This Tuesday's stunning primary upset in New York's 14th Congressional District, where 28-year-old first-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez handily defeated incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley—the 4th highest-ranking Democrat in the House, and leader of the Queens Democratic Party—has us thinking about what might have happened in Philly's old 1st Congressional District if the PA Supreme Court hadn't redrawn the Congressional Districts, and if Rep. Bob Brady hadn't announced his retirement.
In the old 1st District as in NY-14, you also had a long-time incumbent member of Congress who doubles as the local party Boss, representing a District he was increasingly ill-suited for demographically, yet who the conventional wisdom still considered to be politically untouchable.
Brady had drawn a primary challenge from Deputy Mayor Nina Ahmad before the redistricting decision, who, in another parallel with the NY-14 race, is a woman of color with decidedly left-wing politics. While there's no way of predicting what might have transpired over the course of that campaign, the well-documented preference among 2018 primary electorates for women challengers thus far really seems to suggest Ahmad would've smoked Brady in a head-to-head match-up.
There are lots of interesting angles to unpack about Ocasio-Cortez's win, like to what extent being a declared socialist candidate helped, versus simply being an all-around more appealing political candidate in general. Without downplaying the significance of the win for Democratic Socialists of America—they contributed tons of volunteers and significantly raised the profile of Ocasio at the national level when no media outlets were paying attention, and now have an incredible national standard-bearer for the organization—she's also just an extremely telegenic and relatable candidate who was a perfect fit for the district, and by all accounts ran a vastly superior retail and digital operation to the "1998 City Council race" that Crowley ran, as one Crowley aide described it.
And this is really the most generalizable takeaway for anyone considering a run for office next year for City Council, or for state legislature or Congress in 2020. Crowley, like many of our City Councilmembers, had never had to run in a competitive primary. The fact that he was such a prolific fundraiser, the head of the Queens Democratic Party, and a top-ranking member of the House Democratic leadership was enough to create an aura of invincibility that kept any would-be credible challengers at bay for a long time.
But once he was forced to campaign, he turned out not to be very good at it and made a bunch of mistakes, including sending a surrogate to debate Ocasio-Cortez, which played into her message that he had lost touch with the district.
Likewise, most Philadelphia District Councilmembers have never had to run in a competitive head-to-head race against a credible opponent, and in many cases, probably wouldn't be very good at it if they did. Nobody ever challenges long-time members like Darrell Clarke or Jannie Blackwell because would-be challengers just assume they'll lose. But would they?
As with Joe Crowley, they seem unbeatable because lots of people always talk about how powerful the members are, but it's extremely rare that they ever have to prove this in a competitive election. It seems likely the NY-14 result will lead to many more establishment politicians in Philadelphia, and across the country, spending the next year proving their mettle.
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