WICHITA— Before she flew to Kansas, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the newest, youngest and most controversial thing to hit Democratic politics in who knows how long — wanted to make sure she wasn’t going to do more harm than good.
“She called me,” said James Thompson, a progressive congressional candidate backed by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “She asked me if I was worried at all about her coming out here.”
Both of the Democratic Party’s starring East Coast liberals wanted to come to this Midwest city and hold a joint rally for him. What, exactly, would there be for Thompson to worry about?
Well, there was Ocasio-Cortez’s “abolish ICE” position, to name one thing, and the fact that she’s a proud democratic socialist, to name another. This is Kansas after all, the land of Kris Kobach’s anti-immigrant conspiracy theories, Sam Brownback’s tax cuts and President Trump’s 20-percentage-point victory over Hillary Clinton.
Thompson is an Army veteran and civil rights lawyer who used to tend bar and still looks like the kind of guy equally adept at lifting heavy boxes and throwing a rag over his shoulder to listen to what’s burdening you.
He won’t say whether he’d vote to impeach Trump. He doesn’t believe the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency should be abolished. He claims a “libertarian streak,” and yet . . .
“It cracks me up,” he said. “My opponents are always trying to paint me as some kind of socialist.”
Last year, Thompson ran in the special election to replace Mike Pompeo, who had taken a job as Trump’s director of the CIA. He lost but came closer than any Democrat had in 21 years to flipping a reliably Republican seat. Should he be afraid that taking the stage with Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders would give critics more ammunition to paint him as an extremist?
It’s one of the top theories among Democrats that the way to win back majorities in Congress is to move toward the center, maybe peel off some moderates or at least not freak them out so much that they vote Republican in 2018. Thompson doesn’t buy it.
He’s working with the other prevailing theory on how a Democrat should run in 2018.
“They’re going to call me a socialist anyway,” he said he told Ocasio-Cortez. “You might as well come out so we can all have a good time.”
Depending on whom you ask, Ocasio-Cortez is either going to save the Democratic Party or destroy it from the inside. She's the Pariah Messiah, loved and hated, feared and praised.
In late June, the 28-year-old from the Bronx beat Joseph Crowley from Queens, the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, and now stands to be the youngest woman elected to Congress. She had run as an outsider, unbeholden to “corporate interests,” the type of candidate as likely as Sanders to use the term “oligarch.”
She has endorsed primary opponents of sitting Democrats, discussed forming an extra-progressive “sub caucus” in the House, and won’t say whether she’d vote for a Nancy Pelosi speakership.
The moves have earned her a fair share of tsk-tsking from her peers. Pelosi played down the importance of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, pointing out the low voter turnout. “Meteors fizz out,” Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, a Democrat from Florida, told the Hill newspaper. Even her supporters had words of caution for her.
“I think you have to be bold,” Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive from California said in an interview. “That said, I do think to get anything done in politics requires building coalitions, building strong relationships. I think she should also focus on that.”
Former Democratic senator turned independent Joe Lieberman penned an article in the Wall Street Journal urging voters to stay away from Ocasio-Cortez, and Republicans, sensing a boogeywoman in the making, can’t get enough of her.
“She could help set up a really good contrast between the parties,” said former Republican senator and tea-party favorite Jim DeMint. “It could be a good thing.”
Of course, having the least-cool politician renounce her in the least-cool newspaper, and having Republicans harp on her for being too liberal is exactly what her supporters love about her. She’s shaking up a sleepy party. Would people be up for it in Kansas?
Sheila Hardman, a school lunchlady celebrating her 56th birthday, woke up early, put on her "Nasty Woman" T-shirt and got to Wichita's convention center by 6:45 a.m. The doors were still locked.
“The guy inside opened the door for me so I could wait in here,” she said. “He said, ‘You don’t look homeless.’ ”
Hardman had worried that if she didn’t arrive early enough, she might not get a good spot inside the 5,000-capacity auditorium. Now she was starting to worry that perhaps she had overestimated the excitement level for Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders.
