When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to office back in 2018, not only did she defeat the district’s long-time incumbent, Joe Crowley, but she set a new precedent for who can run for office. In the years since, there has been a shift in the types of people placing their names on the ballot — more women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ individuals — and this movement is inspiring more and more “regular” folk to do the same. It’s even happening here at The Cut — Jazmin Aguilera, the podcast’s new supervising producer, has been toying with the idea of running for office for a little while now. On this week’s episode, we listen to Jazmin dissect all the reasons she believes she should, and should not, throw her hat into the campaign ring.
To hear more about what it means to be an elected official in 2021, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also find the full transcript below.
AVERY: You know, there’s that New Yorker cartoon that’s like, “Who’s sick of these elitist pilots flying the plane? Who thinks I should fly the plane?” Then there’s some random passengers, who are like, “We should be the ones to fly the plane.” That’s just been the sentiment in the United States. There’s been a huge distrust of experts and politicians and “insiders.” Then people come along like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and it’s just like, “Oh, maybe there’s something to this.” Expertise matters, but it’s not the only thing, it’s like, there are people who are really smart and really capable out there in the world.
JAZMIN: Well, see, that’s where I would disagree with you.
AVERY: This is Jazmin Aguilera, our new supervising producer at the show.
JAZMIN: I don’t agree with calling people who have lived experiences “not” experts. I think they are experts.
JAZMIN: That’s lived experience, expertise. That’s maybe not expertise on how to work the system, but it’s expertise on what the problems are and what needs to be fixed.
AVERY: Totally, that is such a good pushback. I think you are the perfect kind of person to run for office, and I don’t know what it would take to get someone like you to run for office. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was because ever since you’ve come onto the show and you’ve taken on this sort of like running shit, you’re also extremely likable, and you also listen.
JAZMIN: You know, I have considered the idea of being a politician before, but for the longest time I felt that running for office was a pipe dream — a career meant for those who have never done anything wrong. Or, at least, those who can pay someone to make their mistakes go away. I will say that AOC did change a lot of things for me, because before her, I did not ever think that my personality would vibe well for actually campaigning. Since AOC, obviously, I’ve changed a little bit. It made me consider some things and now it’s like, Could I actually do this?
Ok, so before I start making buttons and signs, I wanted to look into what it would actually mean to run for office. Not just in general, but for someone like me. As much as AOC is inspiring, I still have many questions. Can I actually hang with the reality of what running would be? Would it be worth it? What would I have to give up? So, I decided to talk to someone who is running right now.
JASLIN: My name is Jaslin Kaur. I’m a candidate for New York City Council and District 23 in eastern Queens.
JAZMIN: When I first started looking into Jaslin Kaur, she felt really familiar because we have a lot in common, actually. She and I are both first generation — but her parents are Indian and mine are Mexican. She was a Model UN kid, I was a drama kid. Our names even sort of sound the same. For me, Jaslin Kaur’s City Council campaign is like watching a case study, a trial run of how someone like me could run for office. For her, it all started when she had been asked to staff a seminar — a training for people considering running for office. She was only there for work, but the seed was sown.
JASLIN: You know, after the course, I met someone who was actually in my hometown who was telling me about this council seat.
JAZMIN: Jaslin worked for an organization that helped immigrants run for office. She wasn’t exactly new to the game, but she had never really considered it for herself. That was until someone at this seminar told her about this open council seat. Her city councilor, Barry Grodenchik, was retiring and leaving an open race for District 23, her home district.
JASLIN: The more I started to dig into exactly who has been leading the seat, I started getting into this Wikipedia rabbit hole. Who has represented the seat since around 100 years ago? It was only ever white men. I know what the shape of my community is like. I grew up here. That is not indicative of the kind of leadership we need to serve this community. That started getting the gears turning.
JAZMIN: Was there anything that made you feel like maybe I shouldn’t do this? What’s going through your mind?
JASLIN: The thing about running for office, especially in New York City, is that your address is public record.
