(Photo illustration by Jandos Rothstein)
The newest members of the Squad, in their own words
JANUARY 25, 2021 (prospect.org)
One of the most consequential developments in the last two years of Democratic politics started on Instagram. Shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) posted a photo of herself at a new-member orientation seated alongside fellow freshwomen Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), with a caption: “Squad.” A new locus of Democratic politics, a shorthand for a youthful left-wing electoral force, and a fresh archenemy of the Republican Party was born.
Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley were not a fully formed progressive phalanx before arriving in D.C. They ran on different priorities and won their elections in different ways. Pressley and AOC dispatched old white machine incumbents with decades of seniority in the Northeast; Tlaib and Omar triumphed in contested primaries for open seats in the Midwest. But they were all young women of color, who had campaigned on progressive issues and brought with them a fearlessness and a proximity to movement activism that wasn’t common in Democratic politics, even among progressives.
One month later, that tendency was on display when AOC joined a peaceful sit-in in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, demanding bold movement on climate. The Speaker was not amused. “AOC and her group,” Pelosi later told 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl, is “like, five people.” AOC’s response: “All right, let’s go get more.”
Now, just over two years later, reinforcements have arrived. With the election of Missouri’s Cori Bush, New York’s Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones, and Illinois’s Marie Newman, all progressives with activist ties who either felled moderate incumbents or pushed them into retirement, the 117th Congress’s freshman class features four more Democrats with a similar mission as the Squad. All four ran on Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and a $15-per-hour minimum wage. Bush and Bowman are members of the Democratic Socialists of America.
While the original Squad entered with a wave of new Democrats, many of them moderates, and swept into an undisciplined Congressional Progressive Caucus, this year’s freshmen supplement that progressive bloc, with a reformed and more militant CPC. After several moderates lost re-election, progressives now make up a larger percentage of a party with a razor-thin House majority. As it stands now, just five courageous progressives can derail any unfavorable Democratic proposal. The CPC is now the largest and most powerful caucus within the party, sporting 94 members in total.
Still, progressive legislation remains a difficult climb, for various reasons. Speaker Pelosi maintains control of the Chamber with a historically unilateral grip. Just as five progressives can stop legislation in the House, so can five of the surviving moderate Democrats. A surprising Senate majority will give Democrats a shot at real legislative advances, but a 50-50 Senate (including intransigent Democratic centrists like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin) is likely to frustrate the big-ticket policy commitments these reps ran on. And progressive voters, after two years of optimism, are getting antsy, and want to see some results, which has resulted in some ill-gotten factionalism and a confounding push for a Medicare for All floor vote.
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This means that these new reps, like the Squad before them, will have to find ways to fulfill their goals, with different tactics and approaches as politicians than they had as campaigners. They will have to work with, against, and around both Democrats and Republicans. And they’ll each showcase specific niches and styles and issue priorities. (For example, as progressive operatives on the Hill will tell you, Rep. Omar is much more into the inside game and working within party channels, while Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is much more disposed to outside-facing strategy.) Whether they’re the new Squad or new additions to the current one remains a subject of debate: They’ll likely vote as a bloc, but won’t act as a monolith, as the past two years have shown us.
In interviews with the Prospect, all four members laid out their vision for politics, the Democratic Party, and their top policy ambitions, like Medicare for All, democracy and police reforms, and the Green New Deal. They outlined how they plan to go about making the change progressives so desperately want. Already, they’ve made their presence felt. On January 6, just three days after they were sworn in, Cori Bush authored a resolution to expel Republicans who abetted the Capitol Riot and tried to invalidate the election result; it was co-sponsored by Jones, Newman, and Bowman in short order. The articles of impeachment for a lame-duck President Trump, drawn up by Omar, were co-sponsored by all the other Squad members, old and new. After initial indifference, the House took up impeachment within days.
LESLIE ADKINS/AP PHOTO
Marie Newman ran as a close ally of movement politics, and overcame a DCCC-endorsed incumbent.
