As she stood before a crowd of Democratic activists in suburban Maryland the other night, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrated a willingness to seize on a week of racially charged tumult to burnish her reputation as a pugnacious political voice.
The first-term Democrat from the Bronx said it has taken the United States more than two centuries to elect an outspoken group of minority women to Congress and that “we will not go back.” She did not refer directly to President Trump, who this week used Twitter to portray her — and three other first-term House Democrats — as unpatriotic leftists who should return to their countries of origin.
“It has taken us 240 years to have this unique composite in the Congress, in this moment, and we will not go back,” Ocasio-Cortez told the cheering crowd at the Silver Spring Civic Center on Thursday night. “We will not go back to the days of injustice. We will not go back; we will go forward. But we sure as hell will not stand still.”
The rally was a benefit for “Democracy Summer,” a program that Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) started more than a decade ago to train new generations of young Democrats. Raskin isn’t accustomed to drawing big crowds when he hosts fundraisers for the program. But after his office announced Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance last week, his phone began to ring endlessly.
Within hours, all 700 tickets were gone, and his office had to start a waiting list.
“Usually I’m the attraction, which tells you about our comparative popular appeal,” Raskin said before the rally. Referring to Ocasio-Cortez’s star power, he said, “She makes news when she gets a cup of water.”
Trump targeted Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — all women of color — this week on Twitter, in remarks to reporters and at a rally in North Carolina, accusing them of saying “hateful” things about the United States and suggesting that they “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Omar, a refugee from Somalia, is the only one born outside the country. She returned home Thursday to Minneapolis from Washington and was greeted at the airport by enthusiastic crowds. Ocasio-Cortez received a similar hero’s welcome at the civic center, in the heart of Raskin’s deep-blue district just outside the District.
“It has been a kind of crazy week, hasn’t it?” she said.
“America has always been the story of those fighting to advance the rights of others,” she continued. “And some, clinging to the past, to preserve the rights of a few.”
Hundreds of people stood in long security lines in the stifling heat to get a glimpse of the 29-year-old Democrat. A choir sang folk songs as they waited.
“She speaks very profoundly for the millennials my age coming from immigrant backgrounds,” said Samantha Labastida, 23, a child-care provider from Wheaton. “She’s the voice we have been yearning for.”
A few feet away, Tynan Jackson, 23, an Ohioan who is interning in Washington for the summer, said it’s Ocasio-Cortez’s background as a political neophyte that attracts him. “She’s an outsider like Trump, but with her it’s a positive,” he said. “She doesn’t have any money, she’s from the Bronx, and she canvassed in shoes that whittled to the sole. She’s genuine.”
But Jim Greenberg, a retired academic administrator who described himself as a pragmatist, said he worries that Ocasio-Cortez’s “bombastic” criticism of establishment Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.) would harm the party.
“It gives Trump and the Republicans ammunition,” he said. “She voices things at times that are not helpful to our side of the coin — the blue side.”
Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress in November when she won her seat representing a district that stretches from the Bronx to Queens. She had ousted 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary, a victory that was widely regarded as the most surprising upset in the 2018 midterm elections.
Since taking office, she has remained a political force, pressing a progressive platform that includes Medicare-for-all, free public college, and a “Green New Deal” to address climate change and economic inequality.
Ocasio-Cortez and her three colleagues, who are collectively known as “The Squad” on Capitol Hill, also have tangled with fellow Democrats, including Pelosi, who has portrayed them as marginal players in Washington.
Raskin — who works with Ocasio-Cortez as the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the House Oversight subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties — predicted when he introduced her Thursday night that she would be “one of the greatest members of the Congress of the 21st century.”
He described her victorious campaign as a “historic inspiration.”
When it was her turn, Ocasio-Cortez returned the favor, saying Raskin was the kind of lawmaker she was hoping to find when she reached Washington — “voraciously intellectual” and “able to quote Jefferson at the drop of a dime.”
She went on to describe the United States as rooted in dualities — “the good and bad, America is the hope and despair.”
After her remarks, she joined a chorus in singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” then elicited a few squeals from onlookers when she waved before slipping out a back door.
At the crowd departed, Paul Weidorn, 63, a high school teacher who lives in Severna Park, said he was impressed by her words and passion.
But he said that Ocasio-Cortez needs more than just heated rhetoric.
“It all sounds great, but how do you turn it into something that happens?” he asked. “When you get down to the nuts and bolts, how do you turn it into legislation?”
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest person ever elected to Congress. She is the youngest woman ever elected. The story has been updated.