Congress

The Fort Worth man behind the ‘Squad’: AOC’s chief of staff, a powerful new force in D.C.

Democratic congresswomen condemn Trump’s racist comments

The four Democratic congresswomen of color attacked by President Donald Trump responded on July 15, 2019 at a joint news conference. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan called for Trump's impeachment.
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The four Democratic congresswomen of color attacked by President Donald Trump responded on July 15, 2019 at a joint news conference. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan called for Trump's impeachment.

Saikat Chakrabarti was on Politico’s “Power List” of People to watch in 2019.

The 33-year-old from Fort Worth certainly has been just that.

In recent weeks and months, Chakrabarti — chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat referred to by her initials, AOC — has been called a liberal lightning rod, a flame thrower, the voice of a new political movement, even a symbol of Democratic disunity.

At a time when Republicans and Democrats are working to shore up party support in advance of the 2020 election, Chakrabarti has been in the news for everything from criticizing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to comparing some moderate Democrats to segregationists.

But he told the media that much of what he does is to help bring Democrats back into power.

“You do the biggest, most bad-ass thing you possibly can — and that’s going to excite people and then they’re going to vote,” he told the Washington Post Magazine. “Because the reality is, our problem isn’t that more people are voting Republican than Democrat.

“Our problem is most people who would vote Democrat aren’t voting.”

The question is whether Chakrabarti’s approach will be effective, leading up to what is expected to be a fiery presidential election. President Trump already has labeled some Democrats socialists and some Democrats have already labeled Trump a racist.

“Chakrabarti is part of a new generation of take-no-prisoners activists that often put their movement above the party,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “Many of these young activists come from or through Texas and are tired of conservative political action that has guided policy in Texas for most of their lifetimes.

“This has created a sense of urgency and many are unwilling to wait for the steady progress often required by legislating in Congress.”

Fort Worth honesty

Chakrabarti, the son of immigrants from India, did not respond to Star-Telegram requests for an interview.

He was known for being on one of Fort Worth’s most honest high school academic teams.

More than 15 years ago, he lived on the southwest side of town and attended Dunbar High School, where he was part of the UIL state calculator team.

The team was on the verge of claiming the 2003 Class 4A state championship when one of his teammates realized their team received two unearned points.

Dunbar students told their teacher, Gary Hicks, what happened. He told the judges and they dropped the score, bumping Dunbar out of first place in the competition.

“We got letters from elementary school students whose teachers told them about honesty. We got invited out by people who wanted to take us to dinner,” said Hicks, who retired from Dunbar in 2005 after more than four decades of teaching. “I still get comments from people who say it was a very nice thing to do.

“But what else can you do?”

Their loss was documented in a Star-Telegram story entitled “Selfless act forfeits title for Dunbar.”

“I feel happy. I feel depressed,” Chakrabarti’s teammate, then-Dunbar senior Amit Patel, said at the time. “But it was the guilt factor. Twenty years from now, I would have looked at that gold medal and felt guilty.”

Sanders campaign

After high school and Harvard, Chakrabarti worked on Wall Street and in the Silicon Valley, founding a web design tool and working at companies such as Stripe, a payment processor.

Then he switched gears.

In 2015, he joined those working to help with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid and used his background in technology to draw volunteers and voters alike to the campaign.

He went on to help create the Brand New Congress political action committee, which worked to recruit hundreds of new candidates for Congress, as well as Justice Democrats, which targeted incumbents such as Joe Crowley, a Democrat from New York.

One person he helped recruit to challenge Crowley was Ocasio-Cortez, who won the post last year.

Chakrabarti helped run her campaign, and she named him her congressional chief of staff before she headed to Washington, D.C.

Hicks said he just knew Chakrabarti — whose calculator and programming skills were so advanced — would end up in the tech industry.

But he never expected him to get into politics, a topic they never talked about in high school.

Even so, Hicks said he believes his former student will excel in this field — and any other field he chooses to enter.

“He is extremely intelligent and extremely caring about other people,” Hicks said. “I think he will be extremely successful in trying to help our country.

“I can’t say enough about him. I am just amazed that he’s doing what he’s doing. I think he’s great.”

