NEW YORK — Joseph Crowley has been working on his Spanish. Last week, as the fourth-ranking member of the House Democratic leadership crisscrossed his district, he peppered sentences with “de nada” and “gracias.”
He talked about how his own kids were learning Spanish in school. During a Spanish lesson at a Bronx senior center, he tried out a phrase: “Su apoyo para mi es muy importante.”
“Your support for me is very important,” the teacher translated.
Crowley, who has represented parts of the Bronx and Queens in Congress since 1999, has been easily reelected in the past by voters who do not always look like him. Just 45 percent of the 14th District’s residents are white; just 54 percent were born in the United States. This year, however, he and other veteran House members are facing Democratic challenges fueled by both changing demographics and the residue of intraparty feuds dating to the 2016 presidential campaign.
That has left the lawmaker, an Irish American who was once arrested at an immigration reform rally, practicing his Spanish and portraying himself as the only candidate who can take the fight right to President Trump.
In Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Crowley will face Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a 28-year-old activist whose campaign has less than one-tenth as much money as Crowley’s but is competitive in organization and hype.
“I think I’ll actually win the Latino vote in this district, quite frankly, because they know me,” Crowley said as a staff member drove him from the Pelham neighborhood of the Bronx to Corona, a Latino hub in Queens. He pointed to a famous local restaurant, Tortilleria Nixtamal.
“I can’t pronounce it. It has an ‘X’ in it.”
The Ocasio Cortez challenge to Crowley is one of four credible insurgencies against New York City’s Democratic House members. While each campaign is different, all feature newcomers casting veterans as too beholden to corporations or too representative of a mostly white district that no longer exists.
“Who has New York been changing for?” Ocasio Cortez asked in a campaign video that drew national attention. “It’s time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same; that a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, does not drink our water, does not breathe our air, cannot possibly represent us.”
●Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, who was first elected in 1992, is facing Suraj Patel, a 34-year-old hotel executive who argues that the wealthiest district in America needs “new blood.”
●Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, who won her Brooklyn seat in 2006, is being challenged by Adem Bunkeddeko, the Harvard University-educated son of Ugandan war refugees.
●Rep. Eliot L. Engel, who arrived in Washington at the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, has spent $1.3 million to fend off academic and businessman Jonathan Lewis — who entered the race only three months ago.
“If we’re going to beat Donald Trump, we need to be a better, purer, Democratic Party,” Lewis said in an interview after shaking hands with voters at a Bronx subway station.
If the veterans win and their party snatches control of the House in November, New Yorkers would control some of the House’s most powerful committees, including Appropriations, Foreign Affairs and Judiciary. Crowley, who turned 56 this year, is widely seen as a candidate for House speaker if swing-seat Democrats oust the 78-year-old Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).
But that potential matters little to the branch of the party upset since the Democratic primary challenge to Hillary Clinton by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
The state’s voter-registration laws, among the most restrictive in the country, required anyone wanting to pick a Democratic primary ballot to register with the party six months before the primary. Sanders supporters knocked on doors, organized rallies and found voter after voter excited about the campaign — and locked out of the primary, which Clinton won easily. The imbalance continues, they say.
“You would see a five-story building, full of people who voted for [Barack] Obama, and there’d be two or three registered Democrats,” said Ocasio Cortez as she knocked on doors in Pelham Bay. “You still see that.”
After Clinton’s November 2016 defeat, her allies shifted to the left, closer to the party’s activist base.
Crowley became the first member of the House Democratic leadership to endorse legislation that would transform Medicare into single-payer health care; Maloney revived her fight for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. And last week, both of them joined immigration protests outside of detention centers, with Crowley fainting in the heat of a rally in Washington.
That has not appeased the younger and more liberal candidates. On Sunday, Patel held a cookout at a Queens park, roaming from barbecue to barbecue to meet voters. A Maloney volunteer waited at the entrance of the park, handing out her literature and describing Maloney’s visit to a federal immigration facility that day. Patel rolled his eyes.
“She’s such a Johnny-come-lately on this,” he said, as he handed buttons reading “new blood” and fingernail decals decorated with a picture of his face. “I was the first candidate to call for the abolition of” Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Maloney has hit back at Patel by questioning his sincerity, attacking his 2016 residence in Indiana, where his family owns a hotel chain, and highlighting his use of general election donations to fund a flashy primary campaign. “He says he’s an NYU ethics professor, but he doesn’t seem to care about ethics,” she said.
But it had been a struggle, she said, to advertise the work done in Congress by Democrats who have not held a majority since 2011. In interviews last Monday, she rattled off the bills she had co-sponsored or passed, from the City Council to Congress. She had been elected in a swing seat, turned into a safe seat, and was now being told that a safe seat needed to go to someone younger and more brash.
“Before my credit card bill of rights passed, I couldn’t walk to the grocery store without people coming up to me and telling me about the abuse,” she said. “But it passed. And now they don’t come up to me.”
Engel and Clarke have been dismissive of their challengers. Engel’s mail pieces mocked Lewis’s claims of foreign policy experience and accused him of supporting Trump because he had given a lecture about the president’s media savvy.
“He talks about campaign finance reform while taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in PAC money,” responded Lewis, who has largely self-funded his campaign.
Clarke, who has not faced a serious challenge since winning her seat 12 years ago, used her one televised debate with Bunkeddeko to call him a climber with no real ties to the district.
“This is a young man who’s gone from job to job to job to job, looking to enhance his well-being,” Clarke said.
“I understand that Miss Clarke is upset that she has a competitive primary,” Bunkeddeko said.
“Upset? I’m laughing!” she shot back.
Bunkeddeko has tried to use the dismissals to his advantage. At a meet-and-greet last week in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, voters told him that they had never seen Clarke take a lead on their issues.
“Shouldn’t she be on local television, making the case against this horrible immigration policy?” Barbara Barron, 70, asked.
Visibility has not been a problem for the 6-foot-4 Crowley. Since the end of 2016, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus has stepped up his travel and media appearances. Last week, as he held forums on local infrastructure and immigration policy, Crowley was joined by Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a longtime friend who emphasized that the congressman had extensive experience on those issues.
Ocasio Cortez has asked voters to demand more than that.
In interviews, she notes that the majority-minority district has always been represented by white men. Crowley, who has spent $1.5 million on his primary campaign, had a ready rebuttal: As Queens party chairman, he had helped elect a bench of Asian Americans and Latinos.
Ocasio Cortez has never run for office before, but she has proved adept at outflanking Crowley in the media. While Crowley said that ICE had engaged in “fascist” tactics, Ocasio Cortez called for it to be abolished. When Crowley skipped a forum with the Pan-American Democratic Association in Queens, the club endorsed her.
“The only people who know who Joe Crowley is are machine insiders, Beltway insiders, and prolific fundraisers. When I tell people that Joe Crowley may be the next speaker of the House, they say: Joe, who?”
Some of the challenger’s attacks have misfired. She claimed that Crowley had not endorsed Medicare for all until she entered the race; the congressman had endorsed it one month earlier.
Crowley, however, has been careful not to dismiss Ocasio Cortez. In two forums, he assured voters that there was “little daylight” between them on issues. In both cases, he argued that a lawmaker who knew the ropes was in a better position to resist Trump.
“Calling for the elimination of ICE sounds great, but it doesn’t mean anything because as long as Jeff Sessions is the attorney general of the United States, as long as Donald Trump is the president of the United States, it’s meaningless,” he said. “They’re not going away. They’re not going away until they’re booted out of office.”