Launched in Los Angeles on January 23, 2017, Justice Democrats (JD) is a federal political action committee aligned with the Democratic Party. The group was co-founded by several individuals who had been either supporters or staffers of Senator Bernie Sanders’ failed presidential campaign of 2016. These included: Cenk Uygur of the online news program The Young Turks; longtime Democrat operative Zack Exley; Saikat Chakrabarti, who would go on to become a key advisor and aide to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Alexandra Rojas (national digital field director of Sanders’ campaign); Corbin Trent (founder of “Tennessee for Bernie Sanders”); and Kyle Kulinski, the host and producer of the YouTube show Secular Talk. All except Kulinski had also been co-founders (in 2016) of the pro-Democrat organization Brand New Congress (BNC).
In contrast to BNC’s unusually ambitious goal of replacing all 435 U.S. House Members with political novices, JD deemed it wiser to support some incumbent Democrats and to direct its efforts chiefly toward unseating: (a) only those Democrats whose politics were unacceptably centrist, and (b) as many Republicans as possible. Over time, JD reasoned, this approach would help “change the Democratic Party from the inside out” by moving it ever farther to the political left. Cenk Uygur put it this way: “[W]e’re going to try to save the soul of the Democratic Party by boarding the Democratic Party ship and taking it over. How are we going to do that? We’re going to run strong progressives…. From now on, there will be a new wing of the Democratic Party, and it will be the Justice Democrats. We will seek social justice, economic justice, racial justice, and plain old justice justice.”
Boasting a membership of some 200,000 people, JD formally established an alliance with BNC in March 2017.
JD believes that: (a) “racism and xenophobia have always been part of our country’s history”; (b) “African Americans and Latinos in particular, and people of color generally, have been targets in our nation’s continued assault against their rights, liberties, and humanity”; and (c) “a truth and reconciliation commission [should be empaneled] to investigate the generational harms caused by slavery and Jim Crow and [to] propose remedies.”
In 2017, JD launched a recruiting campaign whereby it held auditions for potential candidates who could run for various U.S. Congressional seats on its leftist political platform in the 2018 midterm elections. All told, more than 10,000 names were submitted to JD for consideration. One of those names was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Bronx bartender who was recommended to JD by her brother Gabriel. Upon meeting the young woman, JD perceived her to be someone whose charisma and persona could be harnessed very effectively for political purposes. Thus the organization made Ocasio-Cortez its top priority for the 2018 midterms. Toward that end, JD scripted and produced her campaign videos, while also coordinating all of her fundraising, social media, and voter mobilization activities.
In December 2017, both Cenk Uygur and JD’s treasurer, David Koller, resigned from the organization after it was learned that they each had authored blogposts in the early 2000s containing language that was degrading to women.
By February 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had joined Saikat Chakrabarti as a member of of JD’s board of directors.
All told, JD in 2018 endorsed 78 Democratic congressional candidates and recruited 12 to run for office, serving as a political consulting firm for those dozen. Ocasio-Cortez was the only one of the 12 recruits who went on to win her general election, though six additional JD-endorsed candidates — three incumbents and three freshmen — were also elected to the U.S House. Those six were: Ro Khanna, Raul Grijalva, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Pramila Jayapal. Among the more noteworthy candidates who received JD’s support but failed to win their respective elections were Ben Jealous and Abdul El-Sayed.
To secure JD’s endorsement and support, candidates are required to pledge that they will not accept any money from corporate PACs or corporate lobbyists, and to openly embrace the organization’s political platform. Key planks of that platform include the following:
- Enact a Green New Deal, environmental legislation whose mission is to rapidly eliminate all fossil-fuel use from the U.S. economy; create a basic income program and a federal jobs guarantee that would provide a “living wage” to every person who wants one; implement a government-run, single-payer health care system called “Medicare For All”; and replace free-market capitalism with a socialist framework. (During a single weekend in December 2018, a number of JD members joined likeminded staffers of Ocasio-Cortez as well as members of the Sunrise Movement and New Consensus, in drafting the text of this Green New Deal.)
- Invest “trillions” of dollars in “rebuilding our crumbling roads, bridges, schools, levees, airports, etc.”
- “Mak[e] the top 1% [of earners] and multinational corporations pay their fair share” of taxes.
