There’s a scene in Knock Down the House, the Netflix documentary about the 2018 midterm elections, in which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez walks into her primary night party and is greeted by TV cameras. Early returns are showing that she’s trouncing her opponent, Joe Crowley, the seemingly unbeatable 20-year incumbent Democratic congressman. As Ocasio-Cortez gathers herself, the filmmakers cut away to a snippet of B-roll: A young woman stands alone in the background, wiping her eyes and brushing her hair off her wet cheeks.
The documentary never names her, but that woman is Alexandra Rojas, an activist and organizer who, with a handful of other Bernie Sanders volunteers and staffers, co-founded Justice Democrats, the Political Action Committee that originally recruited Ocasio-Cortez to run for Crowley’s seat in New York’s 14th district. The JD mission is simple: elect working people to Congress, representatives who actually resemble the demographics of their districts, who reject corporate donations and embrace an uncompromisingly progressive platform that includes supporting Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and criminal justice reform. As the Trump effect threatens to drive the Democratic establishment toward the center—the latest Iowa Poll shows South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg nine points ahead—JD is acting as a counterweight, dragging the party left, one election at a time. Rojas, who has been the organization’s executive director since May of 2018, puts it in no uncertain terms: They are waging “a battle for the soul of America, and for the soul of the Democratic Party.” She adds: “If we don’t do that, my generation is pretty fucked.”
With the notable exception of its paterfamilias Bernie Sanders, the progressive movement has no shortage of alarmingly young people in positions of power. The Sunrise Movement’s Varshini Prakash is 26. Ocasio-Cortez, 29 when elected, was the youngest female member of Congress in history. Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration attorney and one of JD’s 2020 recruits—she’s currently running for office in Texas’s 28th district—will inherit that title if she prevails (the organization distinguishes between candidates they endorse—there are currently eight—and those they recruit: just two for this cycle). Rojas, meanwhile, is 24, meaning that, though she heads up an office of eight people and dozens of contractors, she’s still eligible to be on her parents’ health insurance. At conferences she tends to be at least a decade younger than other leaders in the space. (Thirty-somethings can get touchy about it: “I’m young too, you asshole!”) I can’t tell if she’s trolling me when I ask what music she likes, and she refers to Mos Def as “the oldies.”
Much like the candidates she’s striving to put into office, Rojas—Latina, a community college dropout who was working retail prior to working for Bernie—doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a typical political operative. She struggles sometimes with imposter syndrome, then reminds herself, “That’s our whole pitch: Working people deserve just as much as billionaires to run government.” She shares a revelation everyone has at some point, though most of us much later: “Through this job, I’ve realized nobody actually knows what they’re doing. So that gives me a lot of comfort.”
“Through this job, I’ve realized nobody actually knows what they’re doing. So that gives me a lot of comfort.”
In person Rojas is serious, warm, and conscientious to a fault, fretting any time she perceives that she may be inconveniencing someone. She calls herself an old soul—she’s never heard of “OK boomer” and only just caught wind of TikTok—but clearly possesses the boundless energy of...well, a 24-year-old. She’s also physically tiny, small enough to pass for a schoolkid, an impression amplified by the fact that she’s carrying the kind of giant backpack a teenager might use to lug around her social studies books. It’s early November, and she’s just arrived in New York on the 5:30 a.m. train from D.C., where she lives in a sparsely furnished apartment with her boyfriend of eight years, an artist, and her best friend, who also works in politics. We’re on the subway, lurching up 7th avenue from midtown, on our way to the Westchester suburb of Yonkers, to visit the home of JD’s other 2020 recruit: Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal who founded a public school in the North Bronx and was a voice in New York’s movement to opt out of standardized testing.
