In the summer of 1998, Tom Manton of Queens shocked the city’s insular political world by announcing his retirement from Congress. Manton, then 65, had petitioned to get on the ballot and showed all signs of wanting to run for another term. Aging politicians in his shoes usually said publicly, much earlier in the primary process, that they weren’t running again and endorsed a favored successor. Even in machine-driven New York, this was how the game was played.
But Manton, the chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party, was a county leader par excellence. He wasn’t about to allow something like democracy to break out in his borough. By waiting so late to make his announcement, Manton ensured only one elected official could compete in the Democratic primary to replace him. Since petitions had already been circulated, a candidate needed to be picked by a committee within the Queens Democratic Party that, of course, Manton exercised absolute control over. The committee met secretly, not allowing other elected officials to submit their names for consideration.
By eleven o’clock on the morning of July 22, 36-year-old Joe Crowley, the newly minted Democratic nominee, was on his way to Congress. Politicians in Queens were aghast.
“Had I known about the meeting, I would have put my name in,” a Queens city councilman named Walter McCaffrey complained to the New York Times. “Having been one of the people who helped elect Tom, and having been his chief of staff, it is a disappointment.”
Manton didn’t care. Crowley, then an assemblyman, was his protégé, and he would eventually hand over the Queens Democratic machine to a man he treated like a son. When Manton died of cancer in 2006, Crowley became county leader. Not content to just rule the roost in Queens, Crowley climbed his party’s ranks in Washington. Today, he is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the fourth-highest ranking position in the Democratic leadership. He is whispered about as one potential successor to Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader.
Before Crowley can get on with his ladder climbing, he needs to do something somewhat unfamiliar: run a campaign. For the first time since at least 2004, he will be forced to compete in a primary in the overwhelmingly Democratic district spanning northern Queens and a chunk of the eastern Bronx. Since Republican victories are all but impossible, the primary is where the action is — and where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 27-year-old former organizer for the Bernie Sanders campaign, hopes to pull off her historic upset.
“What Joe Crowley represents is the floodgate between Wall Street and the United States government. He’s the clearing house, he takes millions and millions of dollars in funding from them,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Voice. “We see how he’s come to power locally — it’s totally undemocratic, machine-run, dynastic. He’s trying to spread this same model on the federal level.”
Ocasio-Cortez, attacking Crowley from the left, is just one of about a dozen candidates running on the slate of Brand New Congress, a political action committee founded by former Sanders staffers to elect more progressive members of Congress. She is the only member of Brand New Congress running from New York. A resident of the Bronx neighborhood of Parkchester, Ocasio-Cortez organized Sanders’s campaign in the South Bronx — Hillary Clinton, heavily favored in New York City, won the Bronx handily — and started thinking seriously about running for Congress after Donald Trump’s election. She learned quickly that people usually didn’t even contemplate running against Crowley, let alone start an actual campaign.
“A lot of progressive groups are coming out of the woodwork. They’ve been trying to find a challenger to Crowley for years,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “It’s literally political suicide for anyone with a semblance of a political career.”
While the Sanders wing of the party has derided much of the Democratic establishment as too beholden to the status quo, it’s hard to find a congressman more representative of that establishment than Crowley. The Blackstone Group is his second most prolific donor. Bank of America, Verizon, and Tishman Speyer, the powerful New York real estate developer, round out the top twenty. He was an unflinching Hillary Clinton ally. Like many in his party, he supported the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. (His campaign argues that his donor list aligns with that of many other liberal Democrats, including Pelosi.)
Ocasio-Cortez’s platform — built around campaign finance reform, renewable energy investment, and massive infrastructure spending amounting to a “new” New Deal — is short on local specifics, something Crowley’s campaign is happy to point out. Crowley’s own record in D.C., for the most part, is that of a conventional Democrat. He was a loyal supporter of Barack Obama’s agenda, for example.
Lauren French, a spokeswoman for Crowley’s campaign, argued the Queens boss has proven his progressive bona fides. “Joe has been a top supporter of Democrats for years — raising funds to boost Democrats into congressional seats, local office, and build state parties,” French said. “Joe has been instrumental in turning red seats blue, ensuring there are more votes at all levels of government for immigrant and LGBT rights, affordable health care, Wall Street regulation, and creating better, high-paying jobs for all.”
Where Ocasio-Cortez and others can find much greater fault is in Crowley’s backyard, where his county machine keeps a tight grip on power and enriches his bosom buddies at the expense of everyone else. The day-to-day operations of the Queens party have remained in the hands of a trio of Crowley- and Manton-aligned lawyers for three decades.
These men — Gerard Sweeney, Michael Reich, and Frank Bolz — have a law firm that has earned millions in Surrogate’s Court, where the estates of people who die without wills are processed, and from representing banks foreclosing on people’s homes. The judicial system in Queens is effectively under Crowley’s control, since no one becomes a judge or receives a court appointment without staying in the county organization’s good graces. A scandal cloud now looms: Scott Kaufman, Crowley’s campaign treasurer, is facing a state probe for possible violations of court rules regarding lucrative appointments he received.
It was the profit Sweeney, Reich, and Bolz made off the foreclosure crisis that particularly galled Ocasio-Cortez, who lost her father to cancer at a young age. “My mom was running a single-parent household,” she said. “She was cleaning homes, driving buses, and in the wake of the financial crisis and losing my father, we were on the brink of losing our home to foreclosure.”
Crowley’s spokeswoman didn’t offer any comment on the role Sweeney, Reich, and Bolz have played, or the probe into Kaufman.
“Joe is proud of his tenure as chairman of the Queens Democratic Party,” she said. “He has worked hard to promote and expand diversity on the bench and within the party.”