Opinion

Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez need a ‘chief of change’ or a change of staff?

Who is calling the shots in New York Democrat’s office?

By going after Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats, Saikat Chakrabarti, left, chief of staff to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, broke a cardinal rule of the unwritten Hill staffer code, Murphy writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

OPINION — Mention the name Saikat Chakrabarti to Democratic chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill, and you’ll get an array of fed-up responses to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s high-profile top aide, from “Ugh” to “What the (expletive)?” to “He’s got to go.”

Although staffer feuds are not uncommon, the Harvard-educated former tech executive who leads AOC’s office has recently committed the two great sins against the unwritten code of Capitol Hill staffers. The first is to never upstage the boss.

While no staffer could possibly get more press than Ocasio-Cortez — in her short, bright congressional career, she’s already landed media opportunities from the cover of Time magazine to a profile on “60 Minutes” — Chakrabarti isn’t far behind. Even before the new Congress was sworn in, an Elle magazine item gleefully proclaimed him AOC’s “Chief of Snacks.” Ask a millennial to tell you what that means if you don’t already know. It’s a compliment.

Washington Post Magazine profile last week proclaimed him “AOC’s Chief of Change.” He “isn’t just running her office,” it read. “He’s guiding a movement.” One vignette described a scene of Chakrabarti grilling the aide of a presidential candidate for not being aggressive enough on climate change. A second featured him plotting with pollsters to gather data about progressive proposals in moderate districts in an effort to influence members of the Blue Dog Coalition. “How do we help people develop a bit more of a backbone?” he explained.

It was that polling — along with a series of tweets in which Chakrabarti, not his boss, excoriated House Democrats and Speaker Nancy Pelosi — that sent the behind-the-scenes sniping about Chakrabarti into the open.

One tweet, incredibly, went after Pelosi.

“All these articles want to claim what a legislative mastermind Pelosi is, but I’m seeing way more strategic smarts from freshman members like @AOC, @IlhanMN , @RashidaTlai and @AyannaPressley. Pelosi is just mad that she got outmaneuvered (again) by Republicans,” he said in the aftermath of the border funding fight two weeks ago

Another infamously accused Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids of enabling “a racist system” with her vote for border funding. Another said the moderate New Democrats and Blue Dogs seemed “hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.” Both have since been deleted.

Those tweets not only led The New York Times to call Chakrabarti “a Symbol of Democratic division,” they also drew a rebuke directly from Pelosi at the behest of multiple members of the Congressional Black Caucus, some of whom are Blue Dogs. The Kansas City Star editorial board called on AOC to apologize directly to Davids for her staffer’s conduct.

History is full of high-flying Hill staffers who have occasionally done more harm than good to their bosses as their own reputations grew. Ken Johnson, a flamboyantly quotable spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee under Rep. Billy Tauzin, routinely turned up in the press more than his also-quotable boss. A New York Times profile, which called Johnson “Mr. Not-So-Nice Guy in D.C.” included him bragging that he’d been yelled at by everyone from former Sens. John McCain and Alfonse M. D’Amato and former Speaker Newt Gingrich — all of whom were Republicans like his boss.

“Clearly a lot of people don’t like me,” Johnson laughed. “I wear it as a badge of honor.”

Likewise, the knives were already out among GOP staffers in 2011, when California Rep. Darrell Issa fired Kurt Bardella, the oft-quoted spokesman for the House Oversight Committee, after Bardella shared correspondences he had with several journalists with another reporter writing a book about them. Bardella’s fall was welcome news for staffers who, maybe jealously, saw the staffer’s clips stacking up faster than the boss’s.

But for all of those offenses, Chakrabarti’s attacks on Pelosi and the Blue Dogs are something else entirely, and they add up to the other thing a Capitol Hill aide should never do — damage the boss’s reputation and detract from his or her goals.

It’s hard to believe that AOC wanted the last two weeks to go as they have — with open warfare with the speaker and an intraparty fight so explosive that President Donald Trump jumped right into the middle of it by telling her and the rest of “the squad” to “go back where they came from.” Had she wanted to do that or go up against the Blue Dogs, she could have done it herself.

But the congresswoman also didn’t stop Chakrabarti from continuing his Twitter battles with her fellow Democrats or promoting primary challenges to them. That, along with frequent press mentions that it was Chakrabarti who recruited AOC and not the other way around, has led her colleagues to ask openly who is calling the shots in her office.

The easiest and most immediate solution to the problem is to get Chakrabarti and all Capitol Hill staffers off Twitter. The social media platform has taken staffers from being seen-but-not-heard to being heard-but-not-seen. Not only does that development serve no one but the staffers, Twitter by its very nature incentivizes outrageous comments and the people who make them. A recent Pew study also found that the most active users are far more wealthy, more white and more liberal than the country itself. It’s no place for the rational political dialogue that legislating requires.

Ocasio-Cortez is a gifted politician on a limitless trajectory. But she is also in danger of being pushed away from her own potential as her staff continues to burn more bridges than they are building for her to achieve her goals. Ultimately, her only solution may be to move from a “chief of change” to a change of staff. And soon.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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