EXCLUSIVE: AOC rallies supporters in the South Bronx ahead of June primary

Photo courtesy Corey Topie for the Ocasio-Cortez campaign

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), one of the world’s most prominent political figures who was born to a Parkchester family, rallied at least 100 supporters and volunteers on Sunday, May 19, at the Bronx Brewery’s location on East 136th Street. The Bronx Times was given exclusive access to the event and spoke with AOC following the rally.

The group gathered ahead of a neighborhood door-knocking mission to prepare voters for the June 15 primary election, in which Ocasio-Cortez faces a challenger — Marty Dolan — for the first time since 2020.

While Dolan, a retired Wall Street insurance executive, has never held public office and has only about $20,000 in his mostly self-funded campaign coffers, it bears remembering that Ocasio-Cortez was once a newbie herself — a waitress and bartender who shocked the political system when she defeated incumbent Joe Crowley in the 2018 primary. 

While waiting to hear from Ocasio-Cortez and other speakers, supporters gathered on the brewery production floor to sip craft beers, eat empanadas and mingle with Latin music in the background. Numerous campaign posters hung on the brewing tanks, walls and canning equipment. 

The crowd included people of all ages — from toddlers, to teens to seniors — many of whom immediately put on the purple campaign T-shirts handed out by staffers. 

Photo Emily Swanson

The rally came as Ocasio-Cortez just announced federal funding requests for 15 projects throughout her district, including $10 million in accessibility upgrades for the Parkchester and Westchester Square train stations; $4 million for replacement of water pipes made of lead throughout the district; and $5 million for bus stop safety improvements on Southern Boulevard. 

One of those attending the May 19 event was Pedro Perez, a member of DC 37, the city’s largest union of public sector employees. Perez became emotional while talking with the Bronx Times about Ocasio-Cortez’s impact in his life. 

Perez said he first met her at the Parkchester train station about six years ago and that her campaign inspired him to take on leadership roles within the union. 

“It solidified my resolve to do something to impact my community,” he said, wiping a tear from his eye. “She showed me things are possible.”

Photo Emily Swanson

‘You have to be present’

Ocasio-Cortez will face Dolan in the primary race for the 14th Congressional District, which includes about 700,000 residents of several neighborhoods of the East and South Bronx, as well as Astoria, East Elmhurst and other Queens neighborhoods. 

Perez said he has not seen Dolan out canvassing or received any campaign literature. “You have to be present” if you want to win over Bronxites, Perez said.

Two more Ocasio-Cortez supporters attending the rally — even though they cannot legally vote — were Jason Langer and Heidi Meyer, both from Australia and living in the United States on visas. 

Meyer, a professor of public health at Mercy University’s Bronx campus, said she especially supports Ocasio-Cortez’s push for universal Medicare. Coming from Australia — a country with universal health care and low-cost higher education — has given Meyer a perspective on what it means to live without those advantages, she said.

She pointed to “how much better society could be at all levels” if there was a more equal starting line — and she feels Ocasio-Cortez is working to lessen such disparities. 

Meyer said she also agrees with Ocasio-Cortez on low-cost or free college tuition. Since higher education costs in Australia come out of the taxation system, Meyer said she owed only about $20,000 for both her master’s and doctoral degrees.

Langer said electeds like Ocasio-Cortez could help adopt these kinds of policies in the United States. “You don’t have to turn the country on its head” to make changes that would benefit everyone, he said. 

He added he loves living in the U.S. and admires the country’s success — but wonders how much further it could advance if Ocasio-Cortez’s policies were enacted. 

Photo Emily Swanson

‘Flaws and all’

In a fiery speech on the brewery floor, Ocasio-Cortez said she remains dedicated to fighting the “greed and bigotry” that have “infected” the Bronx when it comes to developmentand to ending conflicts around the world — especially in Gaza — in order to free up money for investments back home.

Ocasio-Cortez reflected on her Bronx roots, being born into a Puerto Rican immigrant family with a one-bedroom apartment in Parkchester. Though the family later moved out of the city, her Bronx beginnings remain central to her work as a lawmaker, she said. 

“I can’t do this and not be me,” said Ocasio-Cortez, “flaws and all.”

