This interview is part of ourEconomy's series on the US election.
Samelys López is running to represent New York’s 15th congressional district. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in the South Bronx, López is looking to replace Congressman José Serrano who is retiring due to Parkinson's disease.
Endorsed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party, Sunrise and other progressive organizations – López is consolidating coveted support in this packed primary set to take place on June 23rd.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Samelys López a couple months ago, in a hispanic cafe in the South Bronx. From emphasizing how her lived experience of homelessness has informed her support for a national Homes Guarantee, to the inspiration that she has taken from the “squad” – López discusses why political representation should center those who are most oppressed.
Freddie Stuart: To begin with, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and the congressional race that you are running in?
Samelys López: I'm Puerto Rican and Dominican. I was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, and my mother is from the Dominican Republic. And when she divorced my dad, she came to the United States to New York City to work as a seamstress to make ends meet. So there were many times that we couldn't afford childcare. She would pick me up from my elementary school, and then we would end up there at her sweatshop where she worked, and I would do my homework at her sweatshop. That was a daily reality for us as a family.
And then unfortunately, she ended up being in a domestic violence situation with my stepfather. In order to escape the abuse that was going on at home, we ended up in the homeless shelter system in Brownsville, New York, where I grew up and where my brother was born. Afterwards, we ended up getting what's called a Section 8 voucher. And we moved to the Bronx around the time that I was 10 years old. So I've been in the South Bronx ever since.
Freddie Stuart: And can I ask, where did your life in politics start? What politicized you, who are your inspirations?
Samelys López: Definitely my mom, the immigrant community here in the Bronx, the civil rights movement, basically my personal struggles, and my mom's struggles with homelessness, with domestic violence and seeing her survive that. I think a lot of people in this congressional district in the South Bronx have that spirit of resiliency that defines us as a community. Basically, I look at people like my mom and the people of the South Bronx for that inspiration. And that commitment that I have to always be on the path of social justice, and fight for the community, fight for the working class, the oppressed – because it's really those lived experiences that define us as human beings, and connect us to working class communities, and the struggle.
Freddie Stuart: When was the moment you realized that you wanted to run for office?
Samelys López: It was a winding path. I don't think anybody wakes up and says, I'm going to run for office today. I think it was a progression for me. So my lived experiences definitely informed my perspective on life – my commitment to social justice.
And then I went on to college and then graduate school, and it was when I went to college that I realized that I really grew up in the tale of two cities. There are people in college that never experienced anything that I went through growing up and I felt like, well, this is not right. This is something systemic now that we need to address, and I personally need to study. So I took sociology classes, history classes to figure things out and learn a little bit about social movements and things like that. And then I realized that it's a systemic oppressive system that is oppressing people in the community.
After I graduated college, I interned at this organization called the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, which teaches you about government and policy. After their fellowship, they place you with an elected official, and I ended up being placed with Congressman Serrano, who's now stepping down because he has Parkinson's disease. And there's going to be an election on June 23rd, 2020 to replace him.
He really gave me my first shot at public service. Through his leadership, I ended up seeing what you can do when you get involved in politics. At that time when I was a congressional aide for his office, he did a lot in terms of the environmental justice movement here in the Bronx. He reached out to different frontline community organizations that have basically always been putting their lives on the line for the environmental movement, well before this became a household name. They've always been at the front lines, and Congressman Serrano took leadership from them. That's what representation should be about. It should be about always centering the lives of those most directly impacted, and making sure that they have a real seat at the policymaking table, so that we can come up with laws and policies that look like us that feel like us. And that's basically what I learned in Serrano's office – you can use politics as a way of building community and being willing to be accountable to a movement.
Aaron White: Speaking of movements, I’d like to speak about the role of DSA. You’re a member of DSA, and they’ve endorsed your campaign. Can you speak to the significance of them supporting your campaign, but also their role in electorally challenging the Democratic establishment by supporting the successful runs a couple years ago of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar?