Newman won election in Illinois’s Third District, defeating incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski, one of the most conservative and staunch anti-choice representatives in the Democratic caucus. Newman’s background is different from the rest of her cohort—she’s older than the average Squad member, and white. But she ran as a close ally of movement politics, elevated by progressive groups in her victory. As an anti-bullying and gun control advocate, Newman has experience with activism as well. She’s the vice chair of communications for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and will serve on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Congressional Labor Caucus, House Democratic Manufacturing Working Group, as well as the House Small Business Committee.
TAP: What do you make of these calls for bipartisanship when much of the Republican Party still refuses to acknowledge Joe Biden even won the election?
MN: While it is a good thing when we can have bipartisanship, it doesn’t mean that the solutions that we come to as a Democratic Party, and the majority, are less so because they are not bipartisan. I think pundits and the media sometimes think the only good solutions are bipartisan solutions … We have to understand that we have to do what’s best for the American people and what the American people want. Sometimes you have to do it when you’re in the majority and it’s what people want, it’s what the American people want by far. So for me [bipartisanship] is a nice-to-have, certainly if we can have it that’s great. But we don’t want to sacrifice what Americans want and need because it has to be bipartisan. To me it’s the wrong question.
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TAP: After observing some of these committee fights within the party, there seems to be hostility from moderates toward progressives, at least in terms of elevating them to powerful or leadership roles. How does that strike you?
MN: I’ve talked to 60 or 70 members within every part of the party, and I’ve not seen anything like open hostility. I know that’s a popular thing that we’re all at each other’s throats. I’m experiencing good policy debates and questions, figuring out how we can get the next bill done, how are we going to get to Medicare for All, really big questions like that. We have a new DCCC chair, we have new committee chairs, I think there’s going to be further hearty debate. It doesn’t mean that we don’t respect one another; it also doesn’t mean we are in agreement on a myriad of things. We’re going to debate, that’s a part of this thing.
TAP: The Congressional Progressive Caucus has undergone some significant internal reforms. You took a leadership position within the caucus, and the new CPC seems like it could be more formidable as a voting bloc. What do you make of those changes?
MN: Well, I think it brings more unity and more clarity. I think it will provide a situation where the CPC is the largest and most powerful caucus within the party. We will have more say and more power.
TAP: There’s this debate now about where to go strategy-wise. The Force the Vote calls come to mind, in particular. Where do you think we go strategy-wise as progressives?
MN: I like strategies that work. I know there’s noise out there and I don’t understand that strategy, it’s articulated by folks who have never spent a day in Congress. I love the spirit and the passion, I’m with them on spirit and passion and desire for that legislation. It’s not like we’re sitting on our hands. We do have a plan to bring a Medicare for All bill to the floor. We’re working on it. We’re not going to let our cards be seen yet. But are we going to work really hard on Medicare for All? 100 percent. Are we going to get it to the floor? 100 percent. We have to bring Medicare for All to the floor in a responsible and powerful way that has good strategy. That’s the one I’m backing. I’m not backing a super-risky, throw-the-dice crapshoot model.
TAP: Throughout the past two election cycles, progressives have shown that primary challenges are a good pressure point for making change within the Democratic Party. You’re a perfect example of that, as someone who challenged a machine Democrat and beat him. Where are the other pressure points?
MN: We have a grassroots infrastructure in this nation of progressive groups and advocacy groups and, quite frankly, super-practically powered policies like a green economy and health care for all. Everything that Americans want. Good policies that are practical and proven. Every time we’ve gotten out of a recession we’ve invested in people, transportation, and infrastructure. We’re going to do that again. We’re going to make those things greener. That makes sense because the planet is dying and we only have ten years.
We have to have health care for all. The pandemic shined a huge light on the issue that our health care system is continually breaking down and people are dying as a result. For the first time, our life expectancy has gone down by several years. Seventy percent of the nation backs Medicare for All and the ideas in the Green New Deal that would make our economy greener, and solve transportation problems. We get a two-fer when we do that.
TAP: How do you balance working inside the Chamber with that outside work of appealing to the grassroots?
