A year and a half ago, 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was serving food and drinks at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan. But then she defeated one of the most powerful politicians in the House in the Democratic primary and won herself a seat in Congress. Now, she's serving up questions for Cabinet Secretaries and CEOs during Congressional hearings and promoting policies that have been embraced by Democratic presidential candidates but also criticized within her own party. Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez is, like Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist. She supports universal healthcare, tuition-free public college, and massive government investment to combat climate change. She's been described as an inspiring insurgent and as an ill-informed newcomer, as the future of the Democratic party and as a potential obstacle to its success. As we first reported in January, few rookie members of Congress have put such bold ideas on the national agenda -- and stirred up so much controversy before they were sworn in.
Anderson Cooper: There are people that say that you don't understand how the game is played.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Mm-Hmm.
Anderson Cooper: Do you?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I think it's really great for people to keep thinking that. (LAUGHTER)
Anderson Cooper: You want folks to underestimate you?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Absolutely. That's how I won my primary. (LAUGHTER)
Winning that primary shocked the Democratic establishment, and in November, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
Just a few days later, as soon as she got to Washington, she paid a visit to climate change activists who were occupying her party leader Nancy Pelosi's office. She was the only newly elected member of Congress who decided to drop by during the sit-in, and she called on Pelosi to create a select committee on climate change without any members of Congress who accept money from the fossil fuel industry.
Anderson Cooper: Nancy Pelosi is incredibly powerful.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: She absolutely is. And—
Anderson Cooper: And you're occupying her office.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Oh my goodness, I could have thrown up that morning. (LAUGH) I was so nervous. But— I had also sat down with— with Leader Pelosi beforehand and she told me her story. She came from activism. And I knew that she would absolutely understand how advocacy can change the needle on really important issues.
Ocasio-Cortez and her allies managed to get more than 40 members of Congress to support the climate committee.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed to create it, but it's not nearly what Ocasio-Cortez had in mind. Pelosi granted the committee limited powers and did not ban members who take money from the fossil fuel industry.
"I think that it only has ever been radicals that have changed this country."
For Ocasio-Cortez, it was an early lesson in congressional politics. And another one came when she defied Pelosi and voted against the speaker's new House rules, but was not joined by many other progressive Democrats. Ocasio-Cortez told us she's determined to keep fighting for what's being called a "Green New Deal" — a highly ambitious, some would say "unrealistic," proposal that would convert the entire U.S. Economy to renewable sources of energy in just 12 years, while guaranteeing every American a job at a fair wage.
Anderson Cooper: You're talking about zero carbon emissions— no use of fossil fuels within 12 years.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: That is the goal. It's ambitious. And...
Anderson Cooper: How is that possible? Are you talking about everybody having to drive an electric car?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: It's going to require a lot of rapid change that we don't even conceive as possible right now. What is the problem with trying to push our technological capacities to the furthest extent possible?
Anderson Cooper: This would require, though, raising taxes.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: There's an element where— yeah. There— people are going to have to start paying their fair share in taxes.
Anderson Cooper: Do you have a specific on the tax rate?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: You know, it— you look at our tax rates back in the '60s and when you have a progressive tax rate system. Your tax rate, you know, let's say, from zero to $75,000 may be ten percent or 15 percent, et cetera. But once you get to, like, the tippy tops— on your 10 millionth dollar— sometimes you see tax rates as high as 60 or 70 percent. That doesn't mean all $10 million are taxed at an extremely high rate, but it means that as you climb up this ladder you should be contributing more.
Anderson Cooper: What you are talking about, just big picture, is a radical agenda — compared to the way politics is done right now.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Well, I think that it only has ever been radicals that have changed this country. Abraham Lincoln made the radical decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the radical decision to embark on establishing programs like Social Security.
Anderson Cooper: Do you call yourself a radical?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Yeah. You know, if that's what radical means, call me a radical.
She doesn't seem to be viewed as a radical by her constituents in "New York 14" – the racially diverse, liberal, and reliably Democratic congressional district that includes parts of Queens and the Bronx. Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx. Her parents had met in Puerto Rico. Her father owned a small architectural business. Her mother cleaned houses to help make ends meet. By the time she was ready for preschool, her parents had made a downpayment on a small house in the Westchester suburbs. It was 30 miles and a world away from her extended family still living in the bronx.
Anderson Cooper: What was it that— that brought your parents here?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Schools. Yeah. My—my mom wanted to make sure that I had— a solid chance and a solid education.
Anderson Cooper: Did you feel like you were living in two different worlds? 'Cause you were spending a lot of time in the Bronx with your family—
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Yeah.
Anderson Cooper: —and also here.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Yeah. And just growing up that way and with my cousins, who were all my age too, feeling like we all had kind of different opportunities, depending on where we were physically located.
She did well in school, and with the help of scholarships, loans and financial aid, attended Boston University. But in her sophomore year, her father died of cancer.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: We were really working on the classic American dream. And overnight it was all taken away. My mom was back to cleaning homes and driving school buses to keep a roof over our heads.
She moved back to the Bronx after graduating college and spent the next few years working as a community organizer and advocate for children's literacy. In May of 2017, the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her boyfriend became her makeshift campaign headquarters as she launched a seemingly improbable run for Congress. She was working as a waitress and bartender at the time. Like many members of her generation, she says, she had student loans to pay and no health insurance.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I really understood the frustration that working people had across the political spectrum. When anybody is saying, "The economy is going great. We are at record levels." There's a frustration that says, "Well, the economy's good for who?"
