Ocasio-Cortez’s disruptive spotlight could soon be turned on bankers

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With Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, considering presidential runs, there’s already an expectation banks will get their fair share of knocks in the national debate over the next two years.

But now there’s yet another reason to expect that discussions over “too big to fail,” Wall Street misdeeds and a renewal of the Glass-Steagall Act will remain top of mind among voters: Newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is said to be poised to join the House Financial Services Committee.

Being added to the panel is a potential opportunity for the native New Yorker, who identifies as a democratic socialist. She’s already garnered media star power thanks to her surprising primary defeat of a longtime Democratic congressman and her frequent use of social media. She’s also attracted her fair share of critics, to be sure, including some among her own caucus, but for many voters on the left — especially younger voters — she’s rapidly become an influential spokeswoman.

Crucially, the committee could give her another significant platform to share her criticisms of the banking industry — and to shine an even brighter light on the debates teed up by Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who chairs the committee. The two are likely to see eye to eye on a number of issues before the banking panel, including further investigation of the scandals at Wells Fargo. Ocasio-Cortez has also been outspoken in favor of reviving the Glass-Steagall Act, which would separate commercial and investment banking activities. Ocasio-Cortez’s office did not respond to a question from American Banker about committee assignments.

Of course, joining the panel isn’t without some amount of risk for the freshman congresswoman. Much of what she says will remain under a microscope for the foreseeable future — partisan critics and journalists alike have been quick to fact-check her and that could prove doubly true on complex topics like banking. Major stumbles could potentially impact her broader influence.

At the same time, as a freshman on the large Financial Services Committee, which typically has dozens of members, Ocasio-Cortez won’t necessarily have the same kind of chances to score political points as senior panel members. It’s possible she may not have the chance to speak or ask questions at hearings — including headline-making events — if time runs short. That could limit her ability to make waves, though she’ll still be able to raise banking issues outside of those venues — in speeches, on social media and elsewhere.

Yet broadly, becoming a committee member will still add to her ability to weigh in on these topics. That’s particularly the case if she’s joined on the panel by the likes of Rep. Katie Porter, a law professor and the former California monitor for the $25 billion mortgage servicing settlement, along with other progressive freshman lawmakers.

The move is also reminiscent of another political newcomer who quickly came to fame in banking circles: Elizabeth Warren herself. While her performances on the Senate Banking Committee earned jeers from many in the financial industry, they helped solidify her political brand in ways that have propelled her to her current position in the Democratic Party — as she weighs a White House bid after just over six years in office.

Warren made her mark not just by asking tough questions on the panel, but by being savvy in how she curated those standoffs. Her staff would frequently clip video from those hearings to be distributed widely through email and social media, amplifying her message far beyond what a typical five minutes of questioning at a hearing can do. Ocasio-Cortez has clearly demonstrated her own ability to use online tools to her advantage, including capturing a wide following on Instagram — where she has, among other things, posted live videos of herself cooking while she talks about politics.

If her career trajectory follows anything like Warren’s, bankers should be watching out.

Bankshot is American Banker’s column for real-time analysis of today's news.

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