MN: Everybody has to manage their district and support their district. I would never ever tell somebody how to parent, right? You should always represent the district the way the district wants to be represented. What I know about my district is that they want the end of the pandemic, to be safe and healthy, they want health care for all, they want an economy that is sustainable with good union jobs, they want to go back to work. It’s real simple for me. If I build policies that support all those goals for my district, which really is a microcosm of the country, that is my inside and outside.
TAP: How would you describe the incoming group of freshmen progressives and where they fit within the larger Squad framework?
MN: Those women who are referred to as the Squad are folks who I agree with an awful lot and I intend on supporting them in all their endeavors. And then the talk of this extended Squad brand: I like all of those folks too, and I just met them and I just love them. I don’t think it’s necessary to brand each other; I think what is necessary is that progressives stay in a cohesive strategy where we are all fighting hard for these super-practical solutions. I’m not in middle school, I don’t need to be in a clique or not in a clique, but I love all my colleagues and I think they’re all going to do a spectacular job.
LAURIE SKRIVAN/AP PHOTO
Cori Bush, a former nurse and mother of two, was once homeless.
St. Louis, MO
Bush took down a ten-term incumbent, William Lacy Clay, whose father held the seat for 32 years before him. Bush’s activist background is perhaps the most robust of any member of the House, as a Black Lives Matter organizer in Ferguson. A former nurse and a mother of two, Bush was once homeless, and arrives in the Capitol with a reputation for fearlessness. She was the first member to introduce a resolution to expel Republican members who attempted to overturn the election result on just her third day in Congress. She’s a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and will serve as deputy whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
TAP: Given how difficult it is to get legislation through, what do you envision being the most effective method to get stuff done?
CB: Two things. First, I am proud to be able to serve as deputy whip of our Congressional Progressive Caucus. We just made meaningful reforms to ensure that we can move as a more unified voting bloc and that is going to be significant in my eyes. And just being in greater partnership with grassroots movements, groups I’ve been working with, some of whom for a long time. Having both of those groups to stand alongside, to help in this work and to work together, we are going to be able, I believe, to lead the charge for transformational change in our communities. I believe we will be able to use that in Congress.
TAP: How do you balance that inside and outside game?
CB: I’m walking in the door as a “politicist.” I’m not taking off my activist hat in order to do this work. I will be the activist and the politician. As an activist, we apply pressure. We are diligent, we’re persistent in our message, we advocate. That’s what we do. And the other side of that is being a politician who also has the power of the pen. Connecting the two of those. What I’ve been able to do this far is bring my lived experience to the table and make sure that people that may not have understood why we are pushing for certain things get to hear the lived experience of somebody who has not only gone through those things but is vulnerable enough to speak to those things and use that to inform legislation. We put all that together and we can see some change.
TAP: You’ve already been active using the bully pulpit, writing for Time magazine about abolishing the death penalty, going on CNN to advocate $2,000 checks. What’s your theory on using those popular channels?
CB: Ferguson taught me if you don’t keep your narrative someone else will shape it. And when someone else shapes your narrative you lose ground, you lose power. So many families have lost loved ones to police violence. The empathy that the community could hold for their loved ones is snatched away before it can ever start, simply because of the narrative that goes out first. We learned that through Ferguson. Now I’ve decided, because I have a bit of a platform that whatever I feel needs to be said, to make sure we are giving a true voice to the people who need their voices heard, that’s what I’m going to do.
TAP: Does this new freshman-class Squad differ from the original Squad?
CB: We just added to the Squad, of course. There just became more of us. I don’t think we have a different style at all; I think we’re next. We’re the additions to the people that are already there. We are already functioning as one group. Even though they’ve been in Congress the last two years, because we’ve been doing similar work, we’re already able to start to work as one now. There is no separation. There are no two Squads or anything.
TAP: What are progressives to make of the bipartisanship that Joe Biden preaches? How do progressives engage with Republicans?