With JD’s support, Bowman is attempting to primary Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, who has been in Congress for 31 years, representing the 16th district since 2013. Rojas sees “the same recipe for success” as she did with the Ocasio-Cortez campaign: a “compelling young leader that reflects the community,” a “majority, minority district with a plurality of people of color who have been represented by an older career establishment politician that does not reflect the true diversity of that district, and who has taken millions from corporate PACs.” (Engel, it’s worth noting, is white; Bowman is black.)
In the hierarchy of kingpins to topple, Engel may not rank quite as high as Henry Cuellar, the incumbent Democrat Cisneros is looking to unseat. Cuellar voted with Trump nearly 70% of the time in the last session of Congress, has an A rating from the NRA, and is embroiled in a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by a former staffer. But that doesn’t get the New York congressman a pass. “No urgency,” is how Rojas describes him. “If you talk to residents here, they either don’t know who Engel is or can’t prescribe an ideology.” Indeed, in Bowman’s homey yellow living room, where we sit down to chat with the candidate and several members of his team, we hear exactly that. Bianca Guerrero, a 23-year-old volunteer who grew up in Yonkers, confesses she had no clue who Engel was until her senior year of high school, when a wealthy classmate had the congressman over for Thanksgiving and Instagrammed it. “I was like, ‘Who is this dude?’ He’s been in office since before I was alive?” Another volunteer, Yahaira Ruiz-Ramirez, one of Bowman’s former students, credits the principal with “always being someone I could rely on.” A third, Brandon Tizol, says Bowman cured him of some of his cynicism. “The policy prescription is important for me,” he says, “But I’m involved on a deeper level because I think Jamaal is a special person.” Bowman’s face cracks into a wide smile. “Can I have a group hug?” he asks as the meeting breaks up. “You all almost made me cry.”
Rojas often likes to describe the recruitment process for JD as part art, part science. They look at the demographics of the district, the ideological record of the incumbent—“We want to add to the majority and make sure that everyone in a blue district is an actual champion”— and the proposed candidate’s history of service. Candidates are nominated through a form on JD’s website—in the case of Ocasio-Cortez, her younger brother put her up to it—then vetted by Rojas and her team. (Getting the right candidates to actually run is a whole other story: “It’s hard to convince people, especially women of color,” says Rojas. “But it was a lot harder in 2018.”) The art part is being able to tell who really walks the walk, and who will be able to keep walking it once they get into office, when they’ll be “surrounded by 400 people telling you not to be who you are. It’s about what you have experienced in your life that’s prepared you to withstand that pressure.”
It could be seen as a testament to JD’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s momentum that Bowman is not the only progressive candidate of color attempting to unseat Engel: There’s also Andom Ghebreghiorgis, an Eritrean-American special education teacher, currently third in the polls. But by that same token, this time around the Democrats can see JD coming. In March the DCCC announced that it would blacklist any firms that work with an insurgent campaign. More recently the congressional black caucus has come out swinging, accusing JD of specifically targeting seats held by CBC members (JD has endorsed insurgent candidates in two CBC districts, but both primary challengers are also black: “We’re not just targeting black caucus members,” says Rojas. “We’re targeting everybody, because no politician should assume they deserve a seat without having to work for it”).
Going up against the party establishment is risky business, as Reshma Saujani can attest. Our last stop for the day is a Bowman/JD fundraiser hosted by Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, at her Chelsea apartment. Her living room bookshelves display framed photos of Saujani and her husband with the Clintons and the Bidens, but for years she says she was persona non grata in Democratic politics, after an attempted 2010 primary run against House Rep Carolyn Maloney. “It was incredibly lonely,” she tells me. “People wouldn’t even have coffee with me.” After she lost, the backlash persisted. “I think we are telling young people to run for office, but then we don’t really create opportunities when people raise their hands. Organizations like Justice Democrats are so important to make sure we have those opportunities.”