“In Kansas, you spend so much of your time surrounded by conservatives, it can be hard to know how many of us are out here,” she said.
Soon she was joined by, in her words, a small clutch of “woke kids.”
“My own grandmother told everyone at the dinner table that if there were any Democrats, they’d have to leave,” Savana Sanders, 19, said, taking a seat on the floor. “I just sat there quietly eating my roast beef.”
“I would have walked right out of there,” said Joshua Moses, 26, peering up from a fantasy novel. “I would have literally taken the stance that if you can’t be a morally good person, I can’t associate with you.”
“Yeah,” said Sanders, “But you haven’t had her roast beef.”
The thought of spending a day surrounded by fellow progressives sounded even more delicious than grandma’s cooking, like their own slice of heaven. But what if it sounded like hell to all their neighbors? What if the crowds didn’t materialize?
For a while, the only other early bird was Ed Myers, a retired engineer who had no intention of getting in line or even seeing the show. He donned his “Make America Great Again” hat and “Socialism Sucks” shirt and held a sign encouraging people to head to Venezuela if they were so enamored with the ideology. “But don’t forget to bring your own toilet paper,” the sign said.
“It’s just going to be a bunch of kids out here who want to screw up the country,” Myers said about the rally.
He was wrong. As it got closer to the 1 p.m. start, the crowd came in droves. Vietnam veterans, ZZ Top look-alikes handing out anti-nuke literature, teachers in “I Heart Public School” shirts and grandmothers in “Brand New Congress” shirts.
“She’s refreshing, she’s exciting, and she’s a total star,” said Kandace Eaton, 58, clutching a handmade Ocasio-Cortez poster.
It’s the summer of 2018, Republicans control the White House and Congress, and Wichita felt like a Democratic hotbed in the middle of a presidential election. Five thousand people showed up, many of them wearing “Hindsight is 2020” shirts featuring Sanders’s face.
“And they said what we did in the Bronx, nobody would care about in Kansas,” Ocasio-Cortez said when she came on stage to an earsplitting ovation.
Ocasio-Cortez left any talk of ICE or impeaching Trump back in the Bronx. Instead, she took the crowd back to 1861, when Kansas was admitted into the Union, having chosen to be a free state.
“Kansas was founded in a struggle over the conscience of this nation,” she said. “It was in 1861 the people of Kansas decided we were going to be a free nation. That is the crucible and the soul of the state.”
She had only just entered the spotlight, and already the crowd was in a frenzy.
“Kansas has delivered before, and it will deliver again,” she said. “You are carrying the candle of hope for this country.”
“You are, too!” a man shouted from the audience.
Ocasio-Cortez made the case that people in Kansas really are no different than working people in the Bronx, Vermont or anywhere else.
She was followed by Sanders, who hammered the point home, his face beet red, his voice hoarse, and his hands bouncing around in front of him like he was operating an invisible switchboard, each button eliciting louder and louder cheering from the crowd.
This was the Sanders message, the one he has been delivering forever, most recently in places the media likes to call “Trump country”: Wherever there are working people struggling to get by, there’s a desire for affordable health care, for free college, for a higher minimum wage.
“Bernie Sanders won the caucuses in Kansas, so that message might help in a primary,” said the state’s junior Republican senator, Jerry Moran. “But it’s not going to turn the state blue.”
Sanders knows that criticism is out there, and he doesn’t care. Asked in an interview whether Ocasio-Cortez could be a liability for Democrats, Sanders swatted the question away with audible distaste.
“This is not my interest,” he said. “This is just inside-the-Beltway media gossip.”
And after the rally, Thompson couldn’t agree more. He had hundreds of newly registered voters, he said. He had donations pouring in. His daughter finally got to meet one of her old heroes and one of her newest ones.
He didn’t necessarily agree with everything Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders believe in, but he doesn’t think voters care as much about each individual issue as much as they want someone on their team, someone who fights for them.
Yes, more people were taking to social media to call him a socialist, he said. But with 5,000 roaring fans still in his ears, Thompson said he had a message for the haters.
“They can just shut their pie hole,” he said. “Because that was a good time.”