CB: There has to be some bipartisanship. I feel like I learned a very important lesson a few years ago when I ran for the U.S. Senate. I went into some areas where I was told I could not go. I went anyway. I stood before tanks in Ferguson and ran from bullets and dogs. You can’t scare me that easily. I showed up in this one particular place, the only Black people in the room were the ones that came with me. It was a very contentious environment. But by the time I finished my speech I had a standing ovation. I realized in that moment it was about exposure. It’s about speaking to each other and listening to one another. They said, we’d never seen a Black person before, all we know about Black people is what we’ve seen on TV, all the murderers and thugs.
Even a few weeks ago when we had our orientation and I had the Breonna Taylor mask on, and my Republican colleagues were like, “Hi Breonna.” They may not have known who she was at that moment. But you better believe they know who she is now. No one has called me Breonna Taylor since that morning. But they know who she is and now they even know why we’re fighting. We have to be our authentic selves, genuine in our message. And I think that if we do that and we find that common ground and we are able to work together. I don’t care about my reputation or what people think about me. I care about getting people what they need, so I’m willing to make that happen.
TAP: What do you do to work around hostility from moderate Democrats?
CB: If there is anger or division within the party I can’t say, because I did see people [who are] part of the CPC put on exclusive committee seats. I have been warmly welcomed. I will say I did not expect such a warm welcome from everyone. Even where there’s disagreement, we may disagree on an issue, we’re still able to break bread and have phone conversations. When we talk about how the Squad is treated, that could be better. When we talk about defunding the police or when we talk about Medicare for All, there could be better treatment of people who believe in those policies. And I believe that we can continue to work on that. But as far as being a progressive, I’ve been treated very well.
MARK LENNIHAN/AP PHOTO
Bowman won election over a 16-term incumbent, one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the House.
New York, NY
Bowman won election in New York’s 16th District over 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel, one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the House. A former educator and middle school principal, Bowman is a father of three who was born and raised in New York. He loves the Wu-Tang Clan and (sorry) the Knicks. Less than a week after being sworn in, Bowman drew up a bill to create a commission investigating law enforcement’s role in the January insurrection attempt. He sits on the Education and Labor Committee and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
TAP: Even though Democrats now control all three chambers of government, House Democrats, in particular, didn’t fare so well on election night, and the House majority is extremely small. Many suggested that progressive messaging was to blame. Do you feel like voters rebuked progressive policies or values?
JB: No I don’t. When you run for office you have to respond to the needs of your constituents. If your constituents feel you’re responding to their needs and you’re running an effective, strategic, and comprehensive—and that’s a key word there, comprehensive—campaign, then you should be fine in terms of your re-election. I’m sorry to hear that many Democrats lost their seats and we don’t want that to happen, but the knee-jerk emotional blame game is not where we need to be right now as a party. We need to diagnose and dissect how we lost and make adjustments going forward.
TAP: How should Democrats be running going forward?
JB: I know what was very helpful to us: tripling voter turnout, and tripling turnout amongst young people and people of color. Prior to the pandemic we went door-to-door, once the pandemic numbers were dramatically decreased we went door-to-door. We were also engaging consistently on social media, via Zoom, we had phone-banking strategy, text-banking strategy, all of the above. What I learned in my race is you have to put multiple touches on voters, and you have to be authentic, and people have to feel you from a relational perspective, not a transactional perspective. That’s how we won our race. That’s how my colleagues won their races.
In terms of the issues: Issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal don’t just resonate in our district, they resonate across the country and people who ran on those things won.
TAP: With the committee assignments you have for the upcoming session, where will your priorities lie and where do you see opportunities to get things done quickly?
JB: For me, Education and Labor are huge, because of my experience as a union member my entire adult life and being raised by a union member. My mother was a postal worker. Understanding the need to grow organized labor and unions in our country is critical. Understanding the need to share wealth between CEOs, managers, and labor is critical. And completely transforming our education system in a way that really meets the needs of all children is key.
TAP: You’re also on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It seems like under President Biden infrastructure spending appeals to all parts of the Democratic Party.
