NEW YORK — Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is assuming a leadership role in efforts to combat Amazon’s plan to build a new headquarters in Queens, an initial test of the incoming House freshman’s clout in her home city.
The 29-year-old progressive darling headlined a closed-press, standing-room-only meeting of activists in lower Manhattan on Monday, near the site of the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park. The meeting’s purpose, according to those who attended, was to strategize about how to kill Amazon’s deal to build a headquarters in Long Island City — a deal that proponents say would bring at least 25,000 well-paying jobs in exchange for roughly $3 billion in subsidies.
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Ocasio-Cortez did not explicitly say she wanted the deal to die, according to two attendees. But she implied as much.
“Her message was mostly about, how is it possible we’re giving that much money to the the wealthiest corporation in the world, and how is it that our elected officials are expecting us to be quiet, and [how] that’s not going to be the case,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, an alliance of labor and community groups in New York.
Ocasio-Cortez has no hard tools at her disposal to influence the outcome of the Amazon deal. The only local politician who has real leverage appears to be state Sen. Michael Gianaris, who could theoretically kill the deal via an obscure state review board.
But she does have the ability to energize the same organizers who helped her defeat Queens County boss Joe Crowley, a stunning upset that catapulted Ocasio-Cortez into the realm of national Democratic royalty. And those organizers are already talking about unseating New York politicians they deem too friendly to Amazon.
The instant outrage that greeted Governor Andrew Cuomo’s and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that Amazon would come to Queens appeared to take both politicians by surprise. Critics of the deal point to the absence of a meaningful oversight role for the New York City Council, Amazon’s anti-union record, its talks with ICE about facial recognition technology, out-of-control gentrification and the deal’s inclusion of a helipad.
Ocasio-Cortez, who declined comment for this story, has criticized the deal from the start.
“From Minnesota to NYC, everyday people all over the country are organizing to resist Amazon’s predatory practices on working class communities,” she tweeted Wednesday, referring to a successful effort by Amazon workers near Minneapolis to exact concessions from management.
On Tuesday, POLITICO reported that a former Ocasio-Cortez staffer, Jake DeGroot, responded to a local assemblywoman’s support of the Amazon deal by saying, on her Facebook page, that she should consider her job at risk. “Get ready for your 2020 primary challenge,” DeGroot wrote.
“People are activated in a durable way,” DeGroot, a lighting designer, told POLITICO in a subsequent interview, while making clear that he was speaking for himself, not Ocasio-Cortez. “And I think local and state politicians, and anyone who downplays that or minimizes the impact that could have, could be doing so at their own peril.”
Amazon’s future campus on Long Island City does not lie within Ocasio-Cortez’s district, as she acknowledged Monday. It’s in the district of Rep.Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), who supports the deal and sat on the dais during the press conference announcing it. However, two of the district’s three local officials are stridently opposed.
Neither of the two who oppose it — Gianaris and City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer — attended the Monday meeting in lower Manhattan.
But the jam-packed crowd did include representatives from: the Ocasio-Cortez-allied Democratic Socialists of America; the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (whose leader happens to be in London for an unrelated anti-Amazon organizing event); Queens Neighborhoods United; and CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities.
Jonathan Westin, whose group New York Communities for Change helped organize Monday’s meeting, was surprised both by the turnout — “100 people from 40 to 50 different groups” with 48 hours’ notice — and the multiple reasons activists elucidated for opposing a deal that city and state leaders tout as a boon for New York City, and for Queens in particular.
Supporters of the deal contend that Ocasio-Cortez is in the wrong.
“It’s incredibly unfortunate that instead of spending the energy to get the best benefits possible for the local community out of this potentially transformative economic development project, [Ocasio-Cortez] is instead trying to kill 25,000 good-paying jobs and it’s not even in her congressional district,” said one establishment Democrat who supports the project and requested anonymity to avoid further politicizing the issue.
Activists plan to follow Monday’s meeting with a “big march” next Monday in Long Island City, Westin said.
“It’s uniting so many different people,” Westin said. “I think people were completely unprepared for how much anger this has caused.”