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A wave of young progressives is looking to follow AOC to the House

Stevens Orozco, the son of undocumented immigrants, wants to unseat one of Texas' most liberal members of Congress. To Orozco, the 13-term Democrat is just not liberal enough.
Image: Headline
Stevens Orozco, a progressive candidate challenging Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in a Democratic primary, hands out campaign flyers in Houston.Annie Mulligan / for NBC News

HOUSTON — Stevens Orozco awoke before dawn on Wednesday, as he does each weekday, and headed to the charter school where he teaches health and psychology. His middle and high school students were taking state-mandated exams, which meant a light day for the second-year teacher.

After dismissal that afternoon, Orozco bolted to his car, grabbed a handful of campaign flyers and drove to a community center on Houston’s northside. The parking lot was teeming with election volunteers and voters who had come to cast early ballots in Texas’ Super Tuesday primary elections.

Orozco, 33, the son of undocumented Colombian immigrants, waved for a woman to stop her car as she pulled up to the voting site.

“My name is Stevens Orozco, and I’m running for Congress here in District 18,” he said, handing her a glossy flyer with his picture on it. “I’m running on the most progressive agenda, taking no corporate donations. I support the Green New Deal, ‘Medicare for All,’ student loan forgiveness and immigration reform, as well as reparations for slavery and criminal justice reform. And I would appreciate your vote today.”

Orozco talks to voters
Orozco hopes to win voters with an aggressive agenda to combat climate change, expand access to health care and reform the criminal justice system. Annie Mulligan / for NBC News

After repeating variations of those lines thousands of times in recent months, Orozco can deliver the pitch in under 15 seconds. The woman smiled and committed to supporting him.

“It feels good when they say yes,” Orozco said a moment later. “Usually they don’t say anything and you’ve just got to hope the message resonated.”

That’s the question facing Orozco and other Democratic candidates who share his fervent progressive views: Is the message resonating with voters? He’s part of a wave of young, unapologetically left-wing candidates who are mounting primary challenges against older Democratic incumbents in solidly Democratic congressional districts and local races, in Texas and across the country.

These candidates are inspired by the anti-establishment message of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has the most delegates in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and by the rise of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 30-year-old democratic socialist who became a national star when she unseated a 10-term incumbent Democrat in New York City two years ago. Many are millennials and political newcomers, motivated by their experiences coming of age amid the 2008 financial crisis. Others got started as activists on the front lines of battles over police brutality, gun violence, climate change and immigration.

And like Orozco, most are facing extraordinarily long odds of victory. Orozco is challenging Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat running for a 14th term, who has a long-standing reputation as one of the more liberal members of Congress, though Orozco argues she has not gone far enough on issues such as climate change and immigration reform.

“They are long-shot bids, sure, but so was AOC,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, referring to Ocasio-Cortez by her now-famous initials. “So the prospect of catching lightning in a bottle again is what many of these candidates and these groups are looking for.”

In South Texas, Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration attorney, has been endorsed by both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez in her campaign to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar, a 64-year-old pro-gun, pro-trade centrist backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“We want this to be not only a victory, but a resounding victory for Henry Cuellar,” Pelosi told a crowd of Cuellar campaign workers and supporters during a stop in Laredo last week.

Image: Elizabeth Warren, Jessica Sisneros
Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old Democratic candidate for Congress in Texas' 28th district, has been endorsed by leading progressives, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren.Nick Wagner / AP

The race is considered the first serious challenge against a Democratic incumbent of the 2020 election cycle. In some ways, the contrast between Cisneros and Cuellar reflects the broader ideological rift defining the Democratic presidential primary, with Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren pushing aggressively left-wing policies, while others, such as former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, are taking more centrist positions.

Cisneros said she’s running to give a voice to a new generation of voters who are eager for sweeping changes in Washington.

“One of the most encouraging things about running is seeing how younger folks have responded to our race,” Cisneros told Vice News this week.

Moderate Democrats aren’t the only ones being targeted. In another Houston race, Rep. Al Green, who made national headlines as the first House Democrat to call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment, is facing a primary challenge for the first time since being elected to Congress in 2004, from a 36-year-old mortgage broker, Melissa Mechelle Wilson, who says she’s running to expand affordable housing and overhaul the criminal justice system.

“You can do a great job and still get an opponent,” Green told the Houston Chronicle, when asked about the new primary challenges. “The system allows for that. I respect the system.”

Rottinghaus said these progressive challengers remind him of the political revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, when a new generation of candidates and young voters, outraged by the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, pushed for a vast expansion of civil rights and environmental reforms. As was the case then, Rottinghaus said, progressive candidates could succeed in moving the Democratic Party further to the left, even if they failed to win many seats in the process.