JB: Many parts of my district have transportation deserts, where people can’t get from one part of the district to the other, or people have two-hour commutes to and from work, which dramatically decreases their quality of life. And we have sewage leaking into the Long Island Sound; the same thing is happening in Yonkers into the Hudson River. We have a failing infrastructure and we have transportation issues that are paramount in our district. And then finally we need to really invest federally and rebuild the MTA here in New York City and upgrade infrastructure across the country. We need to become clean and green and renewable and that needs to happen right now.
TAP: You’re a member of the reformed CPC—are there any other caucuses you’re interested in?
JB: I may be looking to start my own caucus, either a reparations caucus or a hip-hop caucus, or both. People see hip-hop as only party music. It’s a cultural phenomenon that we need to really unpack and have a better understanding of. Reparations obviously goes without explanation. For us to really respond and reckon with our racist history as a nation and the impact it’s still having on us today. We need reparations for the Black community.
TAP: Given the composition of the Congress, there aren’t likely going to be many opportunities to legislate. What do you hope to see passed?
JB: We need a stimulus package. That stimulus package needs to bring relief to cities and states and needs to make sure we’re protecting people from eviction through an eviction blockade. And put money in people’s pockets. Our argument has always been $2,000 a month as well as $600 a week unemployment insurance for those who have lost jobs. But people need a reprieve, man. We’re struggling mightily and we need to inject as many resources as possible into the pockets of individuals as well as cities and states.
After that it’s the same things that I ran on and the same things that the people in this district have mandated me to go to Washington and fight for. Affordable housing, fully funding our public schools, universal health care, jobs and job training programs. And because the parts of my district that suffer the most are Black and brown, the umbrella term that captures that all is reparations. That’s what I’m going to fight for as a first, second, third, fourth, fifth, tenth thing.
TAP: Do you have a theory of how you intend to use the bully pulpit, or to use nontraditional channels to political ends?
JB: It’s what I’ve been doing since we won our primary. There’s a legislative agenda, and legislative action, and then there’s advocacy. The advocacy part is something that helps to engage the public and sway public opinion. And the advocacy part is something I’m more accustomed to because it’s what I’ve been doing as an education activist through my career. So yes, that’s something I have been doing and will continue to do. Because the advocacy works better in alignment with the movements that are happening across the country also. We’re going to aim to do both very effectively.
TAP: What’s the blueprint for Democrats to win consistently going forward?
JB: I think the blueprint is being bottom-up, not top-down. I think the blueprint is listening to people in your district who don’t vote consistently and asking them why don’t they vote consistently. What is wrong with the current representation and how can we do better? When a teacher is planning a lesson, they always think about the child who struggles to gather the content. And then they think about ways to be adaptive to meet the needs of that child, and in being adaptive they become a better teacher for all children.
That’s what I think the DCCC has done for far too long. It’s been a top-down strategy driven by corporate interests, and corporate interests aren’t the end-all be-all. It isn’t everything. Just because the wealthy elite have been able to build wealth doesn’t mean they’re the authority we should listen to and allow our political system to be guided by.
Mondaire Jones, along with fellow New Yorker Ritchie Torres, became the first openly gay Black congressman to win election.
Jones won election in the 17th District of New York, an open seat vacated by retiring Rep. Nita Lowey. A lawyer in the Obama Justice Department, Jones, along with fellow New Yorker Ritchie Torres, became the first openly gay Black congressman to win election. A vocal advocate of democracy and judicial reform, Jones made waves by filing and winning a suit in August against President Trump and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to reverse recent changes made to the United States Postal Service that undermined the agency’s ability to deliver mail-in ballots. He sits on the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, the Education and Labor Committee, and the House Judiciary Committee, and is deputy whip of the CPC.
TAP: You’re entering into a Congress where legislation is extremely difficult to accomplish. With that in mind, how do you envision being an effective legislator in the upcoming session?
MJ: I’m going to be a progressive leader in the U.S. Congress who works strategically and effectively to deliver real lasting progressive change for the American people, including, most importantly, for the folks in Westchester and Rockland County who I will be representing. That means working with my colleagues from across the political spectrum, including progressive moderates and conservative Democrats with whom I actually think there is significant common ground.
