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AOC endorses candidates for City Council. Sort of.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks in front of 60 candidates endorsed by her PAC, Courage to Change, on June 5.
Photo by Ben Brachfeld

US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Saturday backed 60 candidates for City Council, including 19 in Brooklyn, but in some of the races where her support could matter most, her stamp of approval is functionally useless.

That’s because, in Council Districts 33, 35, and 39, Ocasio-Cortez listed multiple candidates without ranking them, meaning no hopeful could say they, alone were backed by the prominent progressive pol.

Those three districts have open-seat races this year where the left-wing vote will likely be a strong factor, and where the backing of Ocasio-Cortez could feasibly have pushed a candidate over the edge.

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Ocasio-Cortez unveiled her citywide slate at a June 5 event at City Hall park where she also endorsed Maya Wiley for mayor. All of the candidates, who stood on risers behind the lectern, had received perfect scores on a questionnaire sent out by Ocasio-Cortez’s political action committee, Courage to Change.

This meant that, those 60 candidates who “took the pledge,” were not necessarily endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez, but rather were given a stamp of approval by her PAC.

“60 candidates across New York City,” she said. “What we’re doing is we’re advancing and making sure that we are coming together as a movement because that’s what ranked-choice voting will allow us to do.”

The questionnaire asked candidates to take a number of pledges, such as to not to take money from real estate developers or fossil fuel companies, to vote for funding increases of $100 million for mass transit improvements, $50 million for new bike lanes, $50 million for NYCHA, and $50 million for improved school infrastructure, to defund the NYPD, and to oppose proposals to “privatize” NYCHA like RAD and the NYCHA Blueprint. The questionnaire also included a pledge to refrain from negative campaigning.

Despite it not being a formal endorsement, in many races only one candidate received a perfect score, meaning their inclusion was effectively a recommendation by Ocasio-Cortez’s PAC. In Brooklyn that list included Jennifer Gutierrez in District 34, Chi Ossé in District 36, Sandy Nurse in District 37, Rita Joseph in District 40, Wilfredo Florentino in District 42, and Anthony Beckford in District 45.

In District 33, perfect scores were attained by Elizabeth Adams, Victoria Cambranes, Stu Sherman, and Lincoln Restler. In District 35, Michael Hollingsworth and Crystal Hudson got the nod. And in District 39, Courage to Change backed Shahana Hanif, Brandon West, Justin Krebs, and Briget Rein.

In districts where multiple candidates are listed but not ranked, Ocasio-Cortez said to rank them all at the top at the City Hall event. “If you are blessed enough to have more than one candidate to make 27 policy commitments, put all of them at the top of your list,” she said, despite the city’s FAQ on ranked-choice saying this would spoil the ballot.

Brooklyn Paper spoke to several of the candidates or their staff, most of whom requested anonymity. Some said the endorsement was effectively defanged in districts where multiple people got the nod.

“I don’t think it’s a distinguishing thing since multiple candidates got the seal of approval,” said one candidate. “I think it will mostly be confusing to voters as candidates misrepresent the congresswoman’s endorsement.”

A staffer for another campaign said that they were cognizant of the possibility that multiple candidates could receive the backing when they applied, but that more could have been done to inform candidates that the approval was not an endorsement.

“I wish maybe some of the communication had been, possibly, over-communicated to people,” the staffer said. “Some people put up the badge, but some people are putting her face all over everything.”

“When filling out the endorsement application, it did say that this would be the first step in a process where they would then look at each application and see if we get the endorsement,” said a staffer on another campaign. “And candidates who get endorsed by Courage to Change would then be endorsed by the congresswoman herself. But the way it looks, the endorsement by the PAC and the congresswoman are very blurred.”

Nonetheless, some candidates in races with multiple picks said that the backing by Ocasio-Cortez’s PAC could spur voters to do deeper research into candidates ahead of the June 22 primary.

“I think what AOC said on Saturday was that these 60 candidates are the candidates that I’m encouraging people to rank,” said Hudson of District 35. “With this endorsement, she’s probably hoping that people will visit the websites, do some research, look into the candidates, and select who they think is best for the job.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s PAC did make one ranked endorsement in Brooklyn. In District 38, which covers Sunset Park, Red Hook, and parts of Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, and Dyker Heights, candidate Alexa Avilés got the first rank, followed by Rodrigo Camarena and then Jacqui Painter.

A spokesperson for Avilés was unsure why the distinction was made.

“We found out we were ranked number 1 through the website,” the spokesperson said. “But we’re really excited to have that ranking.”

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez directed Brooklyn Paper to Courage to Change’s website, which notes that the PAC made ranked endorsements in “select districts” based on “significant support from allied movement organizations such as Sunrise Movement, Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Road to Justice, and New York Communities for Change.”

District 33 includes Greenpoint, Brooklyn Heights, Downtown Brooklyn, DUMBO, Boerum Hill, and parts of Williamsburg and Downtown Brooklyn; District 35 includes Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, and parts of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy; District 39 includes Park Slope, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, and parts of Windsor Terrace, Borough Park, and Kensington.

Update, June 9, 2021

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez released new, “personal” endorsements for City Council on Wednesday, June 9, separate from those candidates who gained the support of her PAC. In Brooklyn, she endorsed Jennifer Gutierrez in District 34, Sandy Nurse in District 37, and Alexa Avilés in District 38.

In District 39, Ocasio-Cortez is backing both Shahana Hanif and Brandon West in a “co-endorsement,” and “encourages voters to rank both candidates as their first and second choice.”

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