Film & Television · Politics

‘Knock Down the House’: Four Women Dare to Run for Congress

Every year at election time, I get on a soapbox. “If you don’t vote,” I warn my young-adult daughter, my employees and colleagues, my fellow Zumba dancers . . . pretty much anyone who will listen . . . “You have no right to complain about whoever gets elected.” The way I look at it, our foremothers fought too hard — and, don’t forget, many women in other countries are still fighting — for us to disrespect them by forgoing our right to vote. A source of pride for me was when my daughter, then a college freshman, bullied her friends and roommates into registering and then voting in the 2016 general election.

The unexpected outcome of that election resulted in an unprecedented number of people’s taking my annual admonishment a significant step further. Across the country, ordinary people — many of whom were from groups traditionally underrepresented in Washington — challenged incumbents to run for office.

Knock Down the House, the absorbing new documentary by Rachel Lears, follows the personal stories and public campaign trails of four of these candidates. One, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is the familiar congressional freshman whose win (and jacket, and previous work as a bartender, and even earlier college dance routine) launched a thousand tweets. The other three—Cori Bush from St. Louis, MO; Paula Jean Swearengin from Coal City, WV; and Amy Vilela from Las Vegas, NV—were less successful in their district’s primaries, but are equally inspirational as women, as activists, and as concerned citizens.

Bush, who ran to be the Democratic candidate for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, was a nurse and a pastor. She became interested in pursuing political office after volunteering during the Ferguson riots following the shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown. Understandably, her greatest goal is to make her community safer. Other themes of her progressive agenda included establishing a living wage; salary equity for women and minorities; prison reform; and reducing the cost of public education. Although Knock Down the House spends more of its energy chronicling the lead up to the 2018 Democratic primary, Bush had already served as co-director of The Truth Telling Project and received recognition, including the Woman of Courage award from the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation in 2015.

Swearengin, the offspring of a coal-mining family, was moved to run after witnessing the environmental and public health disasters that have haunted her community. In one of Knock Down the House‘s earliest scenes, she takes a drive and points out every house in which one of her neighbors has been diagnosed with cancer. Sweeping views of the devastated West Virginian landscape underline Swearengin’s passion. Like Bush, she had already been a local activist, working with the Keepers of the Mountain Foundation and speaking during the EPA Clean Power Plan hearings. She’s an unlikely candidate; there’s nothing slick or urban about her. But her determination is clear — despite the worries of her mother that politics is brutal business and she’ll be in over her head.

Vilela was a financial executive when she decided to run, and her backstory is by far the saddest. Her 22-year old daughter was denied care at a hospital because she didn’t have insurance and died shortly thereafter from a pulmonary embolism. Universal healthcare, understandably, becomes the base of her platform. Going door-to-door, she explains “Medicare for all” to her prospective constituents, griping on-camera afterwards, “They’re calling me a Marxist. I don’t even know what a Marxist is.” When Lears takes us into Vilela’s campaign headquarters, the candidate jokes that she has to clean up after her millennial staffers. She falls easily and good-naturedly into the role of mom as well as serious political contender.

Of the film’s four heroines, Bronx native Ocasio Cortez had the most political experience — she worked in Ted Kennedy’s office while a student at Boston University from 2008 to 2009. However, when she decided to challenge ten-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, she was working as a bartender. Running on a progressive agenda, like the other three candidates, Ocasio-Cortez was quick to point out that Crowley had done little for his constituents and didn’t even live in New York. Crowley, who was one of Washington’s most powerful Democrats, didn’t bother to show up for their first debate, and put obstacles in his opponent’s way at every stage of the campaign.

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