- Provide free education for everyone attending public colleges and trade schools.
- Increase expenditures for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which already consume, in aggregate, 62% of the federal budget;
- Ensure paid vacation time, sick time, family leave, and childcare services for all American workers.
- “Protect women’s rights” by supporting the Paycheck Fairness Act, repealing the Hyde Amendment (which bars the use of public money to fund abortions), and “oppos[ing] Republican cuts to Planned Parenthood.”
- Enact “sweeping and comprehensive policy changes” to a criminal-justice system that “currently targets Black and Brown people” with “inappropriate policing practices” and “unjust mass incarceration.”
- “Invest more in jobs and education, less in jails and incarceration.”
- End “the racist War on Drugs” that “has torn families apart all across our country” and disproportionately harms the black community.
- Abolish capital punishment, an “indefensible” practice that too often “puts innocent people to death.
- Place “a ban on assault weapons” (semi-automatic weapons) and “high-capacity magazines.”
- Secure the “voting rights” of “every American citizen” by eliminating Voter ID laws allegedly designed “to disenfranchise [poor and nonwhite] voting blocks who have traditionally supported Democrats.”
- Abolish the federal Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, which “has turned into a state-funded terror group that regularly violates basic human rights.”
- Implement “comprehensive immigration reform” that ensures a “path to citizenship” for millions of illegal aliens.
- “Support the movement to provide statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico” – places whose residents overwhelmingly support Democrats over Republicans – “in order to bring balance to the increasingly skewed Senate.”
- “Support public financing of elections and the removal of the corrupting influence of corporate and big money in our democracy.”
On March 6, 2019, the Daily Caller reported that according to corporate filings which it had obtained, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her top aide, Saikat Chakrabarti, had held “majority control over Justice Democrats” ever since December 2017.” The article added: “Chakrabarti resigned from the Justice Democrats’ board in August 2018 … and the PAC’s website no longer lists Ocasio-Cortez as a governor, but government documents show the two still hold majority control…. Ocasio-Cortez never disclosed her control of the PAC to the FEC. If the congresswoman intentionally withheld that information from the FEC, both she and Chakrabarti ‘could be facing jail time,’ former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith told [The Daily Caller News Foundation].”
In the 2020 election cycle, JD continued its effort to purge certain left of center, pro-Israel Democrats from Congress and replace them with more-radical alternatives. One of JD’s targets in 2020 was Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. To challenge Engel in the Democrat primary, JD endorsed Jamaal Bowman, a middle-school principal at the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in the Bronx. The following facts offer insight into Bowman’s worldview and politics:
- On April 16, 2020, Bowman tweeted that “There is systemic oppression and terror and racism that lives in every American institution.”
- The following day, he tweeted, “I support a $1 trillion investment over 10 years to rebuild public housing into green social housing with net zero carbon emissions.”
- In November 2019, he identified “white male domestic terrorism” as the “biggest issue in our country.”
- In August 2015, he posted a blog entry titled “The Tyranny of Standardized Testing,” which said: “Public school high-stakes standardized testing is a form of modern-day slavery, and it is designed to continue the proliferation of inequality. America was born of horror for black people and that horror continues today for brown and poor people as well. Slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, crack cocaine and now standardized testing were all sanctioned by the American government. All designed to destroy the mind, body and soul of black and brown people.”
- The Brains Behind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (video)
March 8, 2019
Further Reading: “Justice Democrats” (Ballotpedia.org); “The Justice Democrats Helped Get Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Elected. Who Are They After Next?” (Politico.com, 2-4-2019); “Can Justice Democrats Pull Off a Progressive Coup in Congress?” (Rolling Stone, 11-21-2018); “Justice Democrats Helped Make Ocasio-Cortez. They’re Already Eyeing Their Next Targets.” (NY Times, 2-23-2019); “Platform For Justice” (JusticeDemocrats.com); “Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Green New Deal’ to Transform the U.S. Economy Was Drafted over a Single Weekend by a Bunch of Millennial Staffers, Activists” (Daily Caller, 1-18-2019); “Ocasio-Cortez and Top Aide Run Outside Group Leading ‘War’ on Establishment Democrats, Documents Show” (Daily Caller, 3-6-2019).