The New York candidate backed by AOC’s PAC

Samelys López, candidate for New York's 15th Congressional District.
Samelys López, candidate for New York's 15th Congressional District.
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Samelys López, candidate for New York's 15th Congressional District.

The New York candidate backed by AOC’s PAC

A Q&A with Samelys López, a candidate for the 15th Congressional District.
February 21, 2020

On Friday morning, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced that her new Courage to Change PAC will endorse progressive congressional candidate Samelys López. López, a Bronx native who is running for New York’s 15th Congressional District, is the only candidate from New York of seven female House candidates that won the backing of Ocasio-Cortez’s PAC.  

The endorsement may give López, a community organizer and housing advocate, a much needed boost to her campaign for Rep. José E. Serrano’s seat in the South Bronx. She is campaigning in a crowded field of around 10 candidates, including well-known politicians like New York City Council members Ritchie Torres, Rubén Díaz Sr. and Ydanis Rodriguez, Assemblyman Michael Blake and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. López has raised just under $36,000, according to the latest filings, while Torres, the frontrunner on the fundraising front, has brought in a whopping $1.14 million. 

In an interview on Friday, López weighed in on what the endorsement means to her campaign, how it might help her catch up on fundraising, and the kinds of issues that she if focused on. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did the PAC’s endorsement come about? 

They reached out to get a sense of what was going on in my campaign. And basically I told them what was going on, what we were doing in terms of the volunteer excitement and the grassroots donations that we've gotten. Over 80% of our funding has come from small individual grassroots donations. I don't accept a dime of corporate PAC money, lobbyists’ money, real estate developer money and pharmaceutical money. I mentioned that we have the New York City DSA endorsement. And that reinforced that I've been organizing in the community for a very, very long time. I'm an advocate in the housing justice movement, so after that, it was really their call to decide what they wanted to do in the ring.

Is the endorsement somehow related to your relationship with AOC? 

I think it was completely separate from the endorsement because she's been saying for a long time that she's looking at the race closely. So it's really up to her to decide who she wants to support. And it's really important to stress that Courage to Change PAC endorsed the campaign. It looks like they saw that our campaign fell in line with the values that they're fighting for, and the need to have the parties be a party of the working class and a party that is about transformative justice. One of the things that I've been saying on the campaign trail since the beginning, since I announced my campaign in late September 2019, is that we need to leave behind the transactional politics of a broken system that currently defines the lay of the land. We need to embrace the politics of transformation, which means unapologetically centering working class communities, the grass roots, and people that don't have a voice. People that don't have a place in our political system. 

We need to be identifying and intentional by identifying people that haven't been a part of the conversation and making sure that we fight for them and fight for that their leadership and experiences, which have directly impacted people, set policy in the country. And right now, that's not happening. 

What does this endorsement mean for your campaign? 

I think it'll be really good for our campaign because it'll give us more visibility. It'll help us further coalesce the leftist support here in New York City, and hopefully in the country. It would be great to have a sounding board because one of the things that the PAC is promising to do is assist a little bit with the campaign in terms of helping with support and things like that. So I'm very much looking forward to that. But the most important thing this endorsement has done for me personally, our volunteers and the campaign is reinforced that we're on the right track, that we have the right values that are leading this movement. It's a reinforcement that when you put the community first, focus on the moment and not yourself, only focus on the most directly impacted. This is the mission of the PAC. If you go to their website, you'll see that they focus on making sure that directly interactive people are at the helm of leadership. This endorsement has meant recognition that the collective suffering of our community is what we need to be focusing on and what we need to prioritize when making policy. When you focus on the needs of the most marginalized and oppressed in the community and come up with laws that address them, everybody in society benefits. The Courage to Change PAC recognizes that. And that is the main reason why I'm honored to have gotten its endorsement today. 

Is fundraising important to you and your campaign? 

