Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines on June 26, 2018, after defeating 20-year incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.) in the Democratic primary.
But the story behind her campaign starts with the progressive political action groups Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez’s name was just one of thousands the organizations received in 2016 as part of a massive online call for nominations. Her meteoric rise shocked everyone involved, including Justice Democrats Executive Director Alexandra Rojas, who ran the field program for the last two months of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign.
“If you asked me two years ago if I would be going back and forth all over the country, and then sleeping on the floor for a month and a half for Alexandria’s race, I wouldn’t believe you,” Rojas said.
I met Rojas at M&M Bakery in Queens, New York, in December. We talked about Justice Democrats’ post-2016 mission, discovering Ocasio-Cortez, and what it was like to build a campaign around a media magnet. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me about Justice Democrats and your mission after 2016.
A lot of the founders, including myself, came off of the distributed team on the Bernie [Sanders] campaign. Bernie was a really exciting experience where you see this giant national campaign in a competitive Democratic primary, with this really credible and authentic messenger, who talked about the problems facing our country in really clear and simple terms. And so the idea, coupled with the work that we’re doing on the campaign around distributed organizing: setting up an auto-dialer; running a text-for-Bernie program; doing barnstorms throughout the country, when we had no staff in certain states. The idea with working with limited resources, around organizing and small-dollar fundraising, and running on ideas that are as radical as the problems that we’re facing. That sort of recipe style of a campaign that we did on Bernie was really incredible.
And so we took a lot of the lessons learned from there, and applied it to Congress. Because we have this horse race every four years over the presidency, but the reality is a lot of that power exists in Congress. So we wanted to take that energy, that momentum, and funnel it towards transforming the Democratic Party, as a way to actually be able to advance on the issues that we care about. So we’re pretty focused on transforming Congress.
So what were you guys looking for, after 2016, in potential progressive candidates?
I’d say a big part of our process for candidate recruitment isn’t necessarily that checkbox of progressive issues that you care about and that you support. It’s how those lived experiences that you have in your life impact those issues. And, are you down with thinking about the collective versus just your own race? And I think that translates into, are there instances in your life where there’s an opportunity for you to sell out, or take some other position, and you chose not to, because you wanted to stay and help your community? [...]
I think [Ocasio-Cortez] just had real experiences that people across the country face, that we don’t necessarily put a lot of value in. I totally respect all of the people that are in Congress right now, that are attorneys and have more of an organizational, or have been in politics for their career. But we’re starting to lose touch, I think, with our own communities, and the American people. We forget that over 63% of Americans struggle to be able to afford a $500 or $1,000 expense, right? So I think [Ocasio-Cortez] not being able to have health care until just recently, I think when her father passed away, having to help support her own family, while going to college and going to school, is huge.
I want to go back to the steps of the campaign. How did you get her name? How did you guys find her?
So she was nominated. We had a very public nomination process that we launched with Brand New Congress. So she was nominated by her brother, and we just felt it was a pretty compelling message. But it came through our public nomination process to our supporter base and ―
Through the website.
Through the website, exactly, yeah.
So how many names did you guys get?
We got about 10,000 since we launched in 2016.
Wow. These are all by either candidates themselves, or people close to potential candidates, or people who think they would be great for positions like Congress?
Yeah. We read these nominations that come in, thousands of them, right? So it’s me, it was our small team, and then we had a team of volunteers that would look at these stories. They’re really stories about these incredible people doing incredible work in their communities. Like I said, the nuance to our process is really trying to identify those types of experiences that embody this sort of generation. In tandem with that is also the work that they do in their community, and we felt that stuck out for someone like her. And then, looking at things like videos and audio that a lot of these people may or may not have online. She did, and it was really clear that she’s really talented when it comes to communicating her values and her ideas.
So what were those initial conversations with her like? Had she had any inclinations to run for a position like U.S. House?
I don’t think so. But I will say, and she’s said this before, is that [her 2016 trip] to Standing Rock was really a big moment for her, in figuring out what she wanted to do. And we happened to give her a phone call right after that sort of transformative experience... [She left Standing Rock thinking] ‘I wanted to stay in this movement, but I didn’t know if that was going to be running for Congress.’ I think we sort of planted that seed, and this idea again, going back to not just her run for Congress, but her alongside a slate of people that were just as committed as her. That they can share experiences of what it was like together. And for us, for the first time, Justice Democrats or Brand New Congress as an organization, recruiting a slate versus just one person.