JAZMIN: Oh my God. I didn’t even consider that. Oh my God.
JASLIN: So anyone could show up if they wanted to, to any number of candidates’ homes. All of these things are going to be in the public realm.
JAZMIN: Obviously running for office is a very public thing to do. That means you have to shamelessly, publicly ask for help — a lot of it.
JAZLIN: That is one of the hardest parts about being a candidate, right? For immigrant people of color who grew up working class, asking for money is one of the hardest things to do
JASLIN: It feels so vulnerable. There’s a certain kind of shame that’s attached to it because of the ways that we grew up. We’re just hesitant to ask for it. One of the most important things I learned is that you don’t get what you don’t ask for.
JAZMIN: It’s not just money. You’re asking for a lot of people’s time and attention.
JASLIN: It was a lot of anxiety, putting this out into the world for the very first time to complete strangers.
JAZMIN: Does that mean that you have to be extroverted to run? You can’t be shy?
JASLIN: Yeah, actually you can’t. You really can’t. As much as people hate making phone calls. We got to talk to voters. We got to talk to people. Again, you never know who is going to be the one to throw down for you. I’ve reconnected with old friends from middle school and high school who are like, “Oh, I saw your poster. How can I volunteer? Can I make phone calls for you?” I don’t think people realize how even in such a local election, we have over 200 volunteers, and it’s probably going to double. You need people. You need an army of people. Putting out these pieces of literature on people’s doorknobs, in their apartment building, or in their houses. It took somebody to even collect the data to see which doors you’re knocking on in the first place and to narrow down a field of 100,000 voters in an area to just like 50 to 75 doors to knock on in a day. It’s those like little little calculations that you think, Oh, this could be done with like 50 people … No.
JAZMIN: How do you get that many people? Do you need a certain amount of capital to get this going? Did you have a go fund me? How do you start that? That seems so huge.
JASLIN: We do this thing called friend banking, or peer-to-peer fundraising. I call up ten people that I know. I go through my phone. I go through my Facebook. I go through Instagram. Every single person I’m in touch, I ask for money.
JASMIN: Luckily for Jaslin, New York City has programs to help candidates who don’t want to rely on funding from special interests and lobbies.
JAZLIN: If you put together a certain number of dollars, you get a massive payout from the city.
JAZMIN: I put “NYC City Council Matching Funds program” into Google and found information on it pretty quickly. Which is awesome, but the thing is, I knew exactly what to Google to find this. Jaslin told me about it already. If I didn’t know any of that information, would it be so easy?
JASLIN: There’s a lot of careful information. If you haven’t worked on political campaigns before, or if you’ve never been to a training before, if you don’t have someone who’s in your corner who knows how to navigate these things, it can feel really insurmountable. It’s hard to navigate, and it’s not made for people like us.
JASMIN: People like us. People like me and Jaslin. So as much as it is encouraging to know that people like us have networks and communities behind us, it still feels like a big sacrifice to run. Because even after you jump through all the bureaucratic hoops to actually start your campaign, then you need to open yourself up. Not just to voters, but to the very real possibility that your opponents are going to try to drag you. This is where Jaslin is a much better candidate than I would be. I looked for dirt on her, and I couldn’t find anything. All you got to do to find dirt on me is look at my Twitter page. I put it there! All my shit’s right out there in the open.
JAZMIN: Can we do a quick “I’ll tell you about me, and you tell me if something is a deal-breaker or not.”
STEPHANIE: That’s good!
JAZMIN: I reached out to Stephanie Schriock, who’s president of Emily’s List.
STEPHANIE: [Emily’s List is] a full-blown political organization solely focused on electing pro-choice Democrat women.
JAZMIN: Emily’s List helps women run for office, at all different levels and all over the country. They provide training and help gather financial support. They’ll even drag your opponents for you. I had to ask …
JASMIN: Is there stuff that’s a nonstarter in my life that would prevent me? There’s got to be those. I am a young woman, Latina. I’m divorced. People could find, in my digital footprint, that I have done drugs in the
past. Am I screwed?