Before the fundraiser, Rojas and I take a Lyft to Astoria, Queens, to drop her stuff at her friend Patrick’s apartment, a small, cluttered walk-up where movement folks often crash when they come through town (a backroom still contains boxes of leaflets leftover from Tiffany Cabán’s doomed bid for Queens County district attorney). Rojas sets out her outfit for the night: a black, short-sleeved jumpsuit that a stylist for CNN, where she has a commentator contract, picked out for her. She irons it as we discuss the criticisms frequently lobbed at JD, for which she has little patience. What if they endanger the Democratic majority in the house? “We haven’t, and we’re not. So until we do I’ll take it seriously.” What if the majority of Americans simply aren’t as progressive as JD believes? “When we have a full democracy where closer to a hundred percent of the population votes, then I will believe that we truly do not have a majority of people backing our ideas.” What about rumors that Ocasio-Cortez is distancing herself from the organization? “She just endorsed Jessica Cisneros, and she’s focused on legislating because they’re having to impeach the president of the United States right now.”
Rojas is steeling herself for the backlash “to get a lot worse.” She’s already been branded a “trust fund kid” in the CBC kerfuffle. She sighs. “It’s the same Bernie bro card,” a way of dismissing progressives as clueless, privileged white kids, even when the label doesn’t fit. Rojas grew up in Connecticut, first in working class East Hartford, then in tonier Glastonbury so that she and her sister and brother could attend a better public high school. Her dad, an engineer, was a first-generation American, the son of Peruvian immigrants. Her mom, now a real estate agent, immigrated from Colombia at nine years old. They divorced when Rojas was eight. Rojas spent her childhood going back and forth to visit family in Peru; the way they were “so happy with so little" made a big impression. Then she’d return to Glastonbury, “a bubble place,” where hers was among the only brown families, where kids wore Abercrombie and Hollister and thought nothing about throwing out full trays of lunch. She hated high school and her grades slipped.
After graduation she fled to California, intent on establishing residency and enrolling in one of the U of C schools. In the interim she worked three low-paying jobs, lived in a studio apartment in Orange County, and attended community college. She wanted only to get a good education, pay for it, and figure out how to make enough money so that her parents “didn’t end up in a convalescent home.” One day someone sent her Bernie’s campaign announcement video, and for the first time it clicked that the American Dream that had floated her family into the middle class might no longer be available to her. A few weeks later, she found out she wasn’t going to qualify for in-state tuition at UCLA. So she left, driving to Burlington, Vermont, to offer her services to the Bernie campaign, and hasn’t looked back.
“I just don’t think power always has to come from inside"
Rojas didn’t really consider herself a Democrat before 2015—“just a cog in the machine of the economy,” she says dryly. She’s operating in the political arena, but her way of talking about it is personal. So much of progressive politics seems focused on paying it forward; Rojas is motivated by paying it back. “I love my family," she says. “I would do anything to support them. I’ve always seen them as my role models. I want to make them proud.” She giggles. “I want to save the planet for them!” She has no interest in running for office, nor working inside government. When two of her fellow JD co-founders, Saikat Chakrabarti and Corbin Trent, went to work for Ocasio-Cortez on the Hill (they’ve both since left her congressional office), Rojas stayed behind. She cites both a lack of relevant experience, and a lack of interest. “I just don’t think power always has to come from inside," she says. “I really enjoy finding people, empowering them, being on the backend.”
I’m reminded of something that happened earlier in the day. On the train from the Bronx back to Manhattan, our conversation is interrupted by a pair of subway buskers: A man plays the cornet while a woman croons over him into a microphone plugged into a portable amp. The sound quality is wretched. The subway is crowded. I’m trying to conduct an interview, and am mildly annoyed. But Rojas is rapt. When the pair introduces themselves at the end of the song, I catch her typing their names into her phone. She whispers, maybe to me, maybe to herself: “I just love watching people do things they really feel.”
Styled by Malaika Crawford
Hair: Rubi Jones
Makeup: Courtney Perkins
Production: Kento Spanos
Special thanks: The Knickerbocker
Originally Appeared on Vogue