Politics & Policy

A Democrat, and Social Conservative, Challenges Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez listens as David Marcus, CEO of Facebookís Calibra, testifies to the House Financial Services Committee, July 17, 2019 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Fernando Cabrera is running to unseat her in next year’s primary in New York.

Democratic city councilman Fernando Cabrera sounds like a New Yorker. He’s speaking fast when I reach him by phone Monday, rattling off the myriad differences between himself and the woman he’s challenging for the Democratic primary nomination for New York’s 14th district: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

As a well-known New York Democrat who is unconcerned about jeopardizing a future career in national politics, Cabrera is the most serious primary challenger to enter the race, and the media have taken notice. His announcement was covered in the New York Post last week, and he was headed to an interview with Fox News as we discussed his plans to upset a political phenom.

While the cosmetic differences between Cabrera — a 55-year-old Pentecostal pastor —and his 29-year-old former bartender opponent abound, he’s convinced that the primary distinction between himself and Ocasio-Cortez is his willingness to do the work of government. He rapidly details his record as a three-term city councilman: falling crime and unemployment rates in his district, coupled with increased graduation rates and high-school STEM achievement. He juxtaposes this record with the way that Ocasio-Cortez has spent her first year in office.

“The ‘o’ in Ocasio stands for ‘zero,’” he says impatiently. “She has brought home zero money, she’s advanced zero bills.” His frustration is obvious. Cabrera explains that he had no intention of running for the congressional seat. “I would’ve retired,” he says, but then he saw how Ocasio-Cortez derailed Amazon’s plan to bring its headquarters, and 25,000 jobs, to Queens.

Citing her concern for the city’s working class, Ocasio-Cortez joined fellow progressives in Albany to lobby against the tax breaks that the city used to woo the corporate giant. And, having successfully blocked the move, she bizarrely touted the money she helped the city “save” by blocking tax breaks on taxes that will no longer be paid at all. This infuriated Cabrera, who was in talks with city educators to develop special technical high schools that would train students for jobs exactly like those Amazon would have offered.

The problem with Ocasio-Cortez is twofold, in Cabrera’s estimation. She prioritizes broad, attention-grabbing national issues over constituent service, and when she tries to solve problems that are, arguably, far outside her remit as a freshman congresswoman, her commitment is purely rhetorical. Or, as Cabrera puts it, “she doesn’t show up.”

To illustrate their differences, Cabrera cites their respective approaches to addressing climate change. When hurricanes rocked Puerto Rico last year, Cabrera dropped his life in New York and joined a cleanup crew on the island for three weeks. Ocasio-Cortez, by contrast, has responded to the threat of climate change by using her considerable political capital to introduce the Green New Deal, a resolution that ostensibly is aimed at combating environmental disaster but actually would restructure much of the American economy, bringing it under government control within a decade.

“She was voted down by her own [Democratic] colleagues, 57 to zero,” when the resolution was put up for a vote in the Senate, Cabrera notes before launching into a diatribe about her refusal to work with more experienced politicians to navigate the machinery of government.

While he stresses that he would be focused on local matters if elected, when it comes to addressing massive issues like climate change, he’d get involved to the extent that he could help directly, he explains. He believes that government works best when narrow policy solutions, arrived at through compromise, are applied to specific problems. He’s therefore allergic to Ocasio-Cortez’s particular brand of revolutionary politics, which seeks to combine a host of discrete policy issues with a broader socialist framework by which they can all be resolved in one fell swoop. Also, unlike Ocasio-Cortez, he has skin in the game when it comes to creating a better future: “Socialism is not what I want for my kids and my grandkids.” Ocasio-Cortez recently suggested she may not have kids since the threat of climate change has made the thought of doing so “bittersweet.”