STEPHANIE: Absolutely not.
STEPHANIE: Why? Did you murder anybody?
JAZMIN: So it’s really like that.
STEPHANIE: That one’s harder. I’ve never I’ve never had to deal with that. I’m not trying to be glib here. There are serious things, but if you have explanations for those activities, I’m not saying they may not be used against you. The one I would say is drug use, it depends what and it depends on the situation. You got to tell the story if it’s going to come out.
STEPHANIE : Do you have control of when it comes out or not? I almost always recommend that if there’s a flaw that’s that you think is that kind of damaging, we would want to talk through. Do we get ahead of it? And how do we do that?
JASMIN: Ok, so let me give this a shot.
STEPHANIE: I mean, George W. Bush used drugs, and he was president of the United States.
JAZMIN: Ok, but, George Bush’s dad was president of the United States. My dad was a vato in East L.A.
STEPHANIE: Part of it’s also where you live. If it’s a conservative area versus a more progressive area, you have to think about that. It’s back to just … be prepared for what they could come at you with.
JAZMIN: That’s what Emily’s List is for. They encourage and recruit women like me to run for office. I definitely did feel like she was nudging me in that direction. But that’s what they do, right?
JAZMIN: So say that there’s a candidate like me, for example. I don’t come from a wealthy family, I’m not connected to people. I would have to give up my job to even consider running because it seems like a full-time job to campaign. I couldn’t support myself. What does this actually look like for people who are trying to get their foot in the door?
STEPHANIE: Well, you’ve brought up a couple of challenges that are really significant. Our core early support is less about dollars and more about: Let’s help you figure out how to do this. Let’s sit down, which, we’re more than willing to do with you, and we think through what kind of office you’re thinking about running for. It depends on what you’re running for, whether or not you have to give up your job or not. If you’re running for a local office or in some places in state legislatures, it varies in different states, you’re not going to have to give up your job to do this. But it’s hard. I’m not going to try to blow sunshine here.
JAZMIN: They need people like me, but that’s not the question at hand. I know they need people like me, but do I need this? Right now it feels like I need months of unemployment, stress, and public scrutiny like I need a hole in the head.
JAZMIN: One of my big questions, and I think you can tell from how I’m dressed, it’s like I have a very particular, very extra style. I really like bright colors. In some way you have to change or it adjust how you look to be palatable to the people who are voting for you. Do I just have to accept that? Do I have to put away my wigs and stuff? I don’t want to wear a pantsuit.
STEPHANIE: Here’s the good news. You’re in Santa Cruz. I’m from Montana. You’ve got a little bit more flexibility. The truth is that, to win, you’ve got to convince enough voters in that district to vote for you, and they’ve got to be comfortable with the choice that they’re voting for. Do you have to lose all of your animal prints? Probably not. But you are going to have to think about what makes sense.
JAZMIN: So it’s like a job interview. Your whole campaign is a job interview.
JAZMIN: Can you imagine dressing like a job interview everyday? I dress formally like that maybe once every two to three years. I feel like dressing so formally everyday would change me somehow. Just the thought of being on a month long job interview sounds personality altering. I wonder if someone doing this for the first time, someone like Jaslin, feels that?
JASLIN: You start having a little bit of an identity crisis of exactly who am I and who do I want voters to know me as. My friends know me in one capacity, my parents know me in another. How are voters going to perceive me? So it’s definitely a really big shift to be like, “Okay, who the hell am I, as Jaslin as a candidate versus Jaslin from Glen Oaks.”
JAZMIN: Talking to Jaslin, I do feel like I know what kind of person she is. She seems warm but driven — like one of those people who you might see doing a blood drive, you know? A helper. But, of course, I’m interviewing her. We don’t actually know each other. I’m interviewing Jaslin the candidate.
JAZMIN: In some ways, it feels like you have to kind of pause your personal life. Does that feel like that rings true? Do you have to square your brand with who you are in your own life for a little while?