I want to stress that fundraising obviously is important for any grassroots candidate, especially when you're in a race like mine. But what I just said is even more important in terms of reinforcing the values and the need to have directly impacted people be a part of political leadership, because eventually, that's what's going to transform the system and the Democratic Party. We transform the party from within and without because right now, it's not necessarily reflective of the needs of the working class people's color and the most marginalized LGBTQIA community. We need to be real about taking big money out of politics. This is what this practice is seeking to do, as well – putting a path for people, and for current people that have stood up to the powers that be and done what's right for the community and put the community first. In addition to that, that's a nice side effect. But it's really great for grassroots candidates like ours and many races in the country to be recognized in that way. Because that gives us the moral courage and the conviction to know that what we're doing is the right thing and that we're advancing the movement together. That is the reason that I'm most thrilled about getting this endorsement.

What other endorsements has your campaign received so far? 

We've received endorsements from Sister Diaspora For Liberation, Our Progressive Future, People for Bernie, New York City Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch of DSA and Matriarch. 

Where does this place you in the field? Does it give you a boost over other progressive candidates, such as Chivona Newsome? 

In terms of where I'm at in the race, I'm focusing on our campaign and on a door-knocking operation on the ground. So that's basically where I'm personally devoting all of my efforts to. I'm not really focusing on anybody else who's running. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for Chivona Newsome, but I'm focusing on my race and what we need to do to win and to coalesce the leftist support throughout the city and throughout the country. I think that these endorsements are a great step in that direction. And we're going to keep centering the needs of the most marginalized people that haven't been heard and haven't been seen. And one of the most important things that we're doing is, that we’re being very intentional about building a multiracial working class coalition in the community that centers on every constituency in the neighborhood, not only the Latino community, the African American community, the West African community, the Garifuna community of Honduras, and the Mexican community. There are many diverse communities here in the South Bronx that are a microcosm of the world. And we're being very intentional in our campaign about centering every different experience surrounding us with people throughout the district so that we can build a multi-racial working class coalition that represents everybody. So that's what we're focused on.  

In the past, you have criticized the Bronx Democratic Party. How has it been involved in the race so far? 

This is about transformation, centering the community and making sure that the community owns their local political process at every level of government. I think that it's healthy to critique, hold the powers accountable and create a space for people to be heard and to be seen. Right now, we're very proud of our efforts at democratizing all this kind of information, because it's people that are directly being impacted by certain issues that need to be at the center of power, whether it's leadership in the community or leadership and politics. That's the kind of space that we're creating in this race and beyond. Even before I announced this race, I had been working to build an independent, grassroots political infrastructure so people can organize and learn the mechanics of the political process here in the Bronx and beyond. We're very proud of our efforts at democratizing that information and introducing a new generation of people to run for these positions without anybody's blessing.

What platforms are you using to promote your campaign? 

We want to take advantage of everything. Obviously, we've been using Twitter, Instagram, we're looking at TikTok and other ways of getting our message out. In a grassroots message and campaign like ours, it is really important to take advantage of every free resource you can. We're also using traditional relational organizing, meeting the community, whether it’s knocking on doors, meeting people at train stops and going into their homes. We're being invited to meet-and-greet events with our neighbors, and that's a great way of building grassroots political power in a way that outlasts this campaign. 

One of the things that I've been saying consistently, since I announced this campaign, is organizing should not stop. When you want to win an election, it should continue to grow. The most important thing to me is to make sure that we're growing our movement here on the ground and abroad. We can carve this leftist, very progressive thing that reflects our local politics, values and the needs of the community. The South Bronx has a revolutionary and socialist legacy in the community, if you look in the 70s and the 80s or the rise of the Young Lords. This is an opportunity to stand on the shoulders of the leaders of the past that have paved the way for people like me. We keep building and growing the movement to keep it moving forward. That’s something that's important to me beyond this campaign, because I think that change always starts from the bottom up. It's always led by the movement and people that are angry because they feel like they've been left out. It starts when people reclaim their voices so that we can transform our politics and society.

Amina Frassl
is an editorial intern at City & State.
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