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.