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Joseph Crowley heads to the ramparts to defend his district

Rep. Joseph Crowley needs to show that he can satisfy the Democrats' progressive wing.

Rep. Joseph Crowley films a TV commercial in

Rep. Joseph Crowley films a TV commercial in Jackson Heights, Queens, on May 5. Crowley represents parts of Queens and the Bronx. Credit: Newsday / Sam Guzik

Rep. Joseph Crowley is making sure the ladder doesn’t get pulled out from under him at home as he climbs the leadership rungs in Congress.

Crowley, who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a potential successor to Rep. Nancy Pelosi. He’s a member of Congress since 1999 who suddenly is spending heavily to defeat his first primary challenger in at least 10 years, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive backed by New York’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and People for Bernie.

Ocasio-Cortez, a community organizer, declared her candidacy in May 2017 and has raised just over $115,000 for her grass-roots campaign, according to her March filing with the Federal Election Commission. Crowley spent nearly 15 times as much: $1.7 million from January 2017 through March 2018. That doesn’t include the full-color, glossy mailers dropped in the last few weeks or a TV commercial (filming was seen by The Point earlier this month in Jackson Heights). Crowley still has more than $1.5 million and has tremendous name recognition in the district.

So what’s going on? It all comes back to Crowley’s leadership position: He is fourth in line to the throne.

Crowley is considered likely to make a move for party leadership in the chamber if and when Pelosi steps down, regardless of whether Democrats take control of the House this fall. To do so, he needs to demonstrate that he can satisfy the party’s progressive wing — running up the score in a primary challenge could help make that case. A good showing by Ocasio-Cortez, who claims that Crowley is just another professional pol who has lost touch with his district, would reveal a vulnerability for a future leader.

Crowley’s prominence is another reason he can rake in so much cash. More than 40 percent of his campaign funds raised this cycle comes from political action committees representing corporations and interest groups. All of Ocasio-Cortez’s funds were from individuals, with almost all the contributions less than $200.

Although he’s facing Ocasio-Cortez in the primary, Crowley’s commercial makes his real enemy clear. It opens, “With Donald Trump in the White House, Americans are worried about our country.” Just like his war chest, the ad is an opening salvo in his campaign to lead Democrats in the battle against Trump.

This post originally appeared in The Point, the editorial board's daily newsletter about New York politics and policy. Subscribe below.

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