From CNBC to Congress: How Michelle Caruso-Cabrera intends to challenge Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

'The district deserves someone who's actually interested in their issues and what they need'

A print and television journalist for the past three decades, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera has covered topics ranging from education and crime to the financial market and global events. “As a reporter I was always calling people, and you listen,” the first-time congressional candidate explained to Jewish Insider during a recent interview in midtown Manhattan. “A lot of politicians like to talk a lot.” 

Details: Caruso-Cabrera, most recently an anchor and correspondent for CNBC, announced a primary challenge last month to prominent progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in New York’s 14th congressional district. Three other Democrats have already filed to challenge Ocasio-Cortez in the June 23 primary; while eight Republicans have filed to run in the GOP primary. 

Listen > Lecture: Ocasio-Cortez “is always lecturing” constituents, “telling them what they should want,” Caruso-Cabrera, 53, said. “I like to listen to what they want and what they need.” 

Bio: Caruso-Cabrera, the granddaughter of Italian and Cuban immigrants, graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1991. On her first summer home from college, she worked to help pay for her tuition and — as her father put it — to “understand how most of the world lives.” She waitressed at local restaurants and helped her father with his landscaping business. Following graduation, she began her journalism career in Miami as a researcher and special projects producer for Univision, and later as a general assignment reporter covering crime and hurricanes for WTSP-TV in St. Petersburg, Florida. In 1998, Caruso-Cabrera joined CNBC, where she most recently served as chief international correspondent and co-anchor of “Power Lunch.”

Small government advocate: Caruso-Cabrera is the author of You Know I’m Right: More Prosperity, Less Government, which calls for fiscal conservatism, limited government and personal accountability. The book, which came out in 2010, includes a foreword from Larry Kudlow, President Donald Trump’s top economic advisor. Caruso-Cabrera registered as a Democrat in 2016. She wouldn’t say who she voted for in the 2016 presidential election, but told JI that she plans to support the Democratic nominee in November. 

Transition: Caruso-Cabrera told JI she found the transition from journalism to politics to be easier than she had expected. “I’m not afraid to talk to people. It’s very comfortable for me to walk into a room and start talking with people,” she explained, “I’ve done that all my life — because if you’re going to ever get interviews, that’s what you have to do. And then if I want to hear people, I have to be able to reach out to them.” 

Uphill battle: Caruso-Cabrera is a longshot to unseat Ocasio-Cortez. Despite being heavily outspent in the 2018 Democratic primary, the freshman congresswoman defeated incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, who held a top leadership position in the House Democratic Caucus. To date, Ocasio-Cortez has raised more than $5 million and has the backing of 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Caruso-Cabrera is not deterred, telling JI that while she was a late entrant to the race, she spent “a lot of time” in the months prior to her announcement “making sure that it was winnable, making sure that I would be able to raise money and making sure that there would be enough people in Queens and the Bronx who wanted a fresh candidate.” 

MCC vs. AOC: Caruso-Cabrera said she decided to go into public service and challenge the freshman congresswoman after watching Ocasio-Cortez’s vocal opposition to Amazon’s plan to build a major campus in Queens. A poll conducted by the Siena College Research Institute last year found that 38% of New Yorkers labeled the congresswoman “a villain” in Amazon’s forced pullout. “She threw away 25,000 jobs and she’s proud of it, she owns it,” Caruso-Cabrera said. “I just couldn’t stand by and watch that.” She added, “It’s obvious that Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t pay attention to her district or her constituents. She spends a lot of time on TV shows, in Hollywood, and she’s spending all this time on the campaign trail for other constituents that have nothing to do with her district,” a reference to Ocasio-Cortez’s stumping for Sanders. “The district deserves someone who’s actually interested in their issues and what they need.” Caruso-Cabrera pointed out that she announced her decision to run for the seat while Ocasio-Cortez was in New Hampshire campaigning with Sanders in an effort “to highlight where she wasn’t” — in her own district. 

Ready for the challenge: The rookie politician insisted that she’s not afraid to take on a firebrand of progressive politics who has a national following. “What I know is that people would like to have a choice and they hadn’t been offered a choice,” Caruso-Cabrera explained. “When she campaigned in 2018, she campaigned on the fact that the previous occupant did not educate his children in the district and people didn’t like that. They didn’t realize that what they were getting with that was a jobs killer, somebody who also wouldn’t be present in the district, who would have very poor constituent services, who would help her goddaughter, her niece, get into a charter school and then march against charter schools — that they would get a hypocrite. So I am not afraid of her. I just know they need a choice and I want to give them that choice, because I didn’t see anybody else stepping up to make clear what that choice is.” 

Michelle Caruso-Cabrera on assignment for CNBC in Havana, Cuba in 2014.

Stance against boycott: Caruso-Cabrera first spoke to JI outside the main ballroom of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C. while attending AIPAC’s policy conference in early March. She said that showing up to the annual gathering was meant to send a “clear message” that “I’m going to AIPAC, she isn’t — that I stand with Israel.”

Supporting an ally: Caruso-Cabrera said being supportive of the U.S.-Israel alliance is “certainly a differentiator” between herself and Ocasio-Cortez. “I stand with Israel, she stands with [Rep.] Ilhan Omar, someone who says terrible things, even about the United States,” Caruso-Cabrera said, adding that refusing to condemn Omar’s comments about AIPAC was “another thing that really bothered me [about Ocasio-Cortez], beyond the Amazon situation.” The candidate said that support for Israel must remain bipartisan, and that a two-state solution must come from both sides sitting down and negotiating a settlement without outside interference. She said she favors anti-BDS legislation and is opposed to any conditions on military aid to Israel. 

Field trip: Caruso-Cabrera first visited Israel in 2011 on an assignment for CNBC. It looked like it was possible that Israel might go to war with Iran, and so we were doing stories about how you maintain a strong economy, even in the face of wondering if you’re going to go to war,” she recounted. During her stay, she interviewed then-Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and current MK Gabi Ashkenazi, who at the time was the chairman of Shemen Oil and Gas Resources, a natural gas company. “I loved it. It was fantastic,” Caruso-Cabrera said of her experience, which also included a tour along the country’s northern border with Syria. 

Community relations: Data compiled by the Berman Jewish DataBank, a project of the Jewish Federations of North America, estimates that Jews in the district account for about 4% of the population. “I want them all to vote for me,” Caruso-Cabrera said with a laugh. She cited her support for Israel, commitment to fighting the rise in antisemitic violence, and ability to speak out in a clear voice against antisemitism and hate speech as reasons she thinks will appeal to the community.   

Friendly support: New York City Councilmember Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx), who withdrew from the race after a short bid, is now backing Caruso-Cabrera. 

A campaigning shift amid coronavirus: “We continue to talk and listen to the people of the Bronx and Queens. That has not changed. Rather, technology has become our new best friend. Our campaign will always keep people before politics. It’s about producing results,” Caruso-Cabrera told JI on Wednesday. Her campaign pointed out that while the candidate has taken the initiative to promote important information about the situation — publishing video clips, showcasing positive stories on social media, and distributing guidelines in emails to supporters – Ocasio-Cortez has continued fundraising using “COVID-19” in her emails. “People are dying, losing their jobs and retirements. It’s not a time to ask for money. It’s a time to unite and help one another,” a campaign official told JI.

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