Jim Costa’s Primary Concern

July 3, 2019

By Kevin Hall

FRESNO-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old political wunderkind who introduced the Green New Deal congressional resolution earlier this year, made a telling candidate endorsement in late May.

The Democratic Socialist from Queens, who a year ago successfully primaried long-time incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, announced she is backing a fellow progressive Latina. Like Ocasio-Cortez, she comes from humble beginnings, has a plan for bold, transformative change and must overcome a Democratic Party machine bent on preserving the status quo.

The candidate is Tiffany Cabán. She’s queer, a public defender, and she’s running for district attorney in Queens, N.Y. Far from Fresno, she nevertheless can be safely looked upon as a role model for other candidates seeking Ocasio-Cortez’s backing or that of the progressive organizations that were key to her success.

“Rep. Ocasio-Cortez won her election not just because she campaigned without corporate money, but because she explained the reason why corporations and lobbyists poison our society as a whole.” Emily Cameron, Democratic Socialists of America-Fresno

Should Cabán win, for example, her local equivalent would be Fresno County D.A. Lisa Smittcamp, but their agendas couldn’t be further apart.

“Public defenders on the front lines have always known that our system is racist. It is classist. It is one that creates two systems of justice, one for the wealthy, and one for the poor.” Clearly not Smittcamp speaking, that was Cabán talking to Jeremy Scahill in a recent interview on The Intercept podcast. She continues, “[I]nstead of punishing for the sake of punishing…we are going to strive to make sure that we are stabilizing communities. We’re de-carcerating.”

A Democratic Socialist like Ocasio-Cortez, Cabán’s description of her candidacy captures the political nature of the wave of reform coming from the Democratic Party’s most progressive quarter. The movement is fueled by a realistic assessment of climate change and a clear-minded grasp of the urgency and scale of the response required.

“What I represent is really centering the experiences of our community members, the folks that have been most directly impacted by our justice system. This is about building a movement where we are empowering communities,” Cabán explains. “And it’s not just the folks that have typically been in office, in power, making decisions that have continued to harm the same communities that continue to be oppressed and marginalized.”

Cabán has pledged to not prosecute homelessness, sex work, or recreational drug use, and when prosecution is warranted, she’ll ensure people convicted of crimes also receive treatment.

Hers is a progressive agenda.

Memorable Memorial Day

Cabán, of course, goes into much greater detail and her backstory is inspirational. Like Ocasio-Cortez, though, she enters electoral politics for the first time, with no big money backers, just an awesome ground game of volunteers willing to knock on doors and talk to voters. She also hopes to repeat AOC’s success in one other way: raising millions from small money donors from around the nation.

This is how progressives are successfully breaking through entrenched power systems controlled by large campaign contributors, big name endorsements, and the Democratic party’s candidate hierarchy. As depicted in the recent Netflix documentary Knock Down The House, a pair of offshoots from the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, pioneered the effort. They began with a very careful candidate nomination and screening process. AOC was nominated by her brother.

The groups’ backing in the form of campaign consulting and online fundraising successfully united with AOC’s relentless campaigning, skills she developed as a volunteer with the Sanders presidential campaign in 2016, for her 2018 upset victory of the 20-year incumbent Crowley.

Hope for challenger Esmeralda Soria? After years of support, in 2018 the California Labor Federation took a position of “no endorsement” in Costa’s reelection campaign. His most recent Labor Rating from the AFL-CIO was 71%, well below the House Democratic average of 94%. (Screenshot from aflcio.org)

So, many local Democrats were pleased to read about a meeting this June in Washington, D.C., between Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Fresno city council members Esmeralda Soria and Miguel Arias. They presented the congresswoman with a Grizzlies baseball jersey and an apology for the Memorial Day video incident at the city-owned stadium in which AOC was slandered as an “enemy of freedom.”


Rumors were already afloat from Republicans online and between delegates at the Democratic state party convention in May that Soria was talking about an AOC-like primary run against fellow Democrat Jim Costa for his congressional seat in the 16th district. So it was awkward smiles all-round as Costa and Rep. T.J. Cox joined Soria, Arias, and Ocasio-Cortez for the ritual photo op. It featured a presentation of the jersey and the council pair’s politically tone deaf yet classic Fresno apology, which did not come with a vote of the entire council.

For the political pairing of Soria and Arias, their hastily scheduled city, taxpayer-funded jaunt to D.C. was to lobby on water issues, they explained, but it appeared to be centered on meeting Ocasio-Cortez. It came across as a clumsy attempt to build, if not a political alliance with the congresswoman, then at least a news cycle’s worth of pictures and articles for future campaign materials and fundraising. As for an endorsement or D.C.-powered progressive backing, even from 3,000 miles away it’s hard to imagine Soria being viewed as a progressive of Cabán’s caliber.

“Progressivism is not a hat one can wear when it’s in style,” points out Emily Cameron, Treasurer of the Democratic Socialists of America Fresno Chapter. “If Soria wants progressives to support her, she needs to explain why she’s taken so much from corporations, lobbyists, and rich politicians, and promise not to accept these types of contributions anymore. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez won her election not just because she campaigned without corporate money, but because she explained the reason why corporations and lobbyists poison our society as a whole.”

Green Wave

There is another wave of Democratic victories coming in the 2020 election. This time it’s green, as in a Green New Deal. There will never be a better opportunity to dislodge climate action-delaying, business-centric, deregulation Democrats like Costa. People across the country will be looking to fund insurgent Democrats, particularly those with a strong progressive agenda. But Soria, a second-term city councilwoman, would have to run on her record as a moderate, a space fully occupied by the incumbent Costa.

The open space is climate change. Climate crisis voters are the fastest growing, youngest, most activated block of single-issue voters in the electorate. Their influence within the Democratic Party is expected to quickly surpass that of anti-abortion forces within the Republican Party. Ironically, the climate voters are trying to save all life on Earth.

There is one further parallel with the Ocasio-Cortez v. Crowley race. In both cases the incumbent is a comfortable, old white guy descended from an earlier wave of immigrants. For Crowley it was the Irish in New York and for Costa the Azorean Portuguese in the San Joaquin Valley. Their parents and grandparents no doubt knew hardship and sacrifice, but those lessons have apparently been forgotten by their now politically powerful progeny.

Meanwhile, their constituency has changed; voter registration in Costa’s district, for example, is now 45% Latino. The class differences in Queens described by Cabán have their equivalent here in the large farmers and farmworker towns. Like Crowley, Costa might find it difficult to convince these marginalized voters that he represents them well. Would they turn out to vote for an AOC-level progressive?

A new generation of political leaders who know firsthand our society’s hardships is needed now, but change for the sake of change isn’t good enough. Much more is needed, according to Ocasio-Cortez, speaking in May to a D.C. audience about the climate crisis and Green New Deal:

“I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act then are going to try to come back today and say we need to find a middle-of-the-road approach to save our lives.”

In other words, moderates need not apply.



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