Headlines

Chakrabarti said he wouldn’t lose sight in D.C. of his goal to pass key liberal legislation and spur the election of more liberal Democrats.

“When you shoot for big stuff, you stay true to the movement, you fight unapologetically on the inside, that is a very, very powerful way to pass the radical solutions that are necessary to face the radical problems that you have,” he told Politico.

Since arriving in D.C., he has drawn attention for everything from helping develop the Green New Deal to allegations by the National Legal and Policy Center that AOC’s campaign violated campaign finance law.

Stories written about Chakrabarti are far different than they were in high school.

“Saikat Chakrabarti is not a household name outside of Washington D.C., but on Capitol Hill he is infamous,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.

Rush Limbaugh, a conservative talk show host, recently called Chakrabarti the “sugar daddy” of four progressive Democratic congresswomen nicknamed “the Squad” — Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib.

Trump recently tweeted about these women, telling them to “go back” to their home countries, and has said they “fuel the rise of a dangerous, violent hard left.” The House voted to condemn the president’s comments as racist.

Chakrabarti wrote on Twitter that “Donald Trump is attempting to divide the country along racial lines. His campaign against black and brown people has never been about undocumented immigrants. His strategy is simple.”

Limbaugh said he believes Chakrabarti won’t get in trouble for his tweets or comments because “he’s the money behind” the campaigns of these women.

“Trust fund kid in his 30s, and he is the energetic, inspirational leader behind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and this other bunch of freshmen,” Limbaugh said, according to Newsweek. “He sets the policy for the squad. He’s the one that created a Green New Deal.”

“He writes their speeches, they are his minions and he controls the money.”

This comes at a time when many say Democrats need to unite and focus on their No. 1 goal in 2020 — defeating Trump.

“President Trump and national Republicans want nothing more for radicals like Chakrabarti to keep up the inflammatory tweets sowing dissension within the Democratic Party,” Jones said.

Chakrabarti tweets

Some have said that Chakrabarti, who frequently posts on Twitter and has more than 57,000 followers, may be hurting his freshman boss with his outspoken manner, potentially draining any influence or power she might have in the U.S. House.

Tensions have grown in the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill, particularly as Chakrabarti has drawn attention for tweets on topics ranging from Pelosi being ineffective to stating that some moderate Democrats are segregationists.

When he wrote on Twitter about the recent border funding bill, opposed by liberals because it didn’t specifically protect children being detained, he pointed his finger at moderate Democrats who supported the measure. He said they seemed “hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.”

He deleted the tweet, but not before it — and other tweets, such as one saying a Democratic lawmaker supported enabling “a racist system” — upset countless Democrats.

Pelosi recently spoke behind closed doors to Democrats, saying that they shouldn’t attack each other on social media.

Democratic leaders then used their caucus’ Twitter account, in a highly unusual move, to highlight an old tweet Chakrabarti wrote about Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat from Kansas, who supported the Senate border bill, The Hill reported.

“Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color?” the Democratic tweet stated. “Keep her name out of your mouth.”

That Twitter account is managed by the office of Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), The Hill reported.

It’s rare for a congressional chief of staff to speak negatively on social media about lawmakers, especially those in the same political party, many note.

“His frequent attacks on fellow House Democrats violate longstanding norms for a congressional chiefs of staff, who are normally seen but not heard,” Jones said. “They also undermine his boss.”

Ocasio-Cortez has been vocal as well, particularly telling the media that there has been an “explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.”

A Rasmussen poll of 1,000 likely voters shows that 42% of likely Democratic voters believe congressional Democrats should be more like Pelosi than Ocasio-Cortez.

Ocasio-Cortez recently reached out to Pelosi for a meeting, media reports show.

Some say the meeting could be to iron out differences. Others believe the meeting won’t solve anything.

Limbaugh said he believes Chakrabarti “owns” the so-called Squad.

And Limbaugh said he believes the Fort Worth man’s goal is clear, Newsweek reported.

“His plan is to replace everybody in Congress who’s not an uber-radical with an uber-radical that includes — starts with Pelosi, getting rid of her,” he said.

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.
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