Samelys López: I'm so grateful to the Democratic Socialists of America. And one of the things that I spoke to them about during my endorsement process is that there's no other group in the entire country that is similar to DSA in terms of the values and the mission of what DSA stands for. So like I was saying before, I'm sure you all know, in the South Bronx, there's a lot of oppression; there's working class struggle; there's people basically living lives that are not dignified because of these oppressive systems that have kept us down. So my pitch to DSA was: we all need to be involved in this race because the South Bronx embodies what DSA stands for, fighting against worker exploitation, fighting for the most marginalized in our communities, and breaking down that capitalist system that keeps everybody down and profits off of people's pain and their humanity.
Aaron White: This is the poorest district in Congress, right?
Samelys López: It is but one of the things that I want to challenge people on is I don't think it should be defined as the poorest congressional district. We definitely have a set of economic challenges. But what I've been saying on the campaign trail is that this borough is very resilient; and there's a lot of creativity; and this is a birthplace of hip hop. This is where the Young Lords came from, where the Black Panthers came from. So this community has a very resilient revolutionary socialist spirit that combines very well with DSA and what we're all fighting for in the leftist community, not only here locally, but around the world.
I think that the South Bronx should be looked at as a global thought leader, in everything, in the environmental justice movement and the housing movement. Because when the South Bronx had its challenges back in the day, when the landlords were burning the buildings for the insurance money, there were people that stayed here in the community and never left and made it what it is today. And I credit the South Bronx with being my version of the American dream because it gave me a second shot at life. So I think that fine, we do have economic challenges. But there's a lot to be proud of in the Bronx. There are local solutions here, that people in the environmental justice community and the affordable housing community should be looking at implementing nationally and globally.
Aaron White: One of the central parts of your campaign is the Homes Guarantee, guaranteeing affordable housing for everyone. I was wondering if you can speak to the significance of this?
Samelys López: That again was formed from my personal experience. The Homes Guarantee is a national platform that has been developed by many grassroots organizations and people that are on the verge of being homeless or have been homeless – and they came up with this platform to decommodify and take the profit element out of housing and target land speculation that basically preys on the community. And having a system of reparations, in a sense, because a lot of communities like the South Bronx, and communities of color in the United States were redlined back in the day, with generations of disinvestment – and the Homes Guarantee is the answer to that disinvestment, and racist housing policies that were conducted decades ago that we're still suffering from. It seeks to combat homelessness and guarantee that in the richest country in the world, people aren’t living homeless on the street, like I once did with my family.
Freddie Stuart: We’re in the midst of a Democratic primary race. Do you think that the housing crisis is given the attention in those debates and in the media that you feel it deserves?
Samelys López: No, it hasn't. And it really should be because there's a national crisis on homelessness, specifically in New York State. There are a lot of children that are homeless; there are a lot of predatory tendencies in the real estate developer community – and we basically need to decommodify this whole system.
One of the conversations that needs to be had, that we're having on our campaign, is the importance of taking big money out of politics, and challenging people that are running for office to say, if you are running a race that's for the community, then you’re not going to accept certain kinds of donations. And right now in this race in particular, there are a lot of corporate democrats that are taking huge sums of money from real estate developers, from the pharmaceutical industry, from corporate PACs.
It's time to put an end to that because this congressional district is experiencing a very dire gentrification and displacement crisis that's threatening to clean out this borough and we can’t allow that. It's not only one candidate that's taking this money, it's many different corporate Democratic elected officials running in this race, that either have had histories of taking this money in the past, or are taking that kind of money now, and we need to fundraise in a way that centers the needs, values and perspectives that directly impact the community – and that's not it. We need to put the community first, not the donors.
Freddie Stuart: One of the things that’s begun to enter the national conversation when it comes to housing, is the idea of national rent control. Obviously, it is something that Bernie Sanders has begun to introduce into the discourse. On a state level, we’ve seen the State Senate with people like Julia Salazar in particular, making efforts to implement rent control. I was wondering if you can speak to how that has impacted your district and how you stand on rent control?
Samelys López: Oh absolutely, I think that we need a national rent control. And we also need to explore national commercial rent control, to preserve the small businesses in our community. So I'm definitely on board. And that's a key element of the Homes Guarantee platform as well.
