Behind Ocasio-Cortez’s upset victory, an unconventional crew

NEW YORK (AP) — A campaign manager who moonlights as an energy healer. A photographer who sings in a heavy metal band. A Muslim progressive activist who runs a cooking blog in her spare time. These are some of the political outsiders who helped propel 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a massive Democratic primary upset and into the national spotlight.

If it seems Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign crew is unconventional, that’s sort of the point. She said she intentionally built her team from the ranks of burgeoning progressive and social causes, not from the traditional Democratic Party machine.

“The best way to build this campaign was to organize around the groups that were already working and organize around the issues that mattered to them,” said Ocasio-Cortez, explaining that she drew from such groups as Democratic Socialists of America, Muslims for Progress and Black Lives Matter.

In the wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning primary victory over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley in the Bronx and Queens, her campaign drew high marks for its consistent message of social justice, door-to-door outreach, aggressive social media, a slickly produced video that went viral and even a bold campaign poster.

“We didn’t dare to hope we had a chance, but in our hearts, we believed we would win,” said Daniel Bonthius, a 32-year-old former actor who started out as the campaign’s first spokesman and eventually became Ocasio-Cortez’s scheduler and “body man.”

Like any millennial movement, the campaign had its roots on social media. Bonthius posted a Facebook message asking his friends to wake up to the political process, and they decided to meet up once a week. The friends soon joined Indivisible, a network of groups opposed to President Donald Trump’s policies.

After hearing about Ocasio-Cortez’s primary bid on The Young Turks, a progressive commentary program on YouTube, one of the group’s members invited her to their weekly meeting. Over the next months, she worked house parties and political rallies to recruit people who were passionate about social activism and ready to engage in an election campaign.

For her campaign manager, she selected Virginia Ramos Rios, a 46-year-old who has a background in insurance marketing and energy healing. She’s studied past life regression therapy and periodically performs chakra healing. But after a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the frustrations of navigating health insurance, she turned to politics.

Like Ocasio-Cortez, she was a campaign organizer for Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders. Her only previous experience running a campaign was for a far-left City Council candidate who lost last year but surprisingly garnered nearly 30 percent of the vote.

When she joined Ocasio-Cortez, one of her first jobs was to bring order to the enthusiasm. “No one was going up against the party boss,” Ramos Rios said. “That was electrifying and exciting.”

Naureen Akhter, a 30-year-old co-founder of a progressive Muslim group and part-time food blogger, said she joined as a neighborhood campaign captain after Ocasio-Cortez went out of her way to welcome her. “There was room for anyone willing to do the work,” she said.

So the band of volunteers gathered in living rooms to pore over maps, stood on street corners to talk up voters, and coordinated phone-a-thons and fundraisers from a campaign office that shared a building with a tattoo parlor and a palm reading shop.

Throughout the district, they also plastered walls with a sleek campaign poster that featured Ocasio-Cortez looking up over her shoulder with her name in striking, slanted graphics.

It was produced entirely by friends, including Jesse Korman, a New Jersey-based photographer and heavy metal singer who met Ocasio-Cortez when she was working at a Manhattan restaurant. She came to his studio after a full day of campaigning, and although she was tired, Korman told her to just express her passion and confidence through the photos.

“She naturally is that person,” Korman said. “She’s not putting on something.”

As the campaign came together and the election date drew near, the volunteers felt they were gaining on the 56-year-old incumbent Crowley, whose $3.4 million in spending was 10 times that of Ocasio-Cortez.

As they hit the streets one last time to find any registered Democrats who might give Ocasio-Cortez a vote, the smiles, honks, and encouragement bolstered their optimism. By the end of the night, Ocasio-Cortez would be the new star of the party — heavily favored to win the general election in November and become one of the youngest women ever in Congress.

The next day, she tweeted a photo of the worn-out shoes she wore on the campaign trail.

“Respect the hustle,” she wrote. “We won bc we out-worked the competition. Period.”