TAP: What will your focuses be upon arriving in the Chamber?
MJ: I have been so focused on court and judicial reform. I was in fact focused on that even before the tragic passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And so I have really been a champion for democracy reforms. I want to strengthen H.R. 1, I want to make it less susceptible to being struck down by the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. And I want to do things like make Election Day a national holiday. We have to work to lay the foundation for progressive legislation to endure the test of time. That means giving people across this country the unfettered right to vote.
TAP: You’ve been vocal about expanding the Court, as well as other procedural and process reforms. How far should structural reforms go? Do you support statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico?
MJ: I am in support of D.C. statehood and I want to make sure that we follow the lead of the great people of Puerto Rico when it comes to determining whether or not they should have statehood or some other status that might be less formal than statehood. That’s an ongoing conversation in the caucus. You’ve got Alexandria [Ocasio-Cortez] and Nydia [Velazquez] on one side of that and Ritchie Torres and his predecessor José Serrano on the other. I’m watching and learning. And really interested in this issue.
TAP: Obviously filibuster reform is a Senate issue, but I’m assuming you’re on the side of that as well.
MJ: I view it as an issue for the House of Representatives because if we’re going to do Court expansion, which we must in order to save our democracy and to ensure the survival of any of the big-ticket items Joe Biden has been running on, then we have to do the commonsense work of Court expansion.
TAP: What do you see as the top legislative priorities for Democrats?
MJ: My top priorities are passing COVID-19 relief, and democracy reforms. To ensure that we don’t ever have to worry about losing the House of Representatives again. Because when everybody in this country is allowed to exercise their fundamental right to vote, Democrats win elections consistently. And that way the progressive legislation that working people in this country need and deserve is able to remain intact. And thirdly, frankly, for the folks in my district especially and throughout New York state, it is restoring the SALT deduction. Middle-class families were crushed in Westchester and Rockland Counties when that was capped at $10,000. We pay the highest property taxes in the entire nation in Westchester and Rockland. (Note: Restoring the state and local tax deduction, which allows tax filers to deduct all their state and local taxes from their federal tax bill, is more of a priority for Democrats in high-wealth, high-tax districts. Its benefits would overwhelmingly redound to the wealthy.)
MJ: I think what we’ve seen with the freshman class before us is that newer members of Congress can be thought leaders in their own way. Alexandria on the question of the climate crisis. Ayanna [Pressley] on the question of criminal legal system reform. For me it will be the issue of democracy reforms. I want everyone to start paying closer attention to that. We have a Supreme Court now that has veto power over democracy itself. Even Justice Roberts has joined in consistently undermining the rules of our electoral systems to further entrench Republican power.
TAP: How do you move the party from where it is currently to where it needs to go?
MJ: I’m grateful that the party is already shifting in a progressive direction. There has never been a moment in modern history when there has been more of a desire from the American people for the government to intervene and to help solve their problems. We see that leftward drift in Joe Biden’s climate proposal, which is by far the most ambitious climate proposal of any major-party candidate for the presidency in history. I think that people both running for president and who have been in Congress for a long time are prepared to meet the moment and yes, they may need some encouragement from folks like myself, but I am confident that we’ll get there.
TAP: One place where that leftward drift seems less obvious is the health care question. There’s a bloc that backs Medicare for All, Joe Biden has supported the public option, and House leadership has focused just on expanding the ACA. How do you think progressives should intervene there?
MJ: Imagine debating the merits of a public option versus Medicare for All when there is a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court that will strike down the Affordable Care Act. So I push back on the idea that that’s going to be the nature of the fight.
TAP: Is there anyone in the Squad or the greater progressive caucus whose approach you want to emulate?
MJ: I’ve been grateful to be mentored already by so many incredible members of the Democratic caucus, including people who are not part of the Squad like Pramila Jayapal and David Cicilline. So I’m just looking forward to being mentored by everybody and by carving my own lane in the U.S. Congress.
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