I'm grateful to the leadership of people like Julia Salazar. She held herself accountable to a movement because the rent regulations that were passed this spring was a movement, activists on the ground that got together, mobilized and made countless trips to Albany to make their voices heard. And it was people like Julia Salazar, part of this new progressive political class of New York State senators, that paved that path. So it demonstrated that when you have a movement on the ground that's supported by the right political environment, that is willing to be held accountable to movements on the ground, there's no telling what we can do together as a community. And that was an example of what can happen when politics meets a movement.
Aaron White: You mentioned before how you are not taking any money from the real estate lobby. I was wondering if you can speak to some of the challenges that you have faced running a grassroots campaign without big dollar corporate money?
Samelys López: Well it’s a little more challenging because we have to rely on money from the community. Even though it’s been challenging, I'm very proud of the fact that out of anybody who's running in this race, we've raised a lot of money from the residents here in the Bronx. We have about 1000 individual grassroots donations, which I'm really proud of. So even though it's challenging, the fundraising that we've done shows a story, that we have that local support, that local enthusiasm. I encourage people to donate as little as $2, $1, especially if they're from the community, because it gives them a sense of ownership over the local political process. And that's what we have to encourage our communities to see this as – it's an investment in the future, and in the present.
So even though we're not doing as well as other people in this race who are taking all these corporate and real estate developer funds, I know I go to sleep at night knowing that we're fundraising in the way that the community deserves and in a way that's going to hold me accountable. So I encourage people to go to lopezforthepeople.com if you want to donate a little bit to keep us afloat so we can feed our volunteers, print out literature, and bring our message out into the community.
Aaron White: Great. And another central part of your campaign is the Green New Deal. The South Bronx, I believe has one of the highest pollution and asthma rates in the country. I was wondering if you can speak to what a Green New Deal would mean to the people in your community?
Samelys López: Absolutely. People love the concept of the Green New Deal and the South Bronx for the reasons that you just said, there are high rates of asthma, respiratory illnesses, because of the way that the infrastructure and the highways have cut up our neighborhoods. So people are welcoming that idea into the community. In addition to looking at the Green New Deal, we also need to take the leadership of the frontline communities in the South Bronx that have been here for generations, and make sure that we incorporate them into the conversation so that they can shape what the Green New Deal looks like for them in the local community. I’m really excited about that, and I’m looking forward to working with the environmental justice community in the Bronx to implement what that looks like locally.
Aaron White: The first Green New Deal legislation introduced, co-sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, was a Green New Deal for Housing. What are your thoughts on this legislation, and the need to invest in public housing?
Samelys López: That’s definitely something that I support as well, 100%. We've been doing a lot of door knocking in NYCHA, the New York City Public Housing Authority, and that's something that a lot of people welcome – a lot of people live in moldy conditions in their apartments, and they're experiencing all these respiratory issues. They see a connection between sustainability, the environment and their quality of life in general.
And it's also a great way of creating job opportunities for the local community as well. So in addition to improving their air quality and their quality of life, they'll be accessing local jobs. This ties back to the Homes Guarantee as well, and building 12 million units of housing over the next decade – hopefully we’ll be able to identify local people in the community to access those jobs.
Aaron White: It’s astonishing how just in the last two years with the election of AOC, but also figures like Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar, how they’ve managed to shift the political conversation and give people a sense of hope. And I’m wondering if you see a connection between that and your campaign, especially for the ability for people to believe they deserve and can have a better society and a government that actually works for them?
Samelys López: Yes, definitely. I mean, I love those women. I love what they've done in terms of transforming the conversation around politics. And having us believe that yes, we can fight for a kind of political representation that reflects us and reflects our experiences. Another thing I've been saying on the campaign trail is we need to fight to leave behind the transactional politics of a broken political system, and embrace the politics of transformation that the squad has been fighting for since they won their elections. I love them because they've given us the courage to stand up and demand the kind of dignity and political representation that we deserve.
They're inspiring many women of color, many people from marginalized communities to stand up, fight back and take ownership of politics so it can reflect the needs and values of the community in a way that we haven't seen in generations. So I'm grateful to their leadership and guidance in this struggle. And I think that we need to increase the ranks of the squad all over the world.
We need to center the grassroots movement of the Puerto Rican people living under oppressive, austere conditions.
