NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, July 10th, 2019

Documentary Review: “Knock Down the House” inspires with stories of working people running for Congress

To those not pay­ing atten­tion, it might have seemed like Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez came out of nowhere to win the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry for the Unit­ed States House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in New York’s 14th Dis­trict last year.

“Knock Down the House,” a new doc­u­men­tary cur­rent­ly stream­ing on Net­flix, tells the sto­ry of her cam­paign as well as those of three oth­er women who were all recruit­ed and backed by Jus­tice Democ­rats and Brand New Con­gress.

These orga­ni­za­tions start­ed work­ing in 2017 to recruit “out­sider” can­di­dates to run against estab­lished politi­cians in the 2018 elec­tion. Among the over 10,000 peo­ple nom­i­nat­ed by friends and fam­i­ly were Oca­sio-Cortez, whose broth­er nom­i­nat­ed her, Amy Vilela in Las Vegas, Cori Bush in St. Louis, and Paula Jean Swearen­gin in Coal City, West Vir­ginia, who are all fea­tured in the film.

Isra Alli­son of Brand New Con­gress explains in the film that their orga­ni­za­tion does­n’t care about polit­i­cal par­ty, they just want to help elect work­ing peo­ple, as they believe this will change pol­i­tics and they way peo­ple see our insti­tu­tions.

Sim­i­lar­ly, Corbin Trent of Jus­tice Democ­rats says that the biggest issue is the need to remove the cor­rupt­ing influ­ence of mon­ey in pol­i­tics.

He also notes that Con­gress is eight-one per­cent male, most­ly white, and has a lot of mil­lion­aires and lawyers in its ranks. (In our mon­ey-dom­i­nat­ed sys­tem, about one out of every two mem­bers of Con­gress is a mil­lion­aire.)

Saikat Chakrabar­ti, also from Jus­tice Democ­rats, says that most peo­ple in Con­gress are just think­ing about win­ning the next elec­tion and keep­ing their jobs. “That’s not the kind of think­ing that’s going to fix cli­mate change, or mass incar­cer­a­tion, or the these giant prob­lems that are fac­ing us,” he con­clud­ed.

These orga­ni­za­tions and their slate of can­di­dates con­tributed to sev­er­al new records set in 2018 midterm elec­tions, which saw unprece­dent­ed num­bers of women and peo­ple of col­or run for office. Many Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bents in Con­gress saw pri­ma­ry chal­lenges for the first time in years.

Among the oth­er can­di­dates Jus­tice Democ­rats sup­port­ed in 2018 but who weren’t fea­tured in the film were Wash­ing­ton’s Prami­la Jaya­pal (rep­re­sent­ing the 7th Dis­trict), Rashi­da Tal­ib in Michi­gan’s 13th, Ilhan Omar in the Min­neso­ta 5th, and Ayan­na Press­ley from the 7th Dis­trict in Mass­a­chu­setts. Their web­site has a form where peo­ple can nom­i­nate a per­son they think should run, or you can nom­i­nate a dis­trict where they think a pro­gres­sive Demo­c­rat needs to be run­ning.

Oca­sio-Cortez is shown speak­ing at a pan­el dis­cus­sion at Net­roots Nation in Atlanta in 2017 (a ses­sion NPI cov­ered here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate) address­ing the atti­tude she and some of her fel­low first-time can­di­dates get of “how dare you mount a chal­lenge to some­one that’s estab­lished?”

“If they’re good enough, they’ll win,” she says mat­ter-of-fact­ly.

“If we’re good enough, we’ll win.”

Also on the Net­roots pan­el was Swearen­gin, who was run­ning for the Unit­ed States Sen­ate in West Vir­ginia against right wing Demo­c­rat Joe Manchin.

In the film she is shown back home in Coal City, point­ing out all the hous­es where one of the inhab­i­tants has had can­cer and then over­look­ing a closed min­ing site that used to be a large hill­side but in now a scarred land­scape.

