WASHINGTON — She's cooked bean soup live and done laundry in public. She narrated much of what she calls "Congress camp" on Capitol Hill. We know what's in her bank account — less than $7,000 — and what she thinks of reviews of her clothing.
Such intimate details have kept Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's star on the rise since she upset Democratic veteran Joe Crowley in New York's June primary. By the time she takes her seat in the House on Jan. 3 as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, the 29-year-old Ocasio-Cortez will have blazed a new, more public trail to Washington and literally shed light on the maze of Capitol Hill.
"Guys there are secret underground tunnels between all of these government buildings," she mock-whispers in one social media post.
The passageways are hardly secret, as she notes — everyone from tourists to reporters and lawmakers jostle through them. But they can be hard to follow, much like the twists and turns of congressional business. So Ocasio-Cortez is posting not just about mundane tasks at home, but also about her life as a congresswoman-elect. And even though her Instagram stories don't stay online for long, she intends to keep up the posts in an effort to "humanize our government."
"A lot of times we'll tune in to cable news or watch what's going on on TV and all we're reading about is bills and all we're reading about is legislation or the political dynamics," she said Monday night on MSNBC. "But I think it's really important that we actually show people that government is a real thing, that it's something that you can be a part of."
In her first week, Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, did give a glimpse inside the power games of Congress when she appeared with protesters in the office of the woman fighting to become House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California. Pelosi, who had not yet won Ocasio-Cortez's support in the leadership fight, permitted the demonstration. Video of the event was posted to social media. Over the weekend, Ocasio-Cortez signaled she would vote for Pelosi for speaker.
That episode and others offered clues to how Ocasio-Cortez and her social media practices fit into a national legislature that's slowly becoming younger, less male and more diverse. The approach Ocasio-Cortez is modeling — and the political world is studying — gives her a measure of control by communicating directly with constituents and responding to critics in close to real time.
"She knows how to navigate this space in a way that others don't," said Yvette Simpson, incoming CEO of Democracy for America, a progressive political action committee. Also, Simpson pointed out, "She's not accountable to that power structure" in Congress. "She's accountable to the group that put her there."
The Ocasio-Cortez approach carries risks. Every word she utters and writes will be scrutinized in the big arena of Congress and the 2020 re-election campaigns that have effectively already begun.
She's already gotten a taste of that scrutiny on policy, to which she is a newcomer compared to some in her class who were state legislators or staffers in previous administrations. Asked on PBS on July 13 about her views on capitalism considering the strong economy and the low unemployment rate, Ocasio-Cortez responded:
"We look at these figures and we say, oh, unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs."
Fact checkers pounced. Employed people are only counted once when the unemployment rate is determined — no matter how many jobs they hold. And the percentage of people working multiple jobs has fallen slightly since the mid-2000s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
There have been other tangles.
"People keep giving me directions to the spouse and intern events instead of the ones for members of Congress," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Nov. 14.
Questioned about that claim on Twitter, she reiterated that she'd been sent to an intern lunch and added: "Next time try believing women + people of color when they talk about their experiences being a woman or person of color."
Her high profile has come with criticism.
"If I walked into Congress wearing a sack, they would laugh & take a picture of my backside," she posted on Nov. 15, after a reporter posted just such a photo and questioned whether her clothing choice was that of a "girl who struggles." ''If I walk in with my best sale-rack clothes, they laugh & take a picture of my backside."
Conservatives, too, questioned her claim that she can't pay rent in pricey Washington. A spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez said Tuesday that she has less than $7,000 in her bank account to get her through the first congressional payday in January. She and each rank-and-file member will make $174,000 a year.
Another spat ensued when Ocasio-Cortez misspoke and referred to "three chambers of government," rather than three branches. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a Republican not immune to gaffes herself as John McCain's 2008 vice presidential running mate, tweeted that the congresswoman-elect had fumbled basic civics.
For now, Ocasio-Cortez posted that her appearance Monday night will be the last "before we go dark" to set up two congressional offices — one in New York and one in Washington. But even that announcement raised questions among her followers.
"Don't worry, I'll still be on insta, twitter, etc.," she reassured them.