JASLIN: Oh, absolutely. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given the same speech to so many different groups of people. I have to remind myself that even though I’ve heard it a million times and I’m sick of it sometimes, there’s so many people who are hearing it for the first time. It still has to resonate the same way. Sometimes it feels limiting. But at the same time, I see it as a new opportunity for people to get to know me and that’s always reassuring. It’s something I wish I was told more explicitly too. That you’re going to be confronted with yourself and some of the most intimate ways ever. You really will have to dig deep into what parts of your story you want to tell people and what parts you aren’t ready to be public about.
STEPHANIE: I think a lot about Stacey Abrams and how she handled her debt and folks were going to use that against her. Instead, she got ahead of it.It ended up in this very genuine and understandable and authentic moment. Where even ten years ago that kind of debt would have been used against you so badly because of your own mismanagement. She said, “No, this is the lives of how many Georgians who are carrying debt, and we got to fix that. I get it. I get that
experience. I can and I’m going to help us overcome it.”
JAZMIN: Not to split hairs here because we know that there were lots of shenanigans going on in Georgia at the time, but Stacey Abrams still lost. She put her soul out there and lost. That’s the real risk here isn’t it? This really hits home for me because this happened to someone in my family. My cousin ran for office back in 2018 and he lost and it was devastating.
JAZMIN: Hey, primo…
ALEJANDRO: Hola, buenas tardes. How are you?
JAZMIN: His name is Alejandro Larios and he ran for Arizona house of representatives. It was a pretty big deal in our family because he really put his all into it.
JASMIN: When you started, when you decided to run, how much of yourself, your money, your time, your family did you sink into this campaign?
ALEJANDRO: I put my life on hold, if that answers that. I ended up leaving my job two months into my campaign. Luckily, I had some money saved over and then my sister moved in with me so that allowed me to have my family with me which was a crucial part in staying sane and keeping the house from falling over. My campaign office was out of my house. Everyday was just high energy. It takes so much energy, especially for someone like me, who does not like to ask strangers for anything. Everyday I had too, everyday say, “Hey believe in me. Hey, believe in this vision.” I had no name recognition. I had a lot of support from my childhood friends, from my community, because I’ve been in the community! I need three, four, five thousand votes and I didn’t get that..
JAZMIN: You sunk everything into it more or less, and then when you lost. How did you recover from that? What happens after that?
ALEJANDRO: I think the hardest part is that it went from 100 mph every single day to zero. At first it was like, “I got to sleep!” I think I slept 16 hours the day after the election. It was hard. It was a grieving process because I was in love with the movement. Not everybody takes it well, myself included. It was tough. It lasted months if I’m honest. I remember looking at the T-shirt that had a slogan, and it just had my name very small at the bottom. You wouldn’t’ notice it, but it was the slogan. I remember hugging it as if it was a person or the shirt of a former lover or a teddy bear from my childhood. It was like, “Oh I’m sorry.”
JAZMIN: You know this is hard to hear for me, because I remember seeing his campaign ads and donating. I remember how proud we all were about it. How my mom told me if he could do it I could do it, too. Then…it was over. I’m not going to say I understand the pain he went through, but I definitely can feel it there. I don’t know that I would be the kind of person to risk it all like that. Not when I can see the toll it takes.
JAZMIN: Would you run again?
ALEJANDRO: I would run again. At this moment I don’t have many desires or want to be an elected official at that level or to run for office again, but I’m open to it. We are now two-and-a-half years after the election, and it was the biggest honor of my life. Looking back now, I’m extremely proud of everything. I would say to anyone running for office, document every moment and enjoy every moment, because if you want to look back and say, Hey, this is the first election I won or This is the first campaign I ran and then lost — either way, it’s beautiful.