“If anoth­er coun­try [came] in here, blew up our moun­tains and poi­soned our water, we’d go to war,” Swearen­gin says bit­ter­ly. “But indus­try can.”

While Swearingin cam­paigned about the dam­age caused by the coal indus­try, Amy Vilela in Nevada’s 4th Dis­tric­t’s core issue was Medicare for All.

Vilela had been a sin­gle mom on food stamps, worked her way through col­lege, and even­tu­al­ly became a Chief Finan­cial Offi­cer of a com­pa­ny.

But she quit that job and sold her house in order to run for Con­gress. One of her oppo­nents in the race was a for­mer con­gress­man who most recent­ly worked at a lob­by­ing, high­light­ing some of the ethics prob­lems in our gov­ern­ment.

Vilela was inspired to run after her then-twen­ty-two year-old daugh­ter died two years pri­or to the film­ing of the doc­u­men­tary.

She had gone to the emer­gency room with symp­toms of a blood clot, but with no proof of insur­ance, the hos­pi­tal would not run the nec­es­sary tests. A short time lat­er, she had a pul­monary embolism and was declared brain dead.

Thir­ty-thou­sand Amer­i­cans die every year because of lack of insur­ance.

“I will nev­er stop,” says Vilela emphat­i­cal­ly.

“I’m not going to allow my daugh­ter to have died for noth­ing.”

Oca­sio-Cortez’s cam­paign did­n’t empha­size one par­tic­u­lar pol­i­cy direc­tion, but rather the need for whole­sale change across issues.

“Every­day Amer­i­cans deserve to be rep­re­sent­ed by every­day Amer­i­cans,” she says at a Brand New Con­gress sum­mit with oth­er can­di­dates in her cohort.

Ear­ly in the film, she is shown work­ing at her bar­tend­ing job, and she explains, “It’s called ‘work­ing class’ for a rea­son: because you are work­ing non-stop.”

While at home with her part­ner Riley Roberts, Oca­sio-Cortez com­pares a fly­er from her cam­paign to a mail­er Joe Crow­ley sent out to every­one in his dis­trict. His is miss­ing key infor­ma­tion about the pri­ma­ry, among oth­er things.

“One of these core, core issues for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment is that their con­sul­tants are garbage,” Roberts says. “They’re los­ing. It’s scary that this is, like, the fourth most pow­er­ful Demo­c­rat in coun­try [in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives], and this is the type of stuff that he’s doing.”

Oca­sio-Cortez’s strate­gic and com­pas­sion­ate cam­paign would, as we all now know, lead to her upset­ting Crow­ley in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry. In a dis­trict that is 85% Demo­c­ra­t­ic, who­ev­er wins the pri­ma­ry is basi­cal­ly guar­an­teed to win the gen­er­al elec­tion, which Oca­sio-Cortez did of course go on to do.

The oth­er three women fea­tured in the film unfor­tu­nate­ly lost their cam­paigns, but Swearin­gen and Bush are already gear­ing up for anoth­er race in 2020.

Vilela has not announced if she intends to run again.

Despite only Oca­sio-Cortez win­ning her race, the film ends on the hope­ful note of her and Roberts vis­it­ing the Capi­tol in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. a few days after the elec­tion. As she sits on a bench by her­self, Oca­sio-Cortez tells a sto­ry to the cam­era of her first vis­it to our nation’s Capi­tol city.

Her father, who died while she was in col­lege, brought her to the Dis­trict of Colum­bia when she was five years old. He point­ed at the many shin­ing mon­u­ments and said, “You know this all belongs to us. This is our gov­ern­ment. It belongs to us. So all of this stuff is yours.”

If you are need­ing a jolt of inspi­ra­tion to take back our gov­ern­ment from Trump and his swamp-crea­tures, I high­ly rec­om­mend watch­ing “Knock Down the House.” The pow­er­ful and pas­sion­ate women pro­filed may not all have won their cam­paigns, but they and the thou­sands of oth­ers who ran for the first time in 2018 have set the stage for future suc­cess­es… if we all keep fight­ing.

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