Drinking whiskey on ice with the next wave of lawmakers determined to disrupt the status quo in Washington
Summer Lee, a Democratic congressional candidate running for a Pittsburgh-area seat, stirred the straw in her ice water as she let her remark hang in a basement bar in Washington’s Logan Circle neighborhood on the last Tuesday in July. She surveyed two fellow soon-to-be House progressives across our hightop: Greg Casar, running to serve a deep-blue gerrymandered strip between Austin and San Antonio, and Delia Ramirez, a candidate for a similarly safe western Chicago seat, who exchanged furtive looks as they clutched their whiskeys on ice.
I had actually asked whether there were any current federal lawmakers who they might emulate when they enter the House next year. Only Casar ventured an answer: He’d just met Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and deemed her both “brave” and “brilliant.” Details like those answered the query Lee posed. Casar had even posted a photograph of the trio after they’d first met in person the previous day. “Triple threat, coming to DC on Jan. 3!” read the caption. (Not quite the same ring as “Squad,” but a start.)
All three progressives at the table emerged from primaries to fill open House seats in places where Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rank among voters’ favorite politicians. All are candidates of color (Lee is Black; Casar and Ramirez are Latino), in their thirties, and hail from working-class backgrounds. They all ran on platforms befitting their district’s political stars, often with the aid of the same political organizations that ushered AOC into office. And, barring unprecedented political circumstances, all will be seated as members of Congress next January.
The trio agreed to meet me after attending a daylong conference about building progressive power, a subject mirrored in the conversations happening among themselves as they prepared for the coming House term. “What must we do together to move the needle in a place that’s anything but welcoming to what we are?” Ramirez says of their task. “What we are,” she clarifies, is “a threat to the status quo.”
As they gain political power, House progressives have been on the receiving end of a backlash — primarily in reaction to their demands for police reform — from party moderates, who are already seeking to deflect blame for anticipated Democratic losses this November. If midterm election forecasts are to be trusted, these likely lawmakers will begin their congressional careers in the minority party, from which they’ll seek to move the needle on the party’s agenda, rather than laws that advance it. But together in Washington for the first time since their primary victories, these newest prospective members of the House’s left flank are un-jaded, undaunted, and maybe even a bit emboldened by the inhospitable conditions that await them. “Coming in together means it’s going to be a lot harder to isolate us,” says Lee.
To these progressives, the modest progress of the Biden administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress has been a major disappointment. Casar lamented recent tragedies in his home state of Texas — the Uvalde elementary school massacre and the death of 50 migrants in the back of an 18-wheeler — as well as the imposition of one of the strictest abortion bans in the country. “We went from being five blocks to an abortion clinic to 550 miles away from one,” he says. Casar sees each as a federal failure, to meaningfully champion gun control, immigration reform, and reproductive rights, respectively. “At the core of all of this is just the federal government not having done enough,” he says.
Lee believes frustration at the stalemate in Washington keyed the primary wins of the politicians at the table. “We’re here today because of decisions [Democrats] did not make before, because of times when we were in power and squandered it,” she explains. “Our [party’s] messaging too often is a little bit of gaslighting — that what you’re experiencing is not actually what’s happening” she adds. “That’s what makes us the targets, because we’re the ones validating those voters and their understanding of what’s actually happening.”
Targets indeed, though Lee’s reasoning may not wholly explain it. Conversation at the hightop inevitably turns to “the elephant in the room,” as Lee puts it: The historic amount of money that has been spent in Democratic House primaries this year, mostly, against progressive candidates. It’s a scale of money usually reserved for tight general election races.“We can’t be the party of ‘End Citizens United’ and also be the party of, ‘As long as I like the target, I will allow this,’” quips Lee, who had a spectacular $4 million spent against her in the final weeks of the campaign.
That money was often used to make their primaries a referendum on the Squad. “They wanted me, and people like me, to feel ashamed” of allies like Ocasio-Cortez and Omar “instead of proud of them,” Lee says. Then there’s the casual racism: Casar’s opponents circulated seven rounds of mailers that conspicuously darkened his face. The trio sees the onslaught not as an indictment of their movement, but rather as their foes’ desperation. “There’s no backlash unless you’re winning,” Casar says, “unless they’re worried about something.”
What is certain is that Congress’ left flank will swell to double digits come January, a proportion they’re eager to lean on to exercise influence. “You can try to marginalize four or six or eight,” Casar reasons, “but once it’s 15 or 20 or more, you’re talking about a significant block of votes and an outsized presence of folks that speak up.” There’s something plucky about their anticipation of defying Democratic House leadership, a move few in their caucus currently attempt, fearing the retribution that almost always attends it.
This new class of progressives are more in the model of Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) — who served on Boston city council before her House run — than Ocasio-Cortez, who had been working as a bartender before she won her House seat. They come with experience as both organizers and elected officials, having performed public service in antagonistic spaces: Casar’s Austin city council chafed under GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, Republicans have controlled the Pennsylvania state House for as long as Lee has served, and Ramirez went up against the Chicago Democratic machine that didn’t want her in Springfield.
“Building a coalition within those spaces has equipped us to build upon that in Congress,” Ramirez explains. “Figuring out how we build a movement and inspire people, whether we’re in the majority trying to buck leadership, or in a minority trying to inspire who the Democratic Party should be, that’s where we’re coming from,” Casar adds.
As our glasses reach empty, Lee does answer my question about which lawmakers inspire her. “I’ve never had a mentor,” she says, almost ruefully. “But I think about all the other candidates like us who come from working class backgrounds, who have had to navigate this in a different way. How can I just make sure that the next person doesn’t come up this way?”
“That should be different for you here,” Casar interjects. Lee shrugs. “My hope is that it should be different for us, right?” Casar says, looking around the table, searching his colleague’s eyes for assurance. “I guess we’ll see. We have some folks here.”