Last fall, I decided that the student newspaper I was leading should reach out to our district’s Congressional candidates for interviews. It would serve as a reminder to students of the significant election coming up and inform students about how the individual platforms of the candidates affected them as part-time residents of the district.
Savannah is part of Georgia’s First Congressional District, and the incumbent was Buddy Carter, a Republican who hadn’t faced an opponent in years. (you can check out my article on Carter here.) That is, until Lisa Ring, an activist and Democratic organizer, decided to throw her hat in the ring…pun unintended. I reached out to a friend who was working on her campaign to schedule an interview.
I talked to her about what made her want to run and about how her platform supported students and the arts. I also asked her for advice for students voting absentee in their hometown but who also wanted to make a difference here in Savannah.
Ring was somewhat softspoken and didn’t quite have the polished finesse that comes from promoting and defending a platform for years and years. I couldn’t help but compare her to Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams who I had profiled and interviewed earlier last year and who struck me with her ability to evenly and eloquently articulate her beliefs and capabilities. But I was equally inspired by the power of Ring’s ideas and the fact that she sounded like a real person ready to tackle real issues.
About a month later, I got back to my apartment around one in the morning after a late night covering the Savannah Film Festival. I had missed the debate between Ring and Carter, but I found a recording posted by the city’s Facebook page. It was clear to me, despite my sleepy haze, that Ring was miles ahead of Carter, calling attention to real problems, offering concrete solutions, and illustrating the path forward that she would pave. I was so sure that she, along with Abrams, would bring real change to Georgia after they were elected in November.
I clearly didn’t learn my lesson in 2016 to not be sure about anything when it came to an election. As most of you probably read in national news, Abrams lost to Brian Kemp but continued to stand up and call attention to voter suppression. Ring also faced a loss to Carter. I was pretty upset, and it took me a while to notice and take comfort in the slew of victories that women and minorities had found across the nation, including the impressive campaign and win of 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14th District.
Netflix just came out with a new documentary called “Knock Down the House” that follows the seemingly impossible campaigns of Ocasio-Cortez and three other women who challenged well-funded incumbent career politicians for positions in the House and Senate.
The four women (Cori Bush, Ocasio-Cortez, Paula Jean Swearengin, and Amy Vilela) initially launched their campaigns because national grassroots groups such as Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress started to recruit outsider candidates to run against these well-established politicians. The groups received over 10,000 crowd-sourced nominations and filtered through them to find the best candidates to enter the fight.
Swearengin was recruited to run for the Senate in West Virginia against incumbent Joe Manchin, who has earned millions in assets from coal companies. “We’ve been collateral damage,” she said, referring to the damaged and toxic landscape plaguing West Virginians. “I am a coal miner’s daughter running for the U.S. Senate, and I am mad as hell.”
Bush is a registered nurse, an ordained pastor, and a mother who chose to run against Lacy Clay for Congress in Missouri’s First District. She took to the streets after Ferguson to lend a hand as a nurse. “What I was wanting to see was justice happening,” she said. “It didn’t happen so I kept going back, again and again.” Bush noted that, as a woman of color, her image is constantly scrutinized. “You have to speak like this. You have to dress like this. I decided that, yeah, I don’t care.”
Vilela ran for Congress in Nevada’s fourth district against former Congressman Steven Horsford, who had previous experience working at a lobbying firm. Vilela was a single mom on Medicaid, WIC, and food stamps who worked her way through college. Her daughter, Shalynne, died when she was 22 after suffering a pulmonary embolism when the ER staff refused to treat a blood clot because she did not have proper insurance. “This is not a game for me,” she said. “I turned my back on an executive level job, I sold my house, I’ve gone into debt. In the beginning, it was a tough position, but I would do it again in a heartbeat now.”
Then, of course, there is Ocasio-Cortez, a waitress who ran against Joe Crowley, who had spent 14 years without a primary challenger and received three million dollars per cycle from Wall Street, real estate, and pharmaceutical companies. “This isn’t left or right, it’s up or down,” she said. “We aren’t running to make a statement. We aren’t running to pressure the incumbent to the left. We’re running to win.”
The documentary makes it abundantly clear that the four women were stepping into a political game that was built to keep each off the ballot. “People keep telling me ‘they’re going to try to make sure that you never show your face in your community again,'” Ocasio-Cortez said. In addition to serving as the incumbent Congressman, Crowley was also the chairman of the Queens Democratic Committee, the district leader, and had appointed every board of elections judge. Any signature with a discrepancy on a petition to add a name on the ballot gets thrown out. “So even though the actual requirement is 1,250,” Ocasio-Cortez said, “because we’re challenging the boss, we need to collect 10,000 signatures.”
The campaign staff for Vilela noticed that Crowley was actually funding their opponent. “He’s pouring all this money into a race that is two weeks before the New York primary,” said Shannon Thomas, Vilela’s fundraising director. “If Amy wins against the establishment Dem, things look a little more hopeful for the scrappy fighter from the Bronx.” Crowley was apparently concerned enough to put money into Horsford’s pockets, but not concerned enough to show up to debate Ocasio-Cortez at one town hall forum.
The women also had to fight public opinion. “They’re actually posting now that I’m a Marxist,” Vilela said. “A commie, and socialist, and a piece of shit, and a bitch. And, you know, I look like I’m a Russian, [and] go back to my country in Mexico. You know what? Bring it on.”
Swearengin was told “‘You shouldn’t show your emotion, because women are considered fragile if you do and you need to be more of a bitch…and when you go to the people in West Virginia, and you tell ’em you’re serving them…you need to tell them that you’re their bitch.’ I said, ‘I’m not a dog.'”
Many people brought up the seniority that each of the incumbents had over the four women. Bush agreed that seniority counted, “but who does it count for? Is it definitely counting for us? Do we feel the seniority?”
Ultimately, Vilela, Swearengin, and Bush, like Ring, lost the election but, in each case, won an impressive third of the votes, got the word out about their causes, and proved that women should not be underestimated because we’ve been fighting harder and longer for a fraction of the results. Ocasio-Cortez called Vilela after the Nevada primary to say, “In order for one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to try.”
As you know, Ocasio-Cortez went on to win the New York primary with 57.5% of votes. But, just because you may know the ending, watching her take in what she was able to accomplish on election night is indescribably powerful, and while it doesn’t make up for all of the other heartbreaking losses, it proves that change is possible for anyone with the guts to persevere.