Anderson Cooper: I mean unemployment is at record lows.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I don't think that that tells the whole story. When you can't provide for your kids working a full-time job, working two full-time jobs. When you can't have healthcare. That is not — that is not dignified.
She built a grass-roots coalition that took on the Democratic machine by going door to door arguing that she could represent the district better than a ten-term incumbent who spent most of his time in Washington.
Her victory made national news, and she soon had a higher media profile than many veteran lawmakers. Some saw in her primary victory a craving for change within the Democratic Party. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi drew a more limited conclusion:
Nancy Pelosi at press conference: They made a choice in one district, so let's not get yourself carried away
But President Trump rarely missed a chance to suggest that all Democrats were socialists who'd lead the country to ruin.
President Trump at rally in Nevada: Venezuela, Venezuela how does that sound? You like Venezuela?
Anderson Cooper: When people hear the word socialism, they think Soviet Union, Cuba, Venezuela. Is that what you have in mind?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Of course (LAUGH) not. What we have in mind— and what of my— and my policies most closely re— resemble what we see in the U.K., in Norway, in Finland, in Sweden.
Anderson Cooper: How are you going to pay for all of this?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: No one asks how we're gonna pay for this Space Force. No one asked how we paid for a $2 trillion tax cut. We only ask how we pay for it on issues of housing, healthcare and education. How do we pay for it? With the same exact mechanisms that we pay for military increases for this Space Force. For all of these— ambitious policies.
Anderson Cooper: There are Democrats, obviously, who are worried about your affect on the party. Democratic Senator Chris Coons, said about left-leaning Democrats, "If the next two years is just a race to offer increasingly unrealistic proposals, it'll be difficult for us to make a credible case we should be allowed to govern again."
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: What makes it unrealistic?
Anderson Cooper: How to pay for it.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: We pay more per capita in health care and education for lower outcomes than many other nations. And so for me, what's unrealistic is— is what we're living in right now.
Since the election, some conservative media outlets have focused on Ocasio-Cortez with an intensity unusual for a rookie member of Congress.
"The president certainly didn't invent racism. But he's certainly given a voice to it and expanded it and created a platform for those things."
She's been accused of being dishonest about the true cost of her proposals and the tax burden they would impose on the middle class. She's also been criticized for making factual mistakes.
Anderson Cooper: One of the criticisms of you is that— that your math is fuzzy. The Washington Post recently awarded you four Pinocchios—
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Oh my goodness—
Anderson Cooper: —for misstating some statistics about Pentagon spending?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: If people want to really blow up one figure here or one word there, I would argue that they're missing the forest for the trees. I think that there's a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.
Anderson Cooper: But being factually correct is important—
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: It's absolutely important. And whenever I make a mistake. I say, "Okay, this was clumsy." and then I restate what my point was. But it's— it's not the same thing as— as the president lying about immigrants. It's not the same thing, at all.
Anderson Cooper: You don't talk about President Trump very much.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: No.
Anderson Cooper: Why?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: No. Because I think he's a symptom of a problem.
Anderson Cooper: What do you mean?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The president certainly didn't invent racism. But he's certainly given a voice to it and expanded it and created a platform for those things.
Anderson Cooper: Do you believe President Trump is a racist?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Yeah. Yeah. No question.
Anderson Cooper: How can you say that?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: (CHUCKLE) When you look at the words that he uses, which are historic dog whistles of white supremacy. When you look at how he reacted to the Charlottesville incident, where neo-Nazis murdered a woman, versus how he manufactures crises like immigrants seeking legal refuge on our borders, it's— it's night and day.
In response, the deputy White House press secretary said, "Cong. Ocasio-Cortez's sheer ignorance on the matter can't cover the fact that President Trump supported and passed historic criminal justice reform…" and "... has repeatedly condemned racism and bigotry in all forms."
One of the few things Ocasio-Cortez has in common with the president is an active and often combative presence on social media. When a conservative writer tweeted this photo of her, saying, "That jacket and coat don't look like a girl who struggles," she called him out for what she said was "misogyny."
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Would you be taking a creep shot of Steny Hoyer's behind and sharing it around? Why is there more comfort in doing that to me than there is in doing it to— any other member of Congress?
Eliminating the influence of corporate money in politics is another one of Ocasio-Cortez's signature issues. Most of her campaign funds came from small donations of $200 or less. She did accept some money from labor unions, but she refuses to take any contributions from corporate political action committees. She's angered some of her colleagues in the House by encouraging primary challenges of Democrats who accept corporate money or oppose progressive policies.
Anderson Cooper: These are politically dangerous tactics that you're using...
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Yeah—
Anderson Cooper: You've heard that?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Yeah.
Anderson Cooper: Do you believe it?
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: It's absolutely risky. it requires risk to try something new, but also we— we know so much of— of what we've tried in the past hasn't worked, either.
Since our story first aired, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez was given seats on two influential committees - Financial Services, and Oversight. Republicans have called her proposal for a Green New Deal unrealistic and potentially ruinous to the economy. But the leading Democratic Presidential candidates have said they support the idea, though they differ on some of the details.
Produced by Andy Court and Evie Salomon