Winning the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District on June 26 made Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez very, very famous. Seventy-two hours later she appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “I did not know your name on Monday,” Colbert confessed. There was also a Vogue shoot with Annie Leibovitz and interviews on The Daily Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and The View, where cohost Sara Haines asked her point blank, “In your campaign video you said, ‘Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office.’ Why did you run?”
Among progressives and political junkies, her origin story became instant folklore: A 28-year-old activist from the Bronx moonlighting as a bartender runs an insurgent campaign focused on economic and social justice and upsets 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives and the living, breathing embodiment of The Democratic Establishment.
After her victory, AOC appeared on Face the Nation alongside fellow democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. (She’s famous enough that the abbreviation “AOC” — like HRC, RBG, and AMLO before her — will suffice.) She sat down with Morning Joe and ignored Jake Tapper’s policy questions on State of the Union. She even campaigned for like-minded out-of-state candidates in Michigan and Kansas.
Predictably, Ocasio-Cortez’s media tour made her the latest conservative bête noire. Fox News played clips of her touting Medicare-for-all and a universal jobs guarantee and supporting the abolishment of ICE. Radical, they cried. Her policies, gender, and ethnicity made her a bogeyman to Fox, The Daily Caller, the Heritage Foundation, and other organizations, clubs, fraternities, foundations, or societies populated with men named Thad.
On a few occasions since her ascent, a Republican-voting cousin of mine has shared foul Ocasio-Cortez memes via text message. I can only imagine what’s happening on Facebook.
Despite the vitriol, Ocasio-Cortez will almost certainly be in Washington when the 116th Congress convenes in January as the youngest woman ever elected to the body. The 14th District is a minority-majority district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly 6-to-1. Crowley captured 82.9 percent of the vote here in 2016. On November 6, Ocasio-Cortez will win the general election by dictator numbers.
What kind of person would run a long-shot campaign against such a juggernaut? Who would take on such a task?
“I’m going to get a spoon,” says the soft-spoken man with the snowy white hair, “because I can’t use my straw.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s opponent is Anthony Pappas, a 72-year-old associate professor of economics and finance at St. John’s University, but at the moment his opponent is a thick vanilla milkshake. It’s a warm evening in early September, and Pappas, the Republican nominee in the 14th, sits in a Burger King in Astoria off the Grand Central Parkway.
He selected the fast-food restaurant due to its close proximity to the highway and the subway. He’s thoughtful like that. Pappas wears a short-sleeve button-down shirt that’s frayed at the collar, khaki pants with holes in both knees, and white New Balance sneakers. He has the unruly eyebrows that plague Greeks of a certain age. A slight grin is etched on his face.
At the next table over, two old men argue loudly in Greek. A woman solves a sudoku puzzle in a booth. A college student hides behind a tower of books in the corner as “Fight Song” plays over the loudspeakers. Once Pappas returns with his spoon, a Steven Adams look-alike approaches our table asking for change. We are definitely in Queens.
Pappas knows this chapter of his life will end in failure. But what kind of campaign will he run while facing certain defeat?
“His campaign is nonexistent,” says Joann Ariola, chairwoman of the Queens County GOP. Since learning of an account that Pappas committed domestic violence (which he denies), Ariola and the Bronx County GOP chairman have disavowed him and his candidacy.
Pappas’s campaign has been waged mostly on Facebook and via leaflets he distributes at bus stations and parks. He doesn’t have a Twitter account or any money, really. And in lieu of attacking Ocasio-Cortez’s policy positions, he is fixated on just one issue: judicial immunity. Steering a messianic campaign is his best bet to bring attention to the cause. That it’s not a winning issue with voters is irrelevant to Pappas. It adds up to one of the weirdest congressional races even in this election cycle.
“I’m on a crusade for justice,” he begins. “When you hear the proclamation that no one is above the law, they are lying because judges have self-conferred immunity upon themselves from this atrocious case of Stump v. Sparkman and have put themselves above the law.”
Pappas refers to the 1978 Supreme Court case about a judge who ruled that a woman could surgically sterilize her teenage daughter without her consent. Years later, when the woman learned about the sterilization, she sued the judge, Harold D. Stump. The Supreme Court ruled 5–3 that Stump could not be sued because of judicial immunity. Pappas calls it the worst Supreme Court decision of the 20th century.
Even in the aftermath of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which bred a newfound interrogation into judicial ethics and background checks, the message isn’t resonating with voters; according to the latest Federal Election Commission filing, Pappas has received $1,935 in total individual contributions. Ocasio-Cortez has raised more than $1.8 million. But for Pappas the fight is worth it. An ongoing 14-year divorce battle has inspired him to view judges as some sort of cabalistic threat. “I think people need to be aware,” he says, “that we are living in a judicial dictatorship.”
