Amid the euphoria following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s landmark Democratic primary win on Tuesday rose a bleak observation: Why had there been so little coverage of her campaign?
A 28-year-old Latina Democratic Socialist who has never previously held office, Ocasio-Cortez defeated multi-term incumbent Joseph Crowley by an extraordinary 16 percentage points. Even so, prior to the historic victory, the Bronx-born community organizer was largely overlooked by dominant news outlets.
But there is one team who has documented Ocasio-Cortez’s rise since the beginning: the filmmakers behind Knock Down the House, an in-progress documentary following four underdog female candidates as they vie for office around the country.
Rachel Lears, the director and cinematographer behind the project, first reached out to Ocasio-Cortez in March 2017. Not long after, Lears began trailing the young candidate as she embarked on her initial grassroots efforts, including her first door-knocking event just over a year ago in June.
When The Daily Beast speaks with Lears on Wednesday, she’s in celebration mode at Flats Fix, the Union Square taco joint and bar where Ocasio-Cortez used to work.
“It’s a real emotional rollercoaster,” says Lears of chronicling the campaign, which has evolved into a Cinderella story of dazzling triumph. “This movement is a lot more than opposing Trump, although it certainly does that. It’s about building a positive vision for a truly just and sustainable America.”
Lears connected with Ocasio-Cortez through an organization called Brand New Congress, a liberal group galvanized by Trump’s election that seeks to recruit and champion promising non-politicians for office.
Ocasio-Cortez was part of Brand New Congress’ initial cohort, and when Lears first reached out, “She was running the campaign out of her home and a couple of bags that she was carrying around with her,” Lears recalls. But through the raw power of a progressive platform and a gift for developing community rapport, the dogged candidate was able to recast her modest means as a political advantage.
Reflecting on all four of her documentary subjects—Nevada’s Amy Vilela, Missouri’s Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, and Ocasio-Cortez, all women who had no previous experience in politics—Lears says, “By not taking corporate money, by coming from the communities that they seek to represent and maintaining close ties with those communities, I think they’re really a different kind of politician from what most people expect.”
But hindsight is twenty-twenty. Few seem to have seen Ocasio-Cortez as a serious contender against Crowley, a robustly endowed 19-year incumbent wielding national influence.
Even Lears, emphatically recounting the positive energy she witnessed on election day, was uncertain: “People of all stripes were coming up—all ages, all ethnicities, all over the place—saying they had just voted for her or were planning on it,” she says. “I knew that the support existed in these communities. But this is a low turnout rate, and it’s not just because it’s a midterm primary. It has to do with the way New York election law makes it difficult to vote,” she explains.
It wasn’t until later, when Lears was accompanying Ocasio-Cortez in her car on the way to the watch party, that favorable numbers started coming in. “Everyone was cautiously optimistic, and incredibly nervous, and the tension was really palpable,” Lears says. “Then Alex just refused to get any more information in the car. She made everyone turn their phones off and not tell her anything until we got to the watch party.” The explosive moment of revelation arrived minutes later, caught in a viral news clip which has been circulating in collective triumph.
Reflecting on the achievement, Lears says, “I think everyone just assumes that power will stay in place. And the only thing that can challenge that power, the only thing that can challenge millions of dollars from huge industries, like Wall Street and luxury real estate, is just an army of thousands of people working and donating small dollar amounts. But in particular working, with volunteer labor, to organize these communities.”
Herein lies the mission behind Knock Down The House: illuminating how the public can aid in overturning structures that often feel too big to topple. As she continues her work on the film, Lears says, “I really want to change the way people think about politics and participation. I want to break through cynicism and the conventional narratives that keep people from engaging in political processes.”