NOTE: After taking a hiatus for a while to decide the best direction for Underground Groundbreakers, I have decided to shift the focus from historical figures to people doing great work today. I explain further in my post below, but I’m very excited about this new direction and the opportunity to speak with people doing work that’s making a difference. Please enjoy!
By now, you likely have heard of rising star and youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has taken the political world by storm first for defeating the powerful long-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, the “party boss” of Queens, and now for giving an inside look at Congress to people who were never interested in politics before through social media.
She didn’t win her campaign alone, of course. She had an entire campaign behind her, as is seen in the recent Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at four progressive women candidates during the 2018 midterm elections. Campaigns like these would not be possible without a strong support system.
I was inspired to take this direction with my blog by watching the inspiring women in Knock Down the House. To have the woman behind the scenes of one of the most important campaigns of recent times be my first profile has been a great honor. She is a great inspiration to anyone who supports progressive policies and candidates, and isn’t afraid of the inevitable challenges of getting them across the finish line. Even though only one of the candidates profiled in the film ended up winning (Ocasio-Cortez), the film offers a vision of what it would be like to have a coalition of progressives from all parts of the country represented in Congress, from the poorest parts of New York City (Ocasio-Cortez) and St. Louis (Cori Bush), to the mining towns of West Virginia (Paula Jean Swearengin), to the area around Las Vegas (Amy Vilela).
I recently had the great privilege of speaking to Virginia (Vigie) Ramos Rios, who managed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s wildly successful campaign for Congress in 2018. You may not have heard her name before, but she was instrumental in Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the primary over incumbent Joseph Crowley in June and in the general election in November. To say that hearing Vigie’s story first-hand, starting with her journey working on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, to managing a campaign for the New York City Council, to eventually managing Rep. Ocasio-Cortez to victory was an inspiration, would be a massive understatement. I am thrilled to be sharing her story and hope that others, whether hopeful candidates or budding managers, can be motivated by her example. [She also happens to be a fellow alum of my alma mater, Smith College!]
Vigie’s path from barely knowing anything about this senator from Vermont to managing arguably the most revolutionary campaign of the 2018 election is fascinating to say the least. While Vigie told me more when we spoke on the phone than I could ever cover here, I will do my best to convey her journey and her amazing accomplishments the way I heard them.
“I didn’t know there were so many of us”: Working on the Bernie Sanders Campaign
You could say, on paper at least, Vigie’s journey to managing AOC’s successful campaign began when she started volunteering for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2015. But that leaves out an important part of the story, one that gives a deeper view of why she believes so strongly in and works so hard for the progressive cause. In 2013, Vigie was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), an illness more common today than in years past but still not widely known. I first learned about the CFS as a fan of Golden Girls, in an episode where Bea Arthur’s character, Dorothy, struggles with the illness. As its name suggests, the illness leaves people constantly exhausted for seemingly no reason. Besides greatly affecting her physically, having this illness left Vigie in dire straits financially, eventually leading her to declare bankruptcy. It was this experience, unfortunately shared by many across this country, that drove Vigie to work for real progressive change, particularly in our deeply flawed healthcare system.
Vigie actually heard about Bernie Sanders from, as she put it, her “Baby Boomer mom.” After reading about his platform, which of course included revamping the country’s healthcare system to a Medicare for All model, Vigie felt inspired and looked into volunteering. She eventually came on as a volunteer to collect signatures so that Sanders would appear on the ballot in the Democratic primary. This effort was made difficult by the fact that they could only begin collecting signatures in December 2015, AKA the heart of winter, and there weren’t as many people to ask in Queens as there were in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Add this to the fact that Vigie was still dealing with her chronic fatigue, and this effort alone is admirable.
Working on the Sanders campaign gave Vigie a great deal of experience that would prove invaluable for her later work. She worked with a fundraiser, and, perhaps most importantly, learned from a lawyer how to clean up signatures on petitions–the key to any campaign, particularly a fledgling one. During this time, she also ran the Flushing, Queens office of the campaign.
It was when she was sent to California to work on the campaign that Vigie grasped how meaningful the Bernie Sanders campaign had become throughout the country. She worked tirelessly in two California congressional districts, which are huge geographical areas. They also included some of the reddest parts of one of the bluest states in America, ranged from urban to rural, and included some of the worst air quailty in the state. While all of this may seem like it would have been a challenge, Vigie found fellow progressives among them. At a rally in Bakersfield, north of Los Angeles, surrounded by so many like-minded people, she heard people all saying the same thing: “I didn’t know there were so many of us.”