JAZMINE: Cool. So after all this pondering and research and interviewing people who have gone through this, I’m sort of right back to where I started. Would I ever consider running for office? Sure, and I might be even closer to it than I was before. All my hang ups about inappropriate tweets or questionable fashion choices aside, it seems like there’s a much wider lane for folks like me to swim in. That doesn’t mean the risks aren’t still there. Just like any kind of race, you can always lose or embarrass yourself publicly, but if you’re prepared, if you have your story to tell and the wherewithal to get that story out there maybe it’s worth it. For me, I still like where I am right now and I don’t think now’s my time to run. At least I’m no longer making that decision out of fear and who knows where I’ll be in a few years.
STEPHANIE: I just want everybody to take the risk, if you can. Don’t let your own doubts be the reason you don’t take the risk. Maybe you can’t take the risk because there’s something going on with your family right now or the financial question is too daunting right now. Or maybe the kids are at the wrong place in school. There are real reasons to hold off. I respect that. Your kids are going to be older in two years. So great. We’ll talk then. Don’t let your own doubt like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” You can do it.You can do it. We could figure that stuff out. Just don’t let society beat it out of you. You got it. You got it.
AVERY: Next, we hear almost the inverse version of this story. It’s the story of a politician who, from a very young age, knew she wanted to run for office and crafted and honed her entire career and resume to get elected. But, as life does, complications and outside factors get in the way. This politician had to decide how honest to be about herself and her story with the general voting public. So much of being a politician and running a campaign is about storytelling. You’re kinda whoever you decide to be and how you decide to present yourself. Sometimes, there’s this core throbbing truth that you can’t really hide or talk your way around. This came up a lot in the story of Sarah McBride, a state senator from Delaware. Over a series of in person conversations in Wilmington and remote calls, the Cut writer Brock Colyar got to know Senator McBride, as well as her constituents.
BROCK: When I first zoomed with Sarah McBride from her parents’ house, she spun the camera around to show me something.
SARAH: This is actually the spot where I came out to my Mom. This is the side room where I told her I’m trans.
BROCK: McBride came out during her junior year of college. At first, her parents were worried about what this meant for her safety and well-being, but soon they came to support their daughter completely. As did the entire student body, when Sarah came out in an op-ed in the college newspaper. She wrote:
BROCK (READING SARAH’S WRITING): “For my entire life, I’ve wrestled with my gender identity. At an early age, I also developed my love of politics. I wrestled with the idea that my dream and my identity seemed mutually exclusive; I had to pick. So I picked what I thought was easier and wouldn’t disappoint people.”
BROCK: Sarah was frightened of what her trans identity would mean for her political ambitions. I mean, this just wasn’t supposed to be the plan. Sarah McBride had done everything right. She had honed and crafted the perfect resume for a young politician. At 11 years old, Sarah McBride walked into a local pizzeria and met then Senator Joe Biden, who gave her a copy of his schedule for the day and signed it, “Remember me when you are president.” McBride was intrigued by politics, and began volunteering on statewide campaigns in middle school. By the time she was in high school, she had already worked with local politicians like Attorney General Beau Biden and Governor Jack Markell. She even helped the governor write his speeches sometimes.
SARAH: I then fell in love with politics and government and saw that the story of our history is the story of an ever expanding, deepening understanding of our humanity. A widening of justice and equity for more and more people.
BROCK: For college, McBride chose the very political American University in Washington D.C., where she was elected student body president after knocking on every single door in every single residence hall. But by her junior year, she started to feel that her political dreams and her personal identity might be at odds. Like when she led a successful fight for gender-inclusive housing on campus. Afterwards, someone asked about the inspiration for her effort , why did this straight boy in a fraternity care so much about LGBTQ issues? McBride felt her internal and external facades begin to crumble. Even though she expected her coming out to squash her political ambitions, it seemed to be doing the opposite. After graduating, she became the first trans intern at the White House.
SARAH: Interning at the Obama White House, you know, when I would give a tour of the White House, it was about what happened in the spaces. What history happened in that room. If that history could happen in this space, if I could bring it alive for you to feel it, then maybe you can feel like you can make history too.