Court documents from his divorce now cover our table. He is just getting started.
Politics is pretty basic: Voters need to know who you are and that you are running for office. Name recognition is the biggest factor and the most expensive for a campaign in its early stages.
Even for a noncompetitive district like New York’s 14th, Ocasio-Cortez enters the general election with a huge advantage in name recognition. But Pappas isn’t the first politician to run an uphill campaign. Throughout history, B-side candidates — to use a boxing term — have utilized creative tactics against popular adversaries.
Ronald Reagan became an overnight sensation after “A Time for Choosing,” his October 1964 speech in support of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. The sermon couldn’t save Goldwater, who carried six states and garnered just 38.5 percent of the popular vote against President Johnson, but it thrust the then-53-year-old actor back into the spotlight. When he ran for governor of California in 1966, “everyone knew who Reagan was,” says Reagan biographer Lou Cannon. “The name recognition was there and it was a positive recognition.”
Two arguments were used against Reagan: He was a right-wing radical similar to Goldwater and nothing more than an actor. The line of attack didn’t work for a number of reasons. Reagan had spent decades in Hollywood playing the heartwarming role of Ronald Reagan, to paraphrase the author Garry Wills. Unlike the dour Goldwater, he didn’t look like an extremist or sound like one. He handily won the Republican primary over former San Francisco mayor George Christopher.
Two-term incumbent Pat Brown doubled down on the anti-actor strategy during the general election. He even appeared in a television spot titled “Man vs. Actor” where he told a room full of schoolchildren, “I’m running against an actor and you know who shot Lincoln, don’tcha?” Reagan won 55 of 58 counties, reaping 57.5 percent of the vote.
“The Brown campaign was basically clueless,” says Cannon, who covered Reagan’s first years as governor for the San Jose Mercury News. “They didn’t understand that being an actor was, for the majority of the people, not a bad thing. Hell, a song-and-dance man, George Murphy, was one of California’s senators at the time.”
Since Reagan, B-side candidates have been prudent about when to turn their opponents’ fame into a wedge issue. In the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election, Arnold Schwarzenegger was hit on multiple fronts — for making sexist remarks, for his political naivete, for his policy inexperience, and for his celebrity status. Sitting first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was painted as a carpetbagger during her run to replace retiring New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 2000; HRC had been a New York resident for just one month when she announced her candidacy.
“The issue that we seized on was that Mrs. Clinton had zero connection to New York before she announced her candidacy,” former U.S. representative Rick Lazio, Clinton’s opponent in 2000, wrote to me in an email. “She had never lived there, worked there or went to school there. She had never paid a dime of New York taxes.” Both Schwarzenegger and Clinton won by double digits.
Barack Obama avoided the issue during the 2004 Illinois U.S. Senate race. Already a rising star, Obama, then just a state senator, became a political supernova — and a celebrity — with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in July. Though the overwhelming favorite against right-wing talk show host Alan Keyes, Republican strategists believed Obama had weaknesses. “I think his legislative record provided a target-rich environment,” says Dan Proft, a former Keyes staffer. “He’s this global phenomenon and the way you beat him is by bringing him back down to earth and focusing on what he did for seven years in the state Senate.”
Keyes opted for another strategy: He made it personal, even saying that Jesus wouldn’t vote for Obama. Seventy percent of Illinois voters did, however, and Obama coasted to the largest margin of victory in the state’s history of Senate elections.
John McCain tried exploiting Obama’s growing celebrity during the 2008 presidential election. After the Democratic nominee delivered a speech in Berlin in front of about 200,000 people, the McCain campaign got to work. Obama “was a huge worldwide celebrity all of a sudden,” says Republican strategist and media consultant Fred Davis III. “However, does being a celebrity mean you are ready to lead the United States? We didn’t think so.”
Davis and his team brainstormed a list of celebrities without any discernible talent — the famous-for-being-famous sort. He landed on Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. “Today,” he says, “you would probably pick the Kardashians.”
The 30-second spot titled “Celebrity” flashed shots of Hilton, Spears, and Obama as an adoring crowd chanted the candidate’s name. A narrator questioned Obama’s leadership ability — then abruptly transitioned to something about gas prices. McCain’s nightly tracking polls then showed a bump.
Underdog candidates like Pappas, Davis says, must be bold. “Do something different. No one else in presidential history had used the equivalent of Paris Hilton in an ad,” he says. “You have to take some risks. You have to roll the dice.”
