Samelys López first met Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the Bronx field office for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. The two had taken divergent paths to get there. By the time Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx, López, 10 years her senior, was living in the New York City shelter system. Ocasio-Cortez, at age 5, had been moved to the suburbs just north to get a shot at better public schools, and later as an adult, moved back to the apartment of her infancy, commuting to Manhattan to bartend.
López had been born in Puerto Rico to a father from the island and a mother from the Dominican Republic. Her parents divorced, and when she was 2, her mother took her to New York, where she found work as a seamstress in a Williamsburg sweatshop in Brooklyn. Her mother found herself in an abusive relationship, and one night around midnight, pregnant with her second child and after a particularly brutal fight, she grabbed her 8-year-old daughter. “We can’t do this anymore,” she told López, and they left.
Alone in a parking lot, López remembers two formerly homeless people approaching and asking why her mother was crying. Because her mother only spoke Spanish, López translated, and explained what had happened. The pair told them about the shelter system and guided them all the way there, what López recalls as an endless ride on the A train.
By the time she was 10, she and her family had finally found stable housing in the Mount Eden neighborhood of the Bronx. López credits the public schools and her teachers there as a great equalizer, enabling her to get to Barnard College and get her life on track. While there, she interned for her local member of Congress, José E. Serrano, going on to work for him for a year, and then doing constituent services for his son, state Sen. José M. Serrano.
“I felt like I wasn’t making a dent.”
López primarily worked with tenants facing eviction and would routinely deploy a program known as the “one-shot deal,” which gives one-time help to New Yorkers facing hardship. But often, six or seven months later, those same people would be back. They didn’t have one-time problems, they had structural problems, the numbers simply stacked against them, as wages stayed flat and the cost of living exploded. “I felt like I wasn’t making a dent,” she said.
López went to get a master’s degree in urban planning, with a focus on affordable housing, at the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University. In her spare time, she continued working as a community organizer, which brought her to the 2016 Sanders campaign. After chatting at the field office, which Ocasio-Cortez recalls was a converted overly bright nail salon by 138th and Grand Concourse, they headed to Charlie’s, a nearby bar, to watch a presidential debate. “There was the Bronx Dem club watching for Hillary [Clinton],” Ocasio-Cortez recalled. “We all watched together, no drama.”
The two got to know each other that night. “Just talking to her, I was insanely impressed. She really had it together and clearly had been organizing in the community for the right reasons for a long time,” Ocasio-Cortez said, adding regretfully that she failed to get López’s number, so they didn’t connect again for awhile.
After the Sanders campaign, López co-founded the group Bronx Progressives, built out of the remnants of Sanders’s presidential bid, and Ocasio-Cortez saw them tabling at an event and quickly signed up, reconnecting with López.
When the bartender launched her bid for Congress, López invited her to speak to Bronx Progressives and the group — despite the repercussions it knew it would face from the local machine — endorsed and campaigned hard for her. The Bronx Progressives endorsement came just days before the petition deadline and was key to collecting a raft of signatures. “She’s helped so many other people run,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “In like three days, she collected hundreds of petitions just herself. That was pretty astounding.” When Ocasio-Cortez was sworn in, López was there to speak at her ceremony.
“I look up to her,” said Ocasio-Cortez. “That’s the homie.”
Now López is making her own bid for Congress, to replace Serrano, who is stepping down after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed her fellow democratic socialist, who’s running on a platform of guaranteeing housing as a human right. As Ocasio-Cortez propelled herself with a viral campaign spot, López is hoping to do the same, even as she launches it from the hot spot of a global pandemic.
As a first-generation formerly homeless Latina, I remember the rent being due & the uncertainty it brought to my life.
That's why America needs a #HomesGuarantee & why I'm running for Congress.
— Samelys López? (@SamelysLopez) April 1, 2020
In her neighborhood of Mount Eden, the crisis plays out as a soundtrack. “All I hear is sirens,” she said.
“What we’re seeing with Covid-19 is the front-line workers are the ones keeping us together, keeping the community afloat,” López said. “Capitalism and the corporations aren’t going to get us through. This is a war, and if we were to be in a traditional war, the resources would materialize immediately out of nowhere, and we’d have all the weapons we need to kill people.”
Her housing platform, she argued, is timely. “Lack of affordable housing is a public health crisis,” she said, noting that the 90-day eviction moratorium announced by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on March 20 only delays the problem for people who’ve lost work or seen their incomes plummet. “We need to be canceling rent right now, giving working people a bailout.”
Serrano’s resignation has produced the most crowded field of primary challengers in any race in the country. Seemingly every local elected official other than his son is making a bid to represent New York’s 15th District, the nation’s poorest, which is made up almost entirely of people of color.
López is using her campaign to help connect residents to needed resources amid the crisis.
Campaigning amid a pandemic, with stay-at-home orders in place, presents its own set of challenges. López is using her campaign to help connect residents to needed resources amid the crisis and has pivoted largely to phone and digital organizing. But without face-to-face contact, that can only go so far. The state’s presidential primary has been bumped to June 23, coinciding with the congressional primary, but debate over whether an in-person election can happen by then continues.
Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement comes with backing from Courage to Change, the political action committee the congresswoman launched last year to support progressive incumbents, as well as to back primary challengers. The PAC can give a maximum of $10,000 in support for the primary and general combined, but Ocasio-Cortez can use her platform to raise directly for López as well. The PAC’s support gives López a shot to break out of the pack in a scenario that threatens to go badly for progressives. The local machine boss, Rubén Díaz Sr., who is conservative, proudly homophobic, hostile to abortion rights, and allied with real estate developers, is also running for the seat. As a local state senator, he led the charge against marriage equality. Now a city council member, he has kept up his crusade. As recently as 2019, he bemoaned that the council was “controlled by the homosexual community,” remarks he has stood behind.
On top of Courage to Change, López has been backed by Matriarch, an organization dedicated to electing working-class women, something of a counter to EMILY’s List, the pro-choice group that tends to get behind women who are able to raise heavy amounts of money out of the gate. López also has the support of the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, along with the Working Families Party and People for Bernie.
The divided field means that, unless progressives can coalesce around a Díaz alternative by June 23, name recognition alone could propel a reactionary social conservative to victory in what is perhaps the most heavily Democratic district in the country.