Growing up, everything I knew about lieutenant governorship, I learned from Robert Guillaume on the sitcom Benson. I watched that show religiously, and though it was never clearly established that it took place in New York, I am pretty sure I told a teacher that our governor was named Gatling. (It was, in fact, Cuomo the Elder.)
Fast-forward to late 2021 when suddenly Cuomo the Younger resigned in disgrace. First, then–Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul was sworn in as governor, the first woman to hold the office. Then my college acquaintance was handpicked by Hochul and sworn in as her lieutenant governor. Only a few months later, he, too, had to resign in disgrace. Suddenly, Benson has been replaced with a public-access-cable-esque reboot of Scandal. Never has this oft-forgotten office been sexier!
Since then, I have been keeping close tabs on this office, which is up for reelection— along with Hochul’s position as governor—this June. I have been watching, in particular, the two Latinas running for lieutenant governor this year: Diana Reyna, who is aligned with centrist Tom Suozzi, and Ana María Archila (the first openly queer Latina to run for the position), who is aligned with the further-left New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
When the chance to speak with Ana María Archila opened up, I jumped at it, because I was familiar—as some of you will likely be—with her confrontation with Senator Jeff Flake. In the days leading up to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Archila approached Flake and told him of her own sexual assault, and asked him how he would explain this to the children in his family and how she should explain it to her own children. It was an act of courage that stayed with me and, after reading her platform, I found that many of her areas of interest were curiosities of this newsletter as well.
As I was writing this piece, Hochul selected Representative Antonio Delgado as her running mate. This is an intriguing choice, as it pulls Delgado out of a very competitive swing-district race in the House. It’s important to note that Delgado won’t necessarily get to serve with Hochul should she win. Though the lieutenant governor’s role in New York’s executive branch is similar to that of the vice president of the United States, unlike the VP, the candidates for lieutenant are on a separate ballot from the gubernatorial candidates.
Below is a portion of our conversation, edited and condensed. (After our initial conversation, I asked Ana María for comments on Hochul’s selection, and was directed to this list of questions for Delgado.)
Xochitl Gonzalez: I was so curious to speak to you, because a lot of the issues you are concerned about are things that I write about. In preparation for our talk, I watched the incident with Jeff Flake again and I read your bio, and the word that came to me was optimism. You were an organizer, and I know it can be very emotionally grueling work. There are a lot of defeats, right? And you immigrated here and got your bearings in another country. And even running for office is such an act of optimism. So I wanted to talk about optimism and where you find the reserves of it, because I think that we’re living in a time when a lot of people don’t feel a lot of optimism.
Ana María Archila: I love these questions.
I started organizing 21 years ago. And I didn’t actually know what organizing was, but my task in that moment was to help.
Actually, let me backtrack for a second. I came from Colombia when I was 17, and for the first year I remember this feeling of walking down the street and thinking, If I get lost today, only my father would notice. Because I was new in the country, I didn’t have a network of social relationships like most young people have at that age, and I felt that very much, but I also felt sort of invigorated by the challenge of that.
So fast-forward a few years, I’m 21 years old. My aunt—my dad’s sister—had created an immigrant-rights organization. I said to her, “I want to work with young immigrants like myself, because I feel like these experiences of migrating in the teens are challenging.”
She said, “Cool, I’m opening an office in Staten Island. There are lots of young people there.” And in my mind I had imagined, you know, doing youth groups about arts and activism and leadership development, and the traditional sort of youth programming.
And I found myself in this community where my task was to teach English and to help people with whatever challenges they have. And in fact, there were many, many young people who were 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids, but who were working in construction. They labored in kitchens and delis. They were working 10-hour days, and they were getting their wages stolen, getting paid below the minimum wage. And they were sleeping in overcrowded and dilapidated housing and renting vans because they didn’t have enough money to rent a room. And their lives were very difficult, but they would show up to this office at, like, 7 o’clock at night after a long day of working.
And they would say: “I’m ready to learn English.” It was so powerful to be in the presence of people who, at the end of a long day of exploitation, had a seed of optimism, so bright that they still had energy for the vision of themselves. And I spent so much time listening to people’s stories of the challenges, the indignities of work.
The optimism that people were able to cultivate by being in community in those classes was instrumental. Learning English, I think, was actually the one moment of the day when people were not just the labor they produced. They weren’t surviving. They were working, but they were working on themselves.
Gonzalez: I wrote about the Amazon unionization, and obviously unions are having a moment, particularly in New York with all the media unions. One of the things I thought was intriguing and unusual about your bio is that you’ve actually worked in organizing and are pro-union. What difference might that experience make, and where do you think labor is going in New York?
Archila: My perspective was from the immigrant-rights movement. I really think of myself as a child of the immigrant-rights movement. I lived through the moment when the big unions more actively embraced immigrant rights as a core part of their agenda.
[During the immigrant-rights movement of 2004], and the big moments of mobilization of immigrant workers in 2006, those were moments of worker organizing that were happening outside of unions—primarily immigrant-worker organizing groups who were beginning to really partner with the more established unions. And the perspective I had was shaped by that.
I was energized by seeing the pride that people feel at being part of something that belongs to them. It’s a unique form of pride.
Yesterday, I stopped by the Amazon warehouse and actually took off my campaign buttons and just talked to workers to encourage them to vote for the union, and just heard their concerns or their worries or questions. And it was very interesting.