“This was just the beginning”: Becoming a Campaign Manager
Bernie Sanders did not end up winning the Democratic primary, but Vigie felt no less inspired in her work for progressive change. She knew the excitement she had seen both in New York and California was just the beginning of a movement. After the campaign, she worked for an organization for activists, and ended up becoming campaign manager for Jabari Brisport, a Brooklyn activist running for the New York City Council in 2017. She had met Brisport while running the Flushing office during the Sanders campaign. While the campaign did not result in a win, it was successful in that Brisport became the first Green Party/Socialist candidate since the 1930s to win a significant percentage of the vote, 30%. This was Vigie’s first experience as a campaign manager, and the work greatly excited and inspired her. It turned out that it would be just the beginning of her journey managing campaigns.
It is almost hard to remember a time when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not very well known, both in mainstream media and particular in the social media universe. But in 2017 she was almost completely unheard of, except by those who worked with organizations such as the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, and local Democratic Socialist groups (Vigie would organize the Queens branch of the DSA in 2018). Vigie saw Ocasio-Cortez speak at a Medicare for All rally in 2017, and thought she had real appeal and potential. She gave AOC her information, but actually did not get asked to become her campaign manager until February 2018, when the campaign was really in motion.
When Vigie came on board, however, she found she had her work cut out for her. They had no lawyer to check and clean up petition signatures and no print shop for flyers–all with two weeks before the campaign would kick into high gear. Fortunately Vigie’s experience with the Sanders campaign proved extremely valuable: she found a friend of the lawyer she had met during her time with Bernie to help clean up their signatures, and found a union/small business print shop in Queens to use instead of the DNC’s in Boston.
The Primary and Beyond: “We won, now the real work begins”
Vigie and the rest of the campaign worked nonstop all the way up to June 26, 2018, the day of the primary. As the campaign and many of her supporters knew, they were facing an uphill battle: not only was her opponent, Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, he was also the chair of the Queens Democratic Party. Even her most ardent supporters worried that Crowley was just too tough of an opponent, but that did not stop anyone’s enthusiasm or willingness to work hard. The issues Ocasio-Cortez was fighting for were too important to succumb to defeatism.
With Vigie running things, however, the campaign really came together. When June 26 came, they remained as optimistic as possible. Like a good and smart manager should, Vigie made sure that people were able to vote right up to when the polls closed at 9 that night. This was not only the right thing to do, but it was in an effort to make sure that as many people voted as possible, and if Ocasio-Cortez were to win, that the vote totals and margins would be as big as possible.
And, of course, to the surprise of many, particularly those in media who had barely heard of her, she won–and not by a little. She received 57% of the vote (almost 16,000 votes), while Crowley received 42% (almost 12,000 votes)–a margin of 15%. This was earth-shattering, to say the least. Crowley and his followers clearly assumed that a primary challenger, particularly someone as unknown as Ocasio-Cortez, would be easily beat simply by Crowley’s usual supporters in the district showing up. What they didn’t account for was the number of people both in the Bronx and Queens who met Ocasio-Cortez and were energized by her platform and what she stood for. The constant knocking on doors and boots on the ground made all of the difference in her victory.
Things didn’t slow down once Ocasio-Cortez won the primary–on the contrary, they got even busier. The campaign become inundated with press and media requests. The months between the primary in June and the general election in November were just as much work, if not more, than what had come before. The day of the general election, November 6, Ocasio-Cortez won 78% of the vote, with more than 110,000 votes. While it is true that the primary was more consequential in this case because of the level of the person she defeated, Vigie points out that getting over 100,000 in this district was quite an achievement in itself.
What’s Next? Looking to the Future + the “Unsung Heroes”
Now that the successful Ocasio-Cortez campaign is over and she is making waves in office, what is Vigie up to now? Currently, she does speaking engagements for the Party of European Socialists. She also serves as an adviser to Tiffany Cabán, who is running to be the next Queens District Attorney.
After hearing Vigie’s remarkable and inspiring story, I was eager to hear who motivates her. I was expecting to her to list names of leaders of important movements that came before us, but her answer was actually even better than that. First, she named her parents: her mom taught her the importance of knowing what’s happening in your community, and her dad organized throughout the world. But then she said that she is more inspired by the countless names we never learn, the “unsung heroes.” For me, and for this ongoing project of shining the spotlight on people whose name most people might not know, Vigie’s answer was simply perfect. She encapsulates what I envision in an Underground Groundbreaker, and I don’t exaggerate when I say she is the ideal person to be my first profile of people doing great, important work today.