BROCK: And there, in the halls of the White House, McBride fell in love. Andrew Cray was a handsome trans man who worked on queer healthcare issues at the Center for American Progress. After the two started dating in 2013, McBride temporarily moved back home. She joined Equality Delaware in the fight to legalize gay marriage and pass a gender identity nondiscrimination act in the state. McBride made calls, met with politicians, and spoke on the floor of the chamber she’d one day be elected to.
SARAH: My name is Sarah McBride and I’m a transgender Delawarean. The last time I spoke in this chamber was when I participated in the youth and government program four years ago. But I’m here for a different reason, to ask simply to be treated fairly.
BROCK: Delaware became the only state to support both marriage equality and trans equality in the same year. Many Delawareans, including the governor himself, credited the success to the conviction and determination of this young trans advocate.
SARAH: When I was in that chamber as a 22 year old, advocating for trans rights, the idea that I could serve in that chamber would have seemed so impossible that it was almost incomprehensible.
BROCK: McBride then returned to D.C., where she landed a job working alongside her boyfriend Andrew, at the Center for American Progress. Their life took a tragic turn in September of 2013 when Andrew Cray was diagnosed with cancer. They rushed to get married on a D.C. rooftop and just a few days after, Cray died.
SARAH (AT THE DNC): I met Andy, who was a transgender man fighting for equality, and we fell in love.
BROCK: Senator McBride has been an open book about her grief and her pain and her personal story. Even when she was the first trans person to speak at the Democratic National Convention in 2016.
SARAH (AT THE DNC): And yet in the face of his terminal illness, this 28 year old, he never wavered in his commitment to our cause and his belief that this country can change. Knowing Andy left me profoundly changed. More than anything, his passing taught me that every day matters when it comes to building a world where every person can live their life to the fullest.
SARAH: Vulnerability is an important component of advocacy. I don’t think everyone should have to feel the need to bear their soul in order to be treated with dignity. I just don’t think you can capture the full essence of what was going on without being fully vulnerable and sharing things that might be embarrassing.”
BROCK: Just three years after that speech at the DNC, McBride decided to make history again, when a long-serving state senator decided to leave their seat in Delaware’s first district.
SARAH: This was a very warm and embracing community. I think there were probably a lot of people who, when I came out, had never met a trans person as far as they knew. But you know the old saying, “it’s difficult to hate up close.”
BROCK: Walking around Wilmington with Sarah McBride, it was obvious that she was popular. High school cheer captain level popular. By putting a face to the identity, by humanizing words like “transgender” and “nonbinary”, queer politicians are getting elected across the country. Last November, Kansas and Oklahoma both elected queer people to their state houses. Stephanie Byers, a trans Native American representative, and Mauree Turner, a nonbinary Black Muslim. Minneapolis now has two Black queer people on their city council, Phillipe Cunningham, a trans man, and Andrea Jenkins, a trans woman. It’s not in big urban, supposedly queer friendly metropolises where queer politicians are getting elected. It’s happening in their backyards where people know them. One question McBride tells me she has to ask herself, and something she’s learned from other trans politicians, is this:
SARAH: How do you do justice by the trans community while also doing justice to your whole self. Not being siloed and reduced to one amazing and beautiful identity that you’re incredibly proud of, but if you’re limited to just that, it doesn’t capture your full humanity and all that you have to offer?
SARAH: I think from an early age, grappling with my gender identity and the sort of constant pull and push of do I stay in the closet or not, I think it forces you to confront some really deep existential questions, even as a young person, long before so many other people do. Q hat is a life worth living? At the end of my life, what will I have wanted to do in my life? Who will I have wanted to be? I think frankly, compounding that early grappling with sort of the purpose of life, was then my experience with Andy, which only underscored the preciousness of that time. We never know how long we have.
BROCK: In our morning together, I saw Sarah McBride as her constituents do. A friendly neighbor. Someone with the kind of politics of Mister Rogers. A person who has lived through deep pains and soaring victories in only three decades. When someone like that is excited about where they’re from and hopeful about the future and about the possibilities of what the government can do … It makes me excited too.