Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Liuba Grechen Shirley stand up and defy expectations

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled one of the city's biggest powerbrokers. It's a sign that new candidates are gaining traction in local races.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled one of the city’s biggest powerbrokers. It’s a sign that new candidates are gaining traction in local races. Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

It was not a good night for some incumbents, institutional Democrats, party bosses or conventional wisdom in New York.

Rep. Joe Crowley, the Queens Democratic leader and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, lost in a shocker to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old former organizer for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Such an upset, by a first-time candidate to a nearly 20-year incumbent in an NYC Democratic primary, hasn’t happened in decades.

Ocasio-Cortez toppled 56-year-old Crowley — one of the city’s biggest powerbrokers — with a leftist message that included calls to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and other issues that connected with younger and more progressive members of the changing district.

In another bastion of incumbency and party bosses — New York’s 2nd Congressional District on Long Island — another upstart, Liuba Grechen Shirley, an activist and consultant, defeated Suffolk County Legislature Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory in a Democratic primary.

Gregory, 49, is a solid Democrat who lost to Rep. Peter King, the Republican titan who represents the district, by more than 20 points in 2016, but still had the backing of the local party chair. Two years ago, Grechen Shirley, 37, was just getting involved with politics, as the organizer of a resistance-style group, New York’s 2nd District Democrats. Now, she’s fought her way inside the political process.

The ghosts of 2016 were visible Tuesday afternoon at Grechen Shirley’s campaign office in Massapequa, where a printout of a Hillary Clinton tweet cheering on the candidate was plastered to a refrigerator. Giddy over her first time facing the voters, Grechen Shirley munched French fries and talked about memorizing a speech and wearing a white outfit later that night when the results came in. She ended up clutching a printout during her victory speech after 10 p.m., but she stuck with white, which happened to be what Clinton wore when she won the Democratic presidential nomination.

But the apparent resonance of 2016 Tuesday night was even more that a frustrated Democratic electorate, tired both of Trump and Democratic Party politics as usual, ended up shocking some incumbents in New York. Grechen Shirley tangled with the political establishment on Long Island from the beginning — Suffolk County Democratic Party boss Rich Schaffer supported her opponent and then some, and even the Working Families Party, typical home of activists and organizers, went with her opponent. She ruffled feathers about some elements of party politics as usual.

If there’s an early message to be gained from the wins of the two newcomers (and the better-than-expected performances of others), it is that new candidates are gaining traction partially for being new, and local parties may have to re-evaluate their relationships with voters.

In a Bay Shore bar bursting with patrons to the point that people were overflowing from open, first-floor windows, Grechen Shirley said she hadn’t had time to process Ocasio-Cortez’s win, but she was excited to see the “grassroots” standing up. That might be, for one night at least, one of the more warranted uses of that much-tortured term.