“They don’t want to wait, and this is in their opinion a moment that can lead to this full-scale revolution in the way the Democratic Party handles these issues,” Rottinghaus said. “These progressive challengers are looking for a different type of approach, a more aggressive approach to the issues.”

Stevens Orozco at his home
Orozco said his upbringing as the son of undocumented immigrants helped shape his political views and inspired his run for Congress. Annie Mulligan / for NBC News

That’s why Orozco said he decided to challenge Jackson Lee, despite her liberal credentials. Orozco called the 70-year-old congresswoman “an incomplete advocate,” arguing that her support for efforts to combat climate change or overhaul the immigration system has been tepid, whereas he would make those his top priorities and be a vocal advocate for them.

“She’s not all the way there on the issues,” Orozco said. “For example, it wasn’t until November, after we had entered this race, that she finally signed onto the Green New Deal resolution, and she did so quietly. And that’s because her record shows a history of donations from the oil and gas industry.”

In response to an interview request, a Jackson Lee campaign official sent a statement from the incumbent defending her record as a progressive leader in Congress.

“I believe we can lift up all our people by securing universal access to health care and a quality public education, making progress on climate change and flood mitigation, getting people off the street and into decent housing, creating good-paying jobs and providing the job and skills training to give our people an opportunity to succeed,” Jackson Lee said in the statement, noting that she has been endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives. “I am proud to have passed legislation to reform our criminal justice system — and will continue fighting to make the system more fair and just.”

House Judiciary Committee Debates Articles Of Impeachment Against President Trump
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has defended her record and says she has the backing of progressive leaders. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

After 25 years in Congress, Jackson Lee has faced her share of criticism. Last year, she temporarily gave up her post as chairwoman of a key House Judiciary subcommittee on criminal justice after a lawsuit claimed that Jackson Lee had fired an aide who said she was sexually assaulted by a supervisor at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, when Jackson Lee was the foundation’s chairwoman.

A judge dismissed the lawsuit two weeks ago, writing that the staffer failed to provide sufficient evidence to prove that Jackson Lee’s office had violated federal laws. But the episode cost Jackson Lee support from groups such as the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence.

“We are pleased with the district court’s resolution of the case, and we are very much in agreement with the court’s resolution and dismissal,” Jackson Lee said in a statement, adding that she wished the woman well.

Five other candidates are also challenging Jackson Lee in the primary, though Orozco is the only one backed by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and other far-left advocacy groups. Although he acknowledges he’s unlikely to win outright on Tuesday, Orozco said he believes the large field of challengers could prevent Jackson Lee from winning more than 50 percent of the vote, forcing a runoff.

“All I have to do is win the second most votes,” Orozco said. “If we can get to a runoff, I believe we would have the momentum and energy to win.”

Stevens Orozco at school
Some of the high school students at the charter school where Orozco teaches are supporting his campaign.Annie Mulligan / for NBC News

Orozco, who was born in New York and moved to Houston as a teenager, got involved in political activism five years ago after a spate of police shootings of unarmed black men made national headlines. With less than $8,000 in campaign donations and an all-volunteer staff, Orozco says he’s relying on shoe-leather campaigning and social media activism to win supporters.

“I’m doing this in my free time while also working a full-time job,” Orozco said. “I’m counting on the enthusiasm around our message to propel us.”

His campaign manager, Jacob Castillo, is a 20-year-old college student who lives in a dorm at the University of Houston, where he’s pursuing a political science degree. Castillo got involved in politics as a high school senior two years ago as part of the March for Our Lives movement that sprung up following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. Last year, Castillo went to a 10-week politics boot camp run by ex-Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez campaign staffers, where he learned strategies for running a small-budget, progressive campaign against a Democratic incumbent. Like Orozco, he said his personal experiences have shaped his political views.

Castillo said his family was homeless for several months when he was a child after his mother lost her house during the financial crisis a decade ago. Most of his family members still lack health insurance, in part because Texas never expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Several of his family members’ homes flooded in Hurricane Harvey in 2017, a storm scientists believe was made worse by climate change.

Campaign manager Jacob Castillo, center, campaigns with Stevens Orozco in Houston.
Orozco’s campaign manager Jacob Castillo, center, attended a boot camp for progressive activists to learn how to run political campaigns. Annie Mulligan / for NBC News

“The policies of establishment politicians have failed me and my family on a personal level,” Castillo said. “These aren't just policy debates for us. I've lived this stuff, and now we're coming together and trying to change it.”

With Sanders leading in polls nationally and in Texas ahead of Super Tuesday, the question is whether the momentum propelling his campaign can lead to victories for some of the young progressives running for Congress, said Victoria DeFrancesco-Soto, a political scientist and assistant dean at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

“There is a political movement right now that is vying for the soul of the Democratic Party,” DeFrancesco-Soto said. “Whether it wins out or not, we’re going to know pretty quick here.”