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Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez brought a bit of her Bronx flair — and some political star power — to Honolulu as part of a rally Thursday for state Rep. Kaniela Ing, who’s running in a crowded primary field for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District.
A few hundred people filled the auditorium of the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind near Diamond Head for the event.
The larger-than-expected crowd spilled onto the playground, where Ocasio-Cortez surprised those gathered outside with a preview of the speech she gave inside.
“No matter what happens we are fighting for what’s right and this fight is eternal,” Ocasio-Cortez boomed as Ing stood next to her, reveling in the raucous applause.
Ocasio-Cortez, 28, is the newest star in the Democratic Party after unseating U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, of New York, a 10-term incumbent, in that state’s recent primary. She described him as out of touch with his district and a member of the political establishment in Washington.
Since then she’s been embraced by independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and has stumped across the country for like-minded politicians who have aligned themselves with the progressive values of the so-called democratic socialist movement.
Hawaii was just her latest stop, and a short one. She landed Thursday just hours before the rally and is scheduled to depart Friday.
Both Ocasio-Cortez and Ing were recruited by Justice Democrats, a group dedicated to issues such as a federal job guarantee, Medicare for all and taking corporate money out of politics.
“Out there in the Bronx we’re fighting for the exact same things we’re fighting for in Hawaii.” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
But Ocasio-Cortez’s support hasn’t necessarily translated into success at the ballot box. Several candidates she stumped for in Kansas, Missouri and Michigan lost in primaries this week. Others found success, however, including Rashida Tlaib, who won a close primary in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District.
Tlaib, who doesn’t face a serious Republican challenge in the general election, is expected to become the first Muslim woman to serve in Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez’s message at the rally focused on the struggles of working class people, something that would seem to resonate in Hawaii, where homelessness is rampant, affordable housing is scarce and the cost of living is among the highest in the nation.
“Out there in the Bronx we’re fighting for the exact same things we’re fighting for in Hawaii,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I know that we can’t get single-payer in the Bronx if we can’t get single-payer in Hawaii. We can’t get tuition-free public college for my nieces and nephews back home unless we get it out here in Hawaii.”
And while Ocasio-Cortez was clear that she was in the islands to support Ing, she sought to leave a deeper impression that those aligned with her hope will reshape the Democratic Party, especially as the left seeks to unseat Republican President Donald Trump in 2020.
“What we are doing here today is not just about an election,” Ocasio-Cortez said, referring to Saturday’s primary. “But it is about a moral prerogative that we have for future generations.”
Ing hit many of the same notes at the rally.
Like Ocasio-Cortez he’s hoping to beat the odds against a number of big names in Hawaii politics, including former Congressman Ed Case, Lt. Gov. Doug Chin, state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin and state Rep. Beth Fukumoto.
According to Civil Beat’s latest poll, Case was the clear front-runner with 34 percent percent of likely Democratic voters supporting him compared to Ing’s 6 percent.
Ocasio-Cortez faced a similarly steep climb in her race against Crowley, in which his polls showed him up 36 percent in the weeks leading up to the primary.
“In order for us to live dignified lives we have to have health care, we have to have education without debt for the rest of our lives,” Ing said. “We don’t have to see our best friends moving to the mainland. We don’t have to see our children moving away. We can have a livable climate.”
Ing would need to leverage more votes than Ocasio-Cortez did in the Bronx, where she won her primary against Crowley with 17,000 votes.
The last time there was a competitive race in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District was in 2014, when then-state Rep. Mark Takai received 52,736 votes in the seven-person Democratic primary.
In Hawaii, most elections are decided in the primary because the Republican Party is virtually non-existent and often fails to field legitimate candidates.
In June, he was fined $15,000 by the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission for a series of infractions dating back to 2011 when he first ran for state office.
The commission found that Ing failed to disclose $29,915 in contributions and $87,559 in expenditures. It also found he used his campaign funds to pay for personal expenses, including his rent and a credit card payment for his partner.
Although Ing says he’s accepted responsibility for the mistakes and apologized, he’s remained defiant. He’s questioned the timing of the fine, and contends it’s being used to undermine his campaign against the establishment.
In an interview with Civil Beat, Ocasio-Cortez said the infractions don’t affect her support for Ing, someone she endorsed immediately after beating Crowley.
Instead, she highlighted the many similarities between her and Ing, including the fact that their fathers died when they were children. She described his campaign spending violations as a “paperwork mistake.”
More concerning to her, she said, is that there are candidates in the race who are affiliated with corporations and lobbyists that “profit off the despair of working people.”
“When you look at what is coming out (about Ing) it is indicative of a working person running for office,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Some of the stories are about misfilings or a late reimbursement. But all things are ultimately remedied.”
Ocasio-Cortez said that while she’s not in Hawaii for long, she sees a lot of similarities between the state and Puerto Rico, where her mother is from. She mentioned the military bombing of Kahoolawe and compared it to a situation in Vieques, Puerto Rico, that sparked protests there.
“I really access this island from my Puerto Rican heritage because we are all descendents of colonized peoples,” she said. “And how that looks in 2018 is very similar in Hawaii as in Puerto Rico. The financial mechanisms of colonization are very much mirrored in both of these places.”
She pointed to luxury real estate developments that can drive up prices and push native populations to the brink or even force them to leave their homelands.
“Hawaii is a little different, of course, because it’s a state. It actually has representation,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “Puerto Rico is an example of what happens when we don’t have the self-determination that Hawaii has.”
Neal Milner, a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii, said it’s unlikely Ocasio-Cortez’s visit will change Ing’s fortunes in the congressional race. But he said she is probably looking at her visit as an opportunity to “rally the troops” in a place that’s often isolated from mainland political trends.
It was hard to ignore the many faded Bernie 2016 T-shirts and hats sported by those in the crowd mixed in with the newer political fare aligned with the growing democratic socialist movement.
“It’s in some ways an investment for a later time,” Milner said. “It’s as much about movement building for people like her as it is about anything else.”
Milner noted that progressive groups have struggled to gain traction in Hawaii, a place that’s often more conservative than its Democratic voting record suggests. Ocasio-Cortez, he said, could be a role model for young progressives here who are seeking to make a difference.
“She’s riding the crest of an amazing victory,” Milner said, “and so you do what you can.”
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