Ever since her surprising victory over former Rep. Joe Crowley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a force in the Democratic Party. A self-professed Democratic Socialist, Ocasio-Cortez has pulled her party left as she has trumpeted support for new taxes, the Green New Deal, and Medicare for All.
What some people don’t realize, however, is that Ocasio-Cortez may not have become the force she is without Justice Democrats, a far-left organization that is credited with recruiting her to run. The group is gearing up to become a bigger force in 2020 and has already announced intentions to primary incumbent Democrats. As Justice Democrats prepares to make a splash, here are four things you should know about them.
The Justice Democrats Origin Story
Cenk Uygur, the founder of the Young Turks video network, and two tech veterans of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, Saikat Chakrabarti and Zack Exley, formed Justice Democrats after the 2016 election. Disappointed with Democrats who had cast votes they deemed “unacceptable,” the group got together and began talking about ways to challenge Democrats from the left. Their goal: provide the infrastructure and resources for progressives who wanted to challenge “corporate” Democrats.
Justice Democrats is a federal political action committee, and they have a maximum contribution limit of $5,000. According to their website, the PAC uses donation money to hire its staff, run its communications, and promote its candidates and policies. The group says it is “fundamentally opposed to corporate influence in American elections and pay-to-play politics in any form” and therefore they do not accept anonymous donations.
Far-Left Policy Positions
In order to receive the backing of Justice Democrats, candidates are required to pledge not to take any corporate PAC or lobbying money, and are expected to support the group’s platform. So what, exactly, does the group stand for?
As one might expect, the group supports a litany of far-left policies. On the tax front, they have called for increasing the estate tax, implementing the Buffet rule, and tying the capital gains tax to the income tax. They want to implement Medicare for All and called for “the destruction of American health care [led] by rapacious, price gouging, for-profit, private health insurance middlemen.” They also support the Green New Deal and a federal jobs guarantee that “would provide a baseline minimum wage of $15 an hour and guarantee for public workers a basic benefits package, including healthcare and childcare.” The group has also gone so far as to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “a state-funded terror group that regularly violates basic human rights.”
Justice Democrats were not terribly effective in 2018; out of the 12 candidates it recruited to run, only Ocasio-Cortez won her election. Only 7 of the 78 candidates endorsed by the group won their election. Including Ocasio-Cortez, the group endorsed freshman Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and incumbent Reps. Ro Khanna (D-CA), Pramilia Jayapal (D-WA), and Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ).
Justice Democrats also were unsuccessful in primary races against incumbent Democrats, with Ocasio-Cortez again being the only successful candidate. They supported Marie Newman’s (D-IL) effort to unseat Rep. Dan Lipiniski (D-IL) in which she fell short by a couple thousand votes.
That being said, the group said it intends to spend more money on fewer candidates in 2020 and is working to build a larger infrastructure and a bigger fundraising arm. As of February 2019, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) is the only incumbent Democrat that Justice Democrats have publicly confirmed they aim to primary in 2020. There have been several other incumbents who have been floated as targets for the group, however. The names include Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-NY), Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), and Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA).
Justice Democrats have come under increased scrutiny due to some fishy financial maneuvering. The National Legal and Policy Center recently filed a complaint with the FEC against Ocasio-Cortez and Sikat Chakrabarti, her chief of staff and co-founder of Justice Democrats. The complaint alleges they violated campaign finance law by funneling nearly $1 million in contributions from PACs Chakrabarti established (including Justice Democrats) to companies he also controlled. The arrangement would have allowed Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign to receive donations in excess of the normal limit by pooling contributions to both the PAC and campaign. Ocasio-Cortez has denied violating any campaign laws and her spokesman maintains that the campaign had consulted an election lawyer and all the money was properly accounted for.
There also seems to be some hypocrisy between Justice Democrats’ stated mission and how they use the money they raise. The group’s stated mission is “to elect a new type of Democratic majority in Congress” and through the 2018 election cycle they raised over $2.7 million. It stands to reason that a group dedicated to electing people to Congress would spend money to do so. A closer look at the group’s financials, however, show that although they spent about $2.5 million through the cycle, only $62,033 actually went to a federal candidate (2.2%). Nearly $1 million was spent by Justice Democrats on salaries, wages & benefits and another $670,000 was spent on “campaign strategy & communications consulting.” While the group may have reasons for allocating their resources in such a way, the appearance of doing it, coupled with the recent allegations against the group, could spell trouble for Justice Democrats.