There’s a long forgotten parallel to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s, D-N.Y., infamous housing dilemma. It’s not a perfect side-by-side, but it’s revealing nonetheless.
Shortly after Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., was sworn into office almost eight years ago, a struggling constituent asked whether the freshman congressman would be willing to take a pay cut. Duffy responded by detailing his financial woes, including student loan debt, the expenses of having six children, and going for seven months without a paycheck on the campaign trail.
“With six kids, I still pay off my student loans. I still pay my mortgage. I drive a used minivan. If you think I’m living high off the hog, I’ve got one paycheck,” the former district attorney said.
Duffy’s answer was picked up by local and national press. “Dems excoriate Rep. Sean Duffy for ‘struggle’ on Congressional salary,” a Yahoo News headline blared. Here’s the opening of Yahoo’s story:
Democrats and liberal websites are trying to paint Wisconsin Republican Rep. Sean Duffy as out of touch after the lawmaker–and former Real World cast member–claimed to be struggling on his $174,000 a year salary.
‘Poor Hollywood Sean Duffy. He only makes four times the median family income in Wisconsin,’ state Democratic party chairman Mike Tate said in a statement Tuesday. ‘Has Sean Duffy ever been in the Real World?’ asked liberal site Blogging Blue.
Outrage on the left this week was sparked by reports Duffy had complained at a town hall meeting that he has to ‘drive a used minivan,’ pays too much for health care, has ‘more debt than all of you’ and struggles to pay his bills–all on $174,000 a year.
“A used minivan! Can you believe it? What hardship! Honestly, we believe that it’s expensive to raise six kids while paying off a mortgage and student loans. But the thing is, there are people doing that who make less than a third as much as Duffy does,” a blogger wrote in Gawker (may it rest in peace). You can find similar coverage in ThinkProgress.
Now here’s the excerpt from Ocasio-Cortez’s recent New York Times interview that went viral:
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said the transition period will be ‘very unusual, because I can’t really take a salary. I have three months without a salary before I’m a member of Congress. So, how do I get an apartment? Those little things are very real.’ She said she saved money before leaving her job at the restaurant, and planned accordingly with her partner. ‘We’re kind of just dealing with the logistics of it day by day, but I’ve really been just kind of squirreling away and then hoping that gets me to January.’
The reactions of some on the right mirrored Democrats’ reactions to Duffy in 2011, mocking or criticizing Ocasio-Cortez for having the audacity to wonder how she can afford an apartment when she’s set to make six figures. But Democrats and the press definitely didn’t treat her like they treated Duffy.
Ocasio-Cortez’s post about the matter on Twitter— “There are many little ways in which our electoral system isn’t even designed (nor prepared) for working-class people to lead. This is one of them (don’t worry btw – we’re working it out!)”— has been liked nearly 50,000 times and retweeted nearly 13,000 times.
“An actual working-class American goes to D.C. to represent actual working-class Americans,” an Esquire editor tweeted. “These comments from @Ocasio2018 are highly relatable for people in her age bracket and speak to the wide share of candidates this cycle who came from working class backgrounds,” said a Daily Beast journalist. José Andres got in on the action too, tweeting, “Dear Congresswomen: you have a room, a shower, and a plate on my family table for as long as you may be in need of one.”
Here’s a MarketWatch headline: “Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, many Americans can’t afford an apartment when they move for work.” Here’s one in Bustle: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Apartment Hunting Struggle In Washington DC Is So Relatable”
ThinkProgress, which criticized Duffy, defended Ocasio-Cortez after a Fox News panel discussed her interview, writing, “The fact is, the D.C. area is one of the most expensive rental markets in the country… Most people earning as little as that can’t afford to go three months without income before they start a new job — even if that job is in the U.S. Congress — much less afford the rent in an expensive new city.”
You get the point. None of this escaped the attention of Duffy, who tweeted to acknowledge their shared predicaments but also to question the divergent media coverage.
— Sean Duffy (@RepSeanDuffy) November 15, 2018
This is at least in part a lesson in how partisan loyalty primes us to react to similar circumstances differently. I would argue neither Duffy nor Ocasio-Cortez were complaining about their struggles so much as they were just mentioning them in relevant contexts. You can reasonably disagree on whether that’s appropriate for people making much more money than their average constituent, but that’s another debate.
The circumstances are not an exact match, Duffy had been in office for a few months at the time of his remarks, while Ocasio-Cortez is still a few months away from being sworn in. He was a district attorney before running for the seat, she was a bartender (although he was also married with a big family to support).
The larger point is that Duffy’s comments did not trigger an onslaught of reactions ranging from defensive to supportive from mainstream journalists and celebrity chefs. He didn’t get any headlines about the relatability of a young congressman struggling to pay off his loans and take care of his kids. Instead, he mostly got criticism and bad press. One was complaining, the other was relating. It all amounts to an instructive case study in the power of partisanship, and the reality of mainstream media bias.