasio-Cortez, who is 30, won’t be eligible until the next election cycle. And she isn’t backing any of the women running for president this year. She has thrown her support behind Sanders and traveled to Iowa to campaign with him at a trio of events on Friday and Saturday. 

The fact that Ocasio-Cortez isn’t eligible to run for president herself was news to at least one supporter, Fanny Mandelberger, who came out to see the congresswoman campaign with Sanders in Des Moines on Saturday and said she hoped Ocasio-Cortez might “be his running mate.” Mandelberger responded with clear dismay when she was informed of the law.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez greet supporters on the campus of Iowa Western Community College on Nov. 8. (Photo: Hunter Walker/Yahoo News)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez greet supporters on the campus of Iowa Western Community College on Nov. 8. (Photo: Hunter Walker/Yahoo News)

“What? She can’t?” Mandelberger asked. “How old is she?”

When she was informed of Ocasio-Cortez’s age, Mandelberger was impressed. 

“Good for her. Oh, my God,” she said.

The shock is understandable. Ocasio-Cortez’s career arc has been unprecedented. After scoring a shocking upset against one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the House of Representatives last year, she became the youngest woman in Congress. Her improbable victory, progressive brand of politics and strong presence on social media have kept her in the spotlight and made her one of the most visible members of the Democratic Party. 

Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez’s ascent has not come without controversy. Her progressivism has made her a favorite target for conservatives. Outside the event in Des Moines, a small group supporting President Trump held a protest. One man had a sign mocking the possibility of an Ocasio-Cortez candidacy that said, “Bartender 2021.” A truck circled the auditorium with an electric sign paid for by a pro-Trump political committee that cast Ocasio-Cortez and a group of three other freshman progressives — who are often called “the Squad” — as the nefarious leaders of the Democratic Party.

“The squad, ruling the Democrats, controlling the agenda, open borders, socialism, Green New Deal. Vote Trump 2020,” the sign said.

Ocasio-Cortez reflected on her meteoric rise as she spoke to the crowd in Council Bluffs and noted it was just two days after the anniversary of her election. 

“It just came so quickly. … Last February I was still bartending in downtown Manhattan,” she said. “It seems sometimes like that was ages ago, but it was just last February.” 

The freshman lawmaker announced her endorsement of Sanders last month after the senator suffered a heart attack that took him off the campaign trail for several days. She has described that moment as a “gut check” that pushed her to publicly support him. 

She has also attributed that decision to Sanders’s decades of pushing for progressive policies including universal health care, free public education and a federal jobs program. The endorsement came as his standing in national polls had dipped to its lowest point. In the month since, he has rebounded and remains one of the top three candidates in the crowded Democratic field.

Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, told Yahoo News that Ocasio-Cortez “brought a breath of fresh energy to the campaign.”

“There have been a few factors involved in the rise in the polling. He had a great debate performance. He’s had some wonderful big events around the country with key endorsements,” Shakir said. “But we’ve also seen volunteers, staff and surrogates step up their efforts in a big way when he went through the health scare.”

Ocasio-Cortez greets supporters on the campus of Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs. (Photo: Hunter Walker/Yahoo News)
Ocasio-Cortez greets supporters on the campus of Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs. (Photo: Hunter Walker/Yahoo News)

Sanders’s campaign has aggressively promoted Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement. This campaign swing through Iowa came on the heels of a massive rally in the congresswoman’s Queens, N.Y., district last month. Onstage at that event, Ocasio-Cortez, who is Puerto Rican, dubbed Sanders her tio, the Spanish word for uncle. In Iowa, the Sanders campaign was selling newly minted “Tio Bernie” shirts to supporters.   

Apart from her desire to see a woman in the White House, the endorsement was a natural fit for Ocasio-Cortez, who began her career as an organizer for Sanders’s 2016 campaign. The pair both identify as democratic socialists, and his climate plan hews more closely to the “Green New Deal” that Ocasio-Cortez has championed in Congress than any other presidential candidate’s. 

In Council Bluffs, Ocasio-Cortez alluded to the Sanders description of his campaign as a “political revolution,” as she suggested he is the best chance to make transformative change in the country. 

“While we have a plan and while we have an agenda to pass a Green New Deal, to pass Medicare for All, to make public colleges tuition-free to any and all who seek to have an education in America, these policies are not self-enacting,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “The only way that we achieve and become an advanced society is not through a technocratic policy proposal, but through a political revolution of working people in the United States.”

On Saturday in Des Moines, she also addressed questions about whether the country can afford these proposals, a prominent argument that both Republicans and more moderate Democrats have levied against Sanders’s ambitious agenda.

“When it comes to a Green New Deal, people say always, always, always with this question of: ‘How are you going to pay for it?,’ as though we’re not paying for it now,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “As though the Midwest wasn’t underwater this year, as though 3,000 Americans didn’t die in Puerto Rico in Hurricane Maria, as though Hurricane Katrina didn’t happen, as though sea levels aren’t rising, as though California isn’t on fire. How do we pay for that?”  

A number of people who came out to see Ocasio-Cortez predicted she could be back in Iowa one day as part of her own presidential campaign. Kacey Davis, a nurse practitioner, who went to the Sanders event in Des Moines on Saturday, said she believes Ocasio-Cortez “could be president now” if it weren’t for the “regulations we have.” 

“I think it’s just a matter of time,” Davis said. “I think definitely she’ll run for president.” 

Julie Nichols, a restaurant worker from Nebraska who was at the rally in Council Bluffs on Friday, said she hopes Ocasio-Cortez will run for president one day. 

“I went to school back East and I know those women from the Bronx, and they are tough women,” Nichols said.

Ocasio-Cortez is joined onstage by Sanders in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Hunter Walker/Yahoo News)
Ocasio-Cortez is joined onstage by Sanders in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Hunter Walker/Yahoo News)

Many of the supporters who are eager to see Ocasio-Cortez run for president described her as an inspiration. Gabriela Barajas, a young woman who attended the event on Friday, said Ocasio-Cortez’s age and middle-class roots drew her to the congresswoman.  

“Seeing how she came from, like, a low place, and seeing how far she is now, and she’s so young, it’s really inspirational to everyone, like to young women, to just everyone,” Barajas said. 

Barajas, who is Mexican-American, also said Ocasio-Cortez’s Latina heritage is important to her.  

“She means a lot to my culture,” Barajas explained.  

Savanna Henning, a college student who attended the event in Des Moines, said she is undecided about whom to back, but that Ocasio-Cortez’s support for Sanders was swaying her somewhat.

“She’s an inspiration … and just represents an idea that I would love to be the norm in America,” Henning said. 

And if Ocasio-Cortez were in the primary herself, Henning would have no doubt about whom she would be supporting. Asked if she would be interested in any other candidate if Ocasio-Cortez were an option, Henning responded with a simple “No.” 

The possibility of an Ocasio-Cortez presidency also came up when she and Sanders took questions from voters in Des Moines on Saturday. One woman pointed at her and said, “In six years that woman could be our president.”

“I’m getting into too much trouble for that,” Ocasio-Cortez demurred.

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