“We don’t care about party. We just want to get stuff done,” says Isra Allison of Brand New Congress in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House.” “If we elect working people, working people can have representation in Congress,” she adds.
And, after 2018, they do: Bronx-born Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a flash point in the media — not just for her exciting ideas and social media savvy, but because conservatives remain fixated on the freshman Democrat, scrutinizing everything from her outfits to what she pays her staffers while also using every chance to denigrate her working-class background.
Director Rachel Lears captured lightning in a bottle when she turned her cameras on Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Amy Vilela and Paula Jean Swearengin during their unexpected 2018 runs. Boosted by organizations like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, each woman from wildly disparate parts of the country — Bush is from St. Louis, Swearengin from Coal City, W.V., and Vilela from Las Vegas — represented the possibility of voices often absent from the halls of power.
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And each had deeply personal reasons for running. A nurse, pastor and mother, Bush was mobilized by the protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr. at the hands of a police officer. Swearengin, the daughter of a coal miner, is passionate about the detrimental effects that coal mining and mountaintop mining have had on local health, the environment and the economy of her home state.
Vilela became a fierce advocate for Medicare For All after her daughter, Shalynne, died from a massive pulmonary embolism that Vilela believes was linked to a denial of care at an emergency room where Shalynne had gone. Ocasio-Cortez was in college when her father died in 2008, during the financial crisis; she went into the hospitality industry after getting a degree in international relations and economics to try and stave off foreclosure of the family’s home.
Lears couldn’t have foreseen the outcome for each of these nominees — especially AOC, whose initials are practically a household name less than six months after she won — but she and her team must have known that whatever they would capture would be a document of an unforgettable moment in American political history just given the sheer number of inspiring new comers running in the 2018 midterms.
Beyond the four candidates, “Knock Down the House” also shines a light on the non-profits finding and boosting crowd-sourced candidates to run against incumbents in their own party. It's an uphill battle to unseat entrenched incumbents like Joe Manchin (W.V.), Lacy Clay (Mo.), and Joe Crowley (N.Y.), whether because smaller campaigns refuse PAC money or the existence of simple voter entropy — even when these incumbents don’t seem particularly involved on the local level.
In an interesting twist, the doc’s May 1 release comes on the heels of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s incendiary decision to clamp down on vendors that would work with these very organizations. The latest form to apply to be a preferred DCCC vendor now reads, “The core mission of the DCCC is electing House Democrats, which includes supporting and protecting incumbents. To that end, the DCCC will not conduct business with, nor recommend to any of its targeted campaigns, any consultant that works with an opponent of a sitting Member of the House Democratic Caucus.”
Even if you don’t agree with these candidates’ policies, it seems rather, well, undemocratic for the DCCC to stymie political campaigns that would bring fresh blood and ideas to the table, especially when those ideas — like AOC’s Green New Deal — are catching fire among constituents.
It's also impossible not to factor in the gender, class, and race of these particular candidates and the response to them by voters and the media. In one scene, Ocasio-Cortez is filmed putting on make-up in her bathroom as she discusses how scrutinized female politicians are, and it’s striking to see her transform from a fresh-faced young woman to the polished now-congresswoman we see on the news (and in countless Ben Shapiro tweets). Later, she shakes her head knowingly as Swearengin recounts how someone told her, “You shouldn’t show your emotion, because women are considered fragile if you do. And you need to be more of a b****.”
Although AOC was the only person featured in the documentary to win this particular election, Bush, Swearengin and Vilela aren’t given up any time soon. Bush is running for Congress in 2020, and both Swearengin and Vilela remain powerful voices in activism.
After the disappointing results of her Nevada race come in, Vilela is shown on the phone with Ocasio-Cortez. “It’s just the reality that for one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to try,” she says. And, honestly? After watching “Knock Down the House,” I believe they — and we — can.