While Dolan has accused her of ignoring constituents in pursuit of celebrity status, Ocasio- Cortez said, “I will never walk away from this community.”

She spoke to the broader political climate in saying she wants her platform to “reinvigorate” what it means to be a Democrat — which has to mean more than just anti-Republican, she said. 

Those tensions will likely run high on Thursday, May 23, when former President Donald Trump is expected to hold a campaign rally in the South Bronx. Assembly Member Amanda Septimo, who spoke at the May 19 event in support of her congressional counterpart, is at least one elected official planning a counter-rally.

But Trump chose to visit the Bronx “for a reason,” said Ocasio-Cortez — and not just because he can’t travel far with his ongoing hush money trial in Manhattan, she jabbed.

“He thinks he can scoop up men of color into his scam,” she said. “We will not be played.” 

Many Bronxites may be fed up with politics in general, Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged — but voter turnout in the Bronx, which tends to lag behind other boroughs, is “a symptom of something deeper,” she said. 

Given a history of disinvestment in the borough, according to Ocasio-Cortez, many feel a low sense of self-worth and a lack of trust in the political system. 

But those listening, cheering and sipping beer were fully engaged. As volunteers prepared to knock on nearby doors on the warm and sunny day, Ocasio-Cortez encouraged them to make their own stories part of the conversation. 

She repeated the phrase “We matter” and told the crowd she would not settle when it comes to getting Bronxites everything they deserve.

“We’re coming for it all,” she said. “We’re here to dominate.”

Assembly Member Amanda Septimo, a Hunts Point native, said, “The only thing we’re looking for is for people who will stand up and represent us.” Photo Emily Swanson

‘Of course he doesn’t know who we are’

In an interview with the Bronx Times following the rally, Ocasio-Cortez said that housing is a top concern for residents of the Bronx — but any solutions must come with an understanding of history.

As the city seeks to drastically increase housing construction through initiatives such as City of Yes for Housing Opportunity, which is starting the public review process, Ocasio-Cortez said the borough faces an “important tipping point.” 

She said she advocates for housing that will not recreate past problems of displacement and gentrification in the borough. Instead, Ocasio-Cortez said developers must build “housing that’s actually designed with Bronxites in mind.”

Ocasio-Cortez also brushed off any threat from Dolan. In his assertion that most Bronxites are not concerned with international and political issues, Ocasio-Cortez said she senses an “inherent classism and racism … that imply that people in the Bronx don’t know better.”

Ocasio-Cortez said that national and international issues such as the war in Gaza do “distill themselves into local issues” — and Bronxites understand that resources spent on conflicts abroad “are taken directly out of their pockets,” she said. 

Her campaign, Ocasio-Cortez said, is about “fighting for the Bronx and making sure that we really assert ourselves” — and she characterized Dolan as someone unfit to do so.  

His platform is “profoundly offensive and very indicative … of an investment banker millionaire running out of Dobbs Ferry,” she said. “Of course he doesn’t know who we are.”

While Dolan’s address first filed with the Board of Elections was in Dobbs Ferry, he has said on the record that he relocated to the Bronx and is also looking for a place in Queens.

Although both candidates are running as Democrats, there are significant differences in their platforms. 

For one, Dolan has linked immigration to increased crime and decreased quality of life in the city, despite a lack of concrete evidence. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez has said that immigrants have been “villainized” and she joined with other lawmakers to appeal to President Biden for immigrants to be able to work legally. On immigration and other issues, Dolan has repeatedly referred to Ocasio-Cortez as a “radical.”

For voters hoping to hear the candidates square off in a spicy debate — perhaps akin to Ocasio-Cortez’s recent heated exchange with U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia —  it appears they will go unsatisfied. 

A May 9 email from the Dolan campaign contained the subject line, “AOC refuses to debate me.”  

“It’s been over two weeks since I formally challenged AOC to a debate and she has still yet to respond,” the email said. 

In response, Ocasio-Cortez told the Bronx Times, “I don’t see dignifying him with one.”

“I truly don’t see how an investment banker from Dobbs Ferry can represent the Bronx better than I can,” she said. “He can’t.”

Reach Emily Swanson at eswanson@schnepsmedia.com or (646) 717-0015. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes