AOC hasn’t endorsed a 2020 candidate but Bernie Sanders could get a boost by partnering with her

WASHINGTON – Rachel Epitropakis is a huge fan of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and her Green New Deal. 

Bernie Sanders? Not so much she says.

But as Epitropakis stood in line to hear the congresswoman address a climate change rally at Howard University Monday, the 29-year-old bartender from Baltimore County, Maryland, said Sanders’ presence at the event makes it likelier she’d consider supporting the independent Vermont senator for president next year.

“He’s here today,” said Epitropakis, clutching a glittery, hand-made ‘We love you AOC,’ sign. “And that means something to me.”

Sanders’ support for wealth distribution, Medicare-for-all and other “Democratic socialist” positions line up well with the party’s energized, far-left flank. But he’s had to battle the perception that, as a white male approaching 80, Democratic voters are ready to get behind someone who’s a better demographic fit for the party.

Teaming up with Ocasio-Cortez, 29, appears to give him some juice among younger minority voters, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., responds to a crowd at Howard University Monday who gathered to cheer her Green New Deal. (Photo: Ledyard King, USA TODAY)

“Sanders path to (the nomination) involves consolidation of the left to far left and AOC can (help him) do that,” Sabato said. The association with Ocasio-Cortez “broadens his appeal because he’s getting some of the same criticism as (former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg). The white privilege argument.”

For Ocasio-Cortez, associating with Sanders has benefits as well, Sabato said

“She doesn’t want to get classified as one of the two or three ‘out-there’ liberals in the freshman class,” the political analyst said. “She wants to be seen as left but not on the side of wacky. This allows her to do that.”

Sanders got a rousing welcome at the Howard rally. And he joined with Ocasio-Cortez last week on a bill to cap credit card interest rates at 15%, a move they said will help protect consumers from the “greed” of the credit card and banking industries.

The New York congresswoman and liberal firebrand was an organizer for Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign when the senator’s insurgent campaign in the Democratic primary caught fire against establishment pick Hillary Clinton.

But ‘AOC’ has she’s known – the youngest woman ever elected to Congress – has not endorsed anyone in the 2020 primary, which features more than 20 candidates including several vying for the progressive mantle.

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Sanders, who has slipped in the polls since Biden entered last month, did not appear on stage with Ocasio-Cortez. But the Vermont senator made sure to recognize the demographic he was addressing.

“You changed the conversation around climate change. That is the very good news and you should all be proud of what you stand for and what you’ve already accomplished,” Sanders told the throng of more than 1,000 gathered at Howard’s Cramton Auditorium. “Here is the bad news: the voter turnout (rate) for young people, people under 30, is far lower than for older Americans.”

Among those attending Monday’s Green New Deal rally sponsored by the Sunrise Movement was Aparna Raj, 25, who works for a Washington-based food advocacy organization. In 2016, she voted for Clinton in the primary but she’s torn between Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., this time.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. addresses The Road to the Green New Deal Tour final event at Howard University in Washington, Monday, May 13, 2019. (Photo: Cliff Owen, AP)

Raj said Sanders’ appearance won’t influence her to back him but she thinks he’s smart to align himself with Ocasio-Cortez, whose background and enthusiasm help her connect with young voters.

“She’s a great communicator,” Raj said. “She’s very in tune with different channels and how to use them and how to tap into this frustration that people feel and reach broader audiences.”

“I think Bernie was able to tap into that in 2016 as well but she’s young, she’s really energetic, she’s exciting, she’s a woman of color,” Raj continued. “Just who she is and her upbringing and her background reflects this new wave of Democrats.”

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