Political consultants suggest Ocasio-Cortez is vulnerable to certain lines of attack. “People like leaders of movements. What they don’t like is Robespierres,” says Sean T. Walsh, Schwarzenegger’s former communications director. “If I were the Republican running against her, I would say, ‘Look, Ms. Cortez is leading a very radical movement. This is not about health care. This is not about mainstream issues. This is really kind of a radical revolution, and radical revolutions have a bad habit of creating violence and tension.’ I would paint her with that brush every day.”
There are other arguments that could be made against AOC, especially after her press run during which she lapsed when discussing both economic and foreign policy. But Pappas is incapable of making that case. Not in this district.
“He can raise whatever issues he wants, but it’s not going to get picked up,” says Dan Shomon, one of Obama’s campaign managers in 2004. “If you can’t raise the money, which he can’t, and if you can’t compete, he won’t be able to communicate any kind of message.”
New York’s 14th Congressional District spans Parkchester, Morris Park, Pelham Bay, Throggs Neck, and City Island in the Bronx, and Astoria, College Point, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, Corona, and Woodside in Queens. It also includes Rikers Island. Each neighborhood is distinct — the district isn’t exactly balkanized, just its constituent parts are different in flavor and feel. Following redistricting in 2012, the 14th is now about 50 percent Hispanic.
On the north side of Astoria, where I grew up, most of my friends didn’t speak English at home. It was largely Greek, Italian, and Spanish, peppered with Irish brogues so thick that they required an interpreter. As the millennium approached, this wave of immigrants, particularly the ones pollsters would classify as “ethnic working-class whites,” migrated east toward Long Island.
The Burger King where Pappas and I meet is a block or two outside the district. But just north of it are several streets filled with classic two-story row houses. Outside the Ditmars Boulevard subway station, where a fleet of cabs wait for commuters, a line forms inside a pizza spot serving $4 slices. A block away, a man sporting the digital-casual uniform — T-shirt, snug pants, expensive sneakers, tiny laptop bag — enters a cocktail bar. At the corner of 31st and Ditmars, a lime-green shawarma truck shines so bright that it glows, emitting so much heat and steam that it’s inescapable.
Volunteers from Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign flooded these streets throughout the spring, clipboards in hand, collecting signatures and distributing literature. A two-minute campaign video that introduced AOC and her platform went viral. Crowley no-showed one debate, and then, citing a scheduling conflict, sent a surrogate in his place to another. A New York Times editorial called the snubs “galling.” Soon, it was primary day.
And so AOC’s historic upset in June made sense to anyone who had spent time in the district recently, walked the streets, and noticed the changes.
Joann Ariola, chairwoman of the Queens County GOP, watched the returns on primary night with excitement. “Here we are gifted with a position where the Republicans could have taken a seat back in Congress,” she says. “There are just as many Democrats who want to fight back socialism as there are Republicans.”
Michael Rendino, her counterpart in the Bronx County GOP, was more realistic about a Republican’s chances in the 14th. “It would have been an uphill battle,” he tells me. “Even if Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez split the vote, we’d still lose two-to-one. I was still looking forward to the campaign though.” Due to a technicality, Crowley’s name will appear on the Working Families Party line on Election Day. He has not campaigned and is supporting Ocasio-Cortez.
Pappas’s road to the nomination began when Frank Spotorno, the previous Republican nominee in the 14th, recommended him to the Bronx County GOP; Pappas had advised him on tax policy in 2016. “Frank made the introduction. Anthony reached out. I told him I wanted to meet him in person. I met him in person,” Rendino recalls. “He seemed like a good guy. He was a tenured professor where I went to school, which I thought was great.”
And though his platform is to the left of Trump Republicans — including a progressive tax rate for corporations — he received the nomination. In a district like this, where Republicans are greatly outnumbered, their weak infrastructure results in candidates like Pappas. At the time, he was the only person eager to run. District leaders then collected enough signatures to get him on the ballot.
“On paper, he looked good,” Ariola says. “I’m sure you’ve seen his résumé.”
Pappas grew up on West 68th Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenue on the west side of Manhattan. His cloistered existence is familiar to anyone with Greek immigrant parents: cousins were his best friends; Greek was the language; he didn’t own a television; he worked at his father’s bakery during the summer; he attended Greek afternoon school, where religion was part of the curriculum. His family moved to Astoria when he was 12.
He excelled in academics, earning a bachelor’s in economics and mathematics at MIT and then his PhD in economics from Yale. A stint at Kidder, Peabody & Co., a securities firm, followed graduate school. Pappas then opened his own brokerage firm. By that point, in the late 1970s, he was teaching at St. John’s University in Queens. He met his wife at a Manhattan nightclub in the early 1980s and together they had three children. Now a tenured professor, Pappas teaches a course called Economic History of the Western Community.