But again, we did make an intentional decision to ― I think her win symbolized a lot, and really advanced the progressive movement forward. And she’s got a team of people that are cheering her on in office, and I think the entire movement behind her that gives her a lot more power than just a typical congresswoman or congressperson.
What was the training like that you guys gave her? Because you guys essentially recruit and train candidates. What kind of process was that?
I will say, I want to make this clear, that Alexandria is an absolute boss [laughs] at social media, and communications in general. So I don’t want to say we trained her. She’s just a natural.
I believe it. I believe it.
But we did hold, we had at one point a distributed training... And then we did host three or four in-person conferences, or summits, we used to call. The first one, [where] we actually met Alexandria, was in Kentucky. We invited her alongside, I want to say, four or five other potential candidates or people we were trying to convince to run for office. And we did media training. Just sort of general stuff like “this is the process that you go through to run,” and sort of basic nut-bolt stuff.
Was Alexandria worried about how expensive it’s going to be to run a campaign?
All of our candidates were. I think every single one of them, whether we recruited them from the beginning, or even the ones that were really successful... Someone like Jess King had to take an income. We didn’t end up endorsing [Liuba Grechen-Shirley], but a [Grechen-Shirley], I think down in Long Island, literally changed history this cycle by being a mom and taking income for child support. So she alongside everybody else...
It’s hard, but we have to figure out how we can get people like her in the current system we have. So I think that’s the only way that we’re going to be able to change it, is if we run more of these style of campaigns. So for over a year, we struggled alongside her, as a new organization. It was tough fundraising. We want candidates to get all of the money. We purposely directed our supporters, as much as we could, to fundraise for candidates like Alex and Sarah Smith and Cori Bush. So progressive organizations, progressive campaigns don’t have a giant, high-dollar fundraising base. It’s just small-dollar, and it’s super hard. Yeah, it’s not like, “Oh, I’m going to take off time to run for office.” You still need that money to pay rent, as you’re doing all of it. To buy health insurance.
You have to still keep yourself afloat.
Yeah, yeah. It was definitely her, but so many others around the country that are still going through, in paying off those debts. It’s a big sacrifice.
Did you guys think that you would find a candidate who would hit so hard with the media, in the way that she has?
I mean, it was our hope, right? One of the reasons that I was attracted to Bernie’s campaign was because he was the only one that, even though he couldn’t articulate exactly ― it’s sort of an intangible thing, a political revolution. We can define it in a million different ways. But this idea that you have to build a movement, and that you have to have millions of people that currently aren’t involved enter the process. We need candidates, in the horse-race style of politics that American politics exist in, that can challenge that, and that can really shift the Overton window.
When you see Alexandria, she’s just so talented at communicating these ideas. I don’t know if we would have expected it to blow up as big as we had now. But the idea has always been, we need to penetrate the news cycle. We need to penetrate the media cycle to get our ideas out there. Credible, authentic, powerful messengers are what’s going to help us penetrate that.
You guys still have that entry system on your website, through which she entered. Can anybody become the next Ocasio-Cortez?
Absolutely! We takin’ nominations! [laughs]
How does it feel to have recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
Me, alongside hundreds of volunteers, and the incredible people of Brand New Congress and the folks that I work with every day at Justice Democrats. And the tons of people that were not part of these national orgs, and that were here from the very beginning. There’s five people that was the original AOC team, that really put in the work, before anyone noticed. And it’s all of our victories. Yes, it’s validated, but it’s also humbling to know that we believed in this from the very beginning, and we knew that it was possible. And now we get to share that with the world.
It’s just beyond grateful that we’re even here right now. It feels a lot closer to actually making what we really wanted happen, which is transforming our country so that everybody can thrive in [it] and live happy.
To learn more about the significance of Ocasio-Cortez’s win, watch the video by “ICYMI by HuffPost” above.
CORRECTION: Rojas served as the field director for two months, not the entirety, of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign.