Long before I had the support of people like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, or the stamp of approval from the New York Times, I was entering political spaces for the very first time as an unknown queer Latina, public defender, first-time candidate. In one of those earliest introductions, I remember being sized up by an elected official against all the traditional measures of viability. The conversation included asking which electeds were already supporting me, how much money I had in the bank, how many years of legal experience I had, and who was on my campaign staff. I was told that I needed to look older, to wear my hair a certain way; maybe the addition of pearls would do the trick.
Clearly, the message was that I did not look the part. Completely absent from the conversation was anything about why I was running and what my vision for change was.
The political gatekeepers who were asking me how much money I had and giving me hairstyle advice deemed my candidacy not “viable.”
One night in late February, I walked into night court at 5pm for an arraignment shift that would last until 1am, like I had so many times before. While infrequent, the sight of a reporter isn’t unusual, but tonight was different. The reporter was there for me. I had recently announced I was running for Queens County District Attorney.
I began picking up cases hyper aware of the reporter’s gaze. There is a rhythm to arraignments. Officers bring up paperwork. They drop them into a basket and the public defenders pick them up one by one. At first, they contain just names, birthdays, prior criminal justice contacts, and allegations. Over time, over each subsequent court date, as we get to know our clients those sparse files grow. Each inch of added volume containing the multitudes of someone’s life. The names and ages of their children they may be struggling to support. The date someone completed a drug program followed by the date they relapsed. A history of childhood traumas and destabilizing events and environments.
The injustices of our criminal justice system and the stories of the lives and families broken are rarely deemed newsworthy, but my candidacy all of a sudden was. I was an outsider critical of the institution I wanted to bring change to and very much an insider to the experiences of those most directly impacted by that institution. Also newsworthy was the fact that I was still working full time at all because I could not afford to campaign full-time without an income.
By March 2019, a little more than three months before the primary election, I still had less than $5000 in my campaign account.
I didn’t have paid staff, fancy consultants or the endorsements of elected officials. My opponents were career politicians with name recognition and war chests containing over a million dollars each. What I did have at that point was a comprehensive, boldly and unapologetically decarceral platform that I had developed sitting on my couch after long days in court witnessing example after example of the failures of our system. Each policy had a face attached to it, a story. My work as a public defender provided a unique lens that made policy so inextricable from the human lives they are intended to impact.
Yet by all traditional measures, I still wasn’t “viable.”
Fast forward just a few weeks to April, and we were growing. That growth could not be seen in dollars and endorsements, but if you were paying close enough attention you could begin to feel the groundswell. Our volunteer network kept growing. We were coalition building. Candidate forums and debates were frequent and with each debate the “viable candidates” were on their heels, reacting to the reception of our people powered campaign rather than leading. They could feel the groundswell too.
I was excited. It was hard and there were so many challenges, but I knew we were building something special. Yet, I still wasn’t meeting those traditional measures. I would fill out questionnaires seeking the support of labor unions and other organizations and most of them continued asking the same questions I got at the very beginning, “How much money have you raised so far?,” and “who has endorsed you?,” before even asking about my vision or policies.
My meetings with so many elected officials and political directors over what felt like endless cups of coffee were much the same. The increasing number of community based and grassroots organizations that were backing my campaign saw it differently. They knew what I knew. Viability could be measured by one’s willingness to listen and desire to center and uplift the experiences of others above all else. My supporters were more interested in how many living rooms I sat in and how many doors I knocked, not what other party officials or politicians had endorsed our campaign.
In the weeks and days leading up to June 25th, by all traditional measures, we cleared the threshold for viability.
In fact, we vaulted well beyond it. We had over a thousand volunteers, knocked over 100,000 doors in a single weekend, and we out fundraised all other candidates in the final two filing periods while being the only campaign to reject all real estate and corporate dollars.
Ultimately, one of the biggest lessons my community taught me is that it isn’t the political gate-keepers, sitting elected officials, or the media that gets to determine viability, it’s us. There is no set of hard and fast “rules” that candidates must abide by, and there isn’t a checklist of “viability” boxes to mark off. There is only the desire to better your community and build with them, the ability and commitment to do so, and the people who get to decide if that’s the kind of person worth fighting, and voting for.
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