But I feel like in traditional politics, elected officials tend to relate to unions as the special interests of a particular industry and not as communities.
So I often speak of unions as people’s organizations. These are organizations where half the community has a sense of a shared political vision, and the other half doesn’t. They have internal battles where their voices really matter. And the best unions are places where workers really get to air out their differences. To hash it out and build together. And those are very exciting spaces.
Gonzalez: Do you think that the rise in popularity of unionization efforts is also about a loneliness problem in our country right now? Yes, it’s about economic protection, but is it also a bit about finding community?
Archila: With the way workers are organizing right now—Starbucks and Amazon and media companies—my sense is that people are frustrated by the feeling that they’re treated as disposable. But also, people are communicating around their courage.
Gonzalez: That’s a great way to put it: It is an act of courage. Yes. And it is a community, building around that.
Archila: It’s the glue that holds it all together.
Gonzalez: So, courage is a great way to segue back to the Jeff Flake thing. It’s not to belabor the point, but I listened to your NPR segment about it. You said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I needed to talk to him because I had been a survivor and I could tell when I listened to Christine Blasey Ford, that she was right. I could tell it was true.”
I think there were so many women that were watching her testify and were like, I know this is true. You know, I feel it in my bones; this is true. But you went to him and said that. Can you talk about that a bit?
Archila: So, what led up to that moment: We started the effort to slow down and hopefully prevent the nomination of Kavanaugh. I was helping mobilize people who were patients and health-care providers and women who had had abortions, because we understood what Justice Kavanaugh could mean: possibly the end of the Affordable Care Act, possibly the end of abortion. And we were using tactics of disruption to insert the voices of people. And when Dr. Ford’s testimony came to light, something really powerful happened, which is that these people who had been in the halls of Congress, staging civil disobedience, taking over offices, etc.—these people began to tell stories of sexual assault. And the emotional tenor of the fight was so high because people were reviewing things that they hadn’t said before, or that they had only told their best friend. And these were very traumatic stories that were being shared.
It was in that context that I sort of had to ask myself. I’m not going to share my own experience of sexual assault. I may not even share. I’m scared. I don’t know. Even though I had been an organizer for a long time, this was an experience that I had very successfully tucked away. And the courage of people was a very powerful force.
I learned a lesson, which is that at the center of a lot of social movements, courage is very contagious, right? When you see people doing something hard and you sort of see that pull you into it more and more and more. So I learned that. But at the same time, we started to say these mantras, like, Believe women; believe women.
And I was having conversations with some people, and we were just like, “That demand, ‘Believe women,’ sort of posits it like asking for permission. It’s very intellectual.” When really what I was feeling—what women were feeling—was “Oh, we know. I know. I know that when I listened to your story, I know that that’s true.”
Gonzalez: You just know it’s true.
Archila: That’s right. I don’t need to put it in my head to believe you. My body knows what you’re saying is the truth. And so I wish we had said: Women know. Women know.
Gonzalez: Do you still feel, now that you’re running for an office, that you can make statements like that, based on things you just physically, intuitively, know? Or do you feel like now you have to come with 17 pages of supporting documents and that kind of thing?
Archila: I think there is a lot that I don’t know. So I really have to always be listening to learn. Listening to people is a very powerful act. It’s an important offering. I know that there is information and facts about people’s lives and experiences that I do not know.
Not knowing information and then knowing—it forms a kind of connection. I had a really fascinating conversation with this organization called the Rural Counties Democratic Committee, made up of Democratic Party officials who are in the rural counties of their state, which is, like, more than 40 counties, actually. And the first thing they said to me is “People have this misunderstanding that because we are rural Democrats, we are conservative, but actually, you should know that we are the true believers, because we’re surrounded by Trumpettes.”
And then they said, “The real deal here is that we are aging alone.”
The real problem is that older people do not have their young ones. People do not have jobs that allow them to stay, and they can no longer buy homes, even in those parts of the state. The people who stay are the ones who are older on fixed incomes. They said, “We are aging without our children.” It sort of helped me think about displacement. There’s displacement happening everywhere in the state. There’s the displacement of people who get gentrified out of neighborhoods.Elderly people who are in a rent-stabilized apartment or Section 8 apartments, fixed income, they’re able to stay, but their children have to decamp.
Gonzalez: This is something that I asked Julissa Arce, the last person I interviewed. Is there a cultural turn of phrase or expression that you, linguistically, bristle at? One that reinforces a simply incorrect or unhelpful viewpoint. For instance, Julissa said that she hates when people refer to humans as illegal. I won’t call Puerto Rico a territory, just a colony.
Archila: Referring to Puerto Rico as a colony is something I have 100 percent alignment with. I’m not Puerto Rican, but have done a lot of work with folks, especially post–Hurricane Maria.
But one thing that I’m finding super frustrating right now is that reporters often will introduce me and say, “Ana María, the far-left candidate.” And I’m like, far left? What is that? What is far left? And sometimes I challenge that. I’m like, can you explain the label to me? What do you mean?
Dialogue right now in our politics leans so much on the labels of ideology. It just prevents an honest conversation about issues and about people. So much of the political coverage is like, “the personalities of that politician versus that politician.”
So little is actually about people, and politics should be about people. It should be about the lives of people, the struggles they have and the dreams they have.