Aaron White: If you’re in Congress, one of the things that you will oversee, is foreign policy. One thing interesting about these newly elected members, is their openness in critiquing US imperialism and interventionism abroad. And I’m wondering if you have a stance towards US military spending, and if you think we should take a step back in US involvement abroad?
Samelys López: First of all, I'm not an international policy expert, but I am sympathetic to centering human dignity and values in everything that we do unapologetically across the board – whether it's domestic, or international, to fight for marginalized oppressed communities and take their stories at the ground level into consideration in our domestic and our international policy.
That is a value that I hold dear as a directly impacted person here in the South Bronx. I've watched many immigrant communities from around the world come here to make it, because they're escaping destabilization in their own countries; they're escaping war; they're escaping hunger. So this is something that we need to recognize as a community.
We need to absolutely challenge the military industrial complex and make sure that 70% of our budget in the United States of America is not used for military expenditures. I think that we need to use diplomacy as a way of combating issues abroad and take a humanistic approach to foreign policy. There's a lot of death happening around the world that’s unnecessary. And if we believe in democracy, let's believe in democracy, and take the leadership of the countries on the ground and figure out okay, what's the way forward? We can't just impose a model onto other countries, we need to take a step back on that.
Aaron White: There is a large hispanic and Puerto Rican community in the Bronx. Do you have a stance towards Puerto Rican statehood or independence or let them decide?
Samelys López: Well, I'm pro whatever the Puerto Rican people on the island want to do in terms of their destiny. So I'm Puerto Rican and Dominican, like I said earlier in the conversation. I'm a member of the Puerto Rican diaspora. And I'm looking to the grassroots community in Puerto Rico, in terms of what they want to see for their future, and more importantly, using the powers of Congress to implement that.
So one of the things that we should also be looking at is the repeal of PROMESA that's ravaging the island. There's a lot of people that don't have jobs. There's a lot of people that can't afford the living expenses there. And essentially, there's a gentrification crisis happening in the island right now, because pretty soon, the island is not going to be affordable for people that have always lived there for generations. And a new crop of people are coming into the island to profit.
So we need to call out Wall Street. We need to have congressional hearings on what that means. And we need to center the grassroots movement of the Puerto Rican people that are living life day to day under very oppressive, austere conditions, and we need to amplify their struggle. That's my commitment to Puerto Rico challenging Wall Street, repealing PROMESA, revisiting the Jones Act which is making life very expensive for people on the island in terms of imports. And we need to look at the FEMA conversation. Why is it that the states on the mainland get so much more assistance than the people on Puerto Rico? Why is it that we're consistently treated as second, third, fourth, class citizens – we’re American citizens, and it's time that the United States and this administration recognize that.
Freddie Stuart: Final question, if you end in Congress this time next year, one of the key things you are going to come up against is a particularly centrist party leadership. I wondered if you can put words to how important you feel it is that we have not just a Democratic majority in Congress, but a progressive Democratic party, and whether you have given any thought to how you might negotiate or deal with the establishment leadership of the Democratic party?
Samelys Lopez: So I think that the Democratic Party needs to reclaim our historical roots. Right now, I feel that we're more centrist. We're Republican-lite, we're not democrats anymore. So I think that we need to find our values again. And we need to tap into the soul of the Democratic Party and reclaim that.
Reaching out to the most directly impacted, humanizing their experiences with lived oppression – is missing in the political conversation right now. We're not seeing our humanity. I think that if we lead with that love and compassion, there's no telling what we can do together.
And obviously, it's really important to increase the numbers of people that are in the squad, right, or people that share those values, because it's a numbers game too. So if the centrist Democrats don't want to come home, we need to create a space for new people that want to occupy that space.
We need to keep challenging the Democratic establishment for sure and not only focus on Trump. We also need to clean house inside and make sure that we're living up to our working class values, and that we're centering the lives of the most oppressed and that we're creating opportunities for people to get back to work, and that we're enforcing trade agreements that make sure that the jobs stay at home instead of incentivizing multinational corporations to take their jobs abroad. So that's what we need to do as a party. This is a party of the working class and it’s time that we remember that.