Along the way, Pappas acquired a taste for litigation. In the mid-1990s, a parish council dispute with a Greek Orthodox priest, he says, resulted in a seven-year ordeal through state and federal courts. “I like to say that I didn’t get anywhere in the courts,” Pappas says, “but I did win in the court of public opinion.” In 2015, it was revealed that the priest, Father George Passias, participated in cake porn videos with his mistress.
The divorce proceedings have lasted twice as long as that dispute. Now in its 14th year, Pappas claims he has spent $2 million in legal fees. He’s sued judges who’ve handled his case and has been sued by his own attorneys. More disturbing is the assertion that he punched his ex-wife in the face, resulting in facial reconstruction surgery. She reportedly has a 20-year restraining order against him.
Pappas denies that he was violent toward his wife, and calls the charges that he made terrorist threats against a judge “absurd.” Pappas has more to say about his divorce. He has more to say about the judges and the courts. He blames them for the suicide of Robert F. Kennedy’s wife, Mary Richardson Kennedy. He blames them for the suicide of Steven Koufakis, a Wall Street trader who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after court-ordered separation from his children.
All of his stories lead to the same point: Judges have ruined his life.
“It’s legal assassination, right?”
“Total nonsense, right?”
“What are you going to do?”
“Flee the country, right?”
“Commit suicide, right?”
“Were you even aware of Stump v. Sparkman?”
“And you deem yourself to be well educated, right?”
“And well informed, right?”
“But you are not on this issue?”
“But now you see it’s an important one, right?”
Pappas’s focus on this issue disturbed the local GOP leadership. More warning signs emerged. At the time of Ocasio-Cortez’s win, Pappas did not have a campaign website and had not filed the FEC paperwork needed to raise campaign funds. Rendino says he set up consultant meetings for him, only for Pappas to no-show each time.
With the national spotlight shining on Ocasio-Cortez, prospective candidates were now eager to challenge the nominee. Rendino says that “known Republicans and a known Democrat” approached him about running. But, similar to Joseph Crowley and the Working Families Party, the GOP cannot remove Pappas from the ballot unless he dies, moves out of the district, or decides to run for another office. He declined.
“It was one debacle after another,” Ariola says.
Pappas then informed both Ariola and Rendino that his sluggish fundraising was due, in part, to his divorce case. Because he owed his ex-wife so much money, he told them, the courts had frozen his accounts. He also shared the accusation of domestic abuse. Ariola and Rendino then disavowed Pappas and his candidacy.
Did the Bronx and Queens County GOP vet Pappas? “Did we do an intense background check? No. Honestly, it’s not the norm,” Ariola tells me. “But moving forward from this in Queens County, we will now have a full background check on any candidate who comes to us — at their own cost — for any type of endorsement.”
About two weeks before Election Day, I meet Pappas’s campaign manager, Leon Koziol, at a hotel bar in Long Island City. He wrings his hands over the state of the campaign. “It’s been a challenge,” he says, clutching a bottle of Budweiser. “The better candidate is clearly Professor Pappas. He has a doctorate degree from Yale University. He knows his economics, unlike Ms. Cortez, who has some very outlandish proposals that will never fly.”
Koziol wanted Pappas to be more aggressive, to attack Ocasio-Cortez, specifically on economic issues, but the candidate balked. As for Pappas’s focus on judicial immunity, Koziol is right there with him. “It isn’t a personal crusade on Tony’s part,” he says. “Some of these family courts have the kind of power that would be the envy of the CIA and FBI. Tony is on point with all of that.”
Koziol has also had entanglements with the legal system. He met Pappas online about 10 years ago after the professor reached out to him over their shared struggles. Koziol, who had his law license suspended in 2010, now runs the Parenting Rights Institute, and describes himself as a watchdog over the family court system. He tells me that he recently traveled to Washington, where he huddled with lawmakers, including Senator Lindsey Graham, about his report on judicial corruption. “I’ve exposed so much corruption in the judicial branch,” he says. Later, during our conversation, he compares himself to Edward Snowden.
When asked for his plans for the stretch run of the campaign, Koziol looks deflated. “I don’t know,” he says. “Finish it up.” He then recounts a recent conversation with a “Latino leader” who opposes Ocasio-Cortez and told him he would print palm cards in Spanish for the campaign.
Koziol takes a deep breath and drains his beer. He is running late for a strategy meeting with Pappas.
“This is a very good and principled campaign and I am proud to be a part of it,” he says. “Whatever showing we make, we make it with pride as Americans. We’re not socialists. Somebody had to oppose her, and he just happens to be the guy.”
Thomas Golianopoulos is a writer living in New York City. He has contributed to The New York Times, BuzzFeed, Grantland, and Complex.