Minutes after the polls closed, and the first returns started trickling in, Joe Crowley knew his two-decade career in Congress was over. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old upstart who a year ago was working as a bartender at the gourmet Manhattan taqueria Flats Fix, and who had been inspired to run by Bernie Sanders, had swamped Crowley everywhere, from the barrios of the Bronx to the white liberal enclaves of Astoria and Jackson Heights.
Joe Crowley was the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the likely next Speaker of the House and for a decade and a half had presided over the Queens County Democratic machine.
But this isn’t the machine age, it’s the Instagram era, and it’s not clear that old-school party apparatuses are worth much anymore. Crowley was torched for not attending a debate with Ocasio-Cortez in the Bronx, and sending a surrogate, former councilmember Annabel Palma in his stead. “His seat is not his entitlement. He’d better hope that voters don’t react to his snubs by sending someone else to do the job,” the Times wrote in a scathing editorial.
When Ocasio-Cortez hit him on it at a subsequent debate in Queens, Crowley sounded genuinely perplexed.
“I didn’t send anybody,” he responded. “I asked. I can’t send anybody to anything.”
At Crowley’s election-night party at the Queensboro, a hip new restaurant in Jackson Heights where Ocasio-Cortez pins were far more likely to be found most nights on the clientele, there were no TVs set up to watch the returns, and so Crowley supporters, which included most of the city’s political class, stayed glued to their smartphones, constantly refreshing the Board of Elections website.
“I’m outta here,” said one Democratic Party operative as the pathway to a Crowley victory began to look impossibly narrow. “I’m going to the Bronx. I voted for her.”
When Crowley entered the restaurant, he conceded immediately, pledging to support Ocasio-Cortez. “We have a great chance to take back the House this fall. And although I may have been sacrificed a little early, I am committed to that cause,” Crowley said while longtime aides nursed large glasses of wine and started to cry.
Crowley, with his band behind him, then launched into a rip-roaring version of “Born to Run,” dedicated to Ocasio-Cortez.
After he was finished, he pivoted toward the door to go home, then turned and plunged into the crowd of well-wishers. Someone brought him a lager.
“I may not have gotten proper credit for all the things I have done,” Crowley told New York while the band played “Ramblin’ Man” behind him. “The people in this district know me. It was a Democratic primary at a time of low turnout. It is what it is.”
He defended not going to the debate in the Bronx, saying that the paper that sponsored the debate “had already endorsed my opponent, and they wouldn’t work with my schedule.”
“I was never a good debater anyway,” he added. “I think anybody who has ever seen me debate knows that.”
Crowley’s campaign team had no sense that he was vulnerable. Andrew Cuomo had won the district by over 40 points…