Those three weeks spent in Puerto Rico, cleaning up and helping repair a world his kids and grandkids will inherit, versus Ocasio-Cortez’s endless media appearances touting the toothless Green New Deal, provide a neat juxtaposition. The day after I speak with Cabrera, Ocasio-Cortez, as if eager to make his point, tweets jubilantly about the socialist virtues of Denmark.

“Thank you everyone for the birthday wishes,” she writes. “Spending the day in Denmark after C40, enjoying this social democracy that treats healthcare & education as rights, zero-carbon as priority, & infrastructure as a key public good.”

Asked how, as a congressman, he would spend the free time he’d gain by forgoing projects like the Green New Deal and, presumably, trips to Denmark, Cabrera suggests he would continue the work he’s done throughout his career, but on a larger scale, with considerably more resources.

That means he would continue working to curb gun violence. Once again, the dichotomy between himself and his opponent rears its head. In 2012, Cabrera founded the Gun Violence Task Force with fellow councilman Jumaane Williams, now the city’s public advocate. As co-chairs of the task force, Williams and Cabrera helped implement the Cure Violence program, which trains and sends out former gang members from Brooklyn and the South Bronx to interrupt insidious cycles of violence in the neighborhoods they grew up in. The program has been effective: “In the South Bronx Cure Violence site, the analysis revealed significant declines in shooting victimizations,” according to a 2017 report from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Cabrera wants federal funding to expand this program, which currently encompasses just ten square blocks in his district.

He sees Ocasio-Cortez’s histrionic calls for overarching federal gun-control legislation, usually issued in the wake of a mass shooting or an outbreak of violence thousands of miles from her own district, as yet another empty gesture. “She’s nowhere to be found here,” he says. “She’ll point the finger at Chicago, but in her own backyard we have seen the rates of crime climb through the roof.” Indeed, both police precincts that are entirely encompassed by the 14th congressional district have experienced more than twice as many gun deaths in 2019 than in the year prior, according to weekly NYPD crime reports.

In addition to the apparent gap between their governing philosophies, he and Ocasio-Cortez have diametrically opposed social values. “I’m about family, faith, and community,” says Cabrera, who was born to a Puerto Rican and a Dominican immigrant and raised in the Bronx. Like much of his congregation and, he argues, much of the congressional district he hopes to represent, he is socially conservative.

He was pilloried by fellow Democrats on the city council in 2014 after a video surfaced of him praising Uganda’s adherence to Christian doctrine and its prohibition against gay marriage. The video emerged soon after Uganda passed a law making homosexuality punishable by life in prison, though Cabrera does not mention that legislation specifically in the video. While he holds traditional views on marriage and opposes abortion, he is sure to tell me that he’s worked with every stripe of New Yorker during his years as a pastor and in his nine years on the city council.

Ocasio-Cortez, by contrast, helped fundraise for the British transgender-rights group Mermaid Coalition, as one of her first acts in office. As our own Madeleine Kearns reported in January, “the 29-year-old congresswoman appeared in a livestream to support Harry Brews, a British gamer, who played the entire game of Donkey Kong in one sitting in order to raise $340,000 for Mermaids UK, a British charity that promotes sex changes for gender-confused children.”

Cabrera is convinced his traditional values better reflect the district and will win out over AOC’s particular brand of social-media-friendly progressivism. “It’s a moderate to conservative district,” Cabrera says. “I’m a match, I’m a perfect fit, I’m a reflection the people.”

Cabrera is under no illusions about the uphill battle he’s facing. He recognizes that the country’s young progressives, spurred on by sympathetic and monolithic national media, have rallied around Ocasio-Cortez as the epitome of authenticity. After all, she livestreams herself making mac and cheese. Cabrera’s campaign rests on his belief that New Yorkers have a finely tuned nose for the real thing and they’ve realized Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t qualify.

“In this district we’re not impressed with any type of celebrity status,” he says. “We want elected officials who are able to produce results and she has utterly failed.” We’ll find out, on June 23, 2020, whether his faith in New Yorkers is justified.

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