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‘Here’s the system; it sucks’: Meet the Hill staffers hired by Ocasio-Cortez to upend Washington

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) walks with aide Dan Riffle, right, on Capitol Hill. Riffle, recently criticized on Fox News for his comments on billionaires, was raised in trailer parks and public housing in eastern Tennessee. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

One is the daughter of an immigrant from Nigeria who wanted to understand the causes of her mom’s plight, starting a search that would lead her to Spelman, Oxford, Harvard, Georgetown, the State Department and, eventually, the halls of Congress.

The other was raised by a single mother in trailer parks and public housing in eastern Tennessee, becoming an avowed foe of the ultrawealthy whose Twitter handle reads: “Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure."

The two have landed the two policy jobs with first-term Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who received about 5,500 job applications for her office — a record, according to experts.

Ariel Eckblad, 31, the congresswoman’s legislative director; and Dan Riffle, 37, a legislative assistant, will help steer Ocasio-Cortez as one of the most high-profile members of Congress.

They will help shape how Ocasio-Cortez works as an activist hoping to refashion the Democratic Party, while she also tries to serve as a more typical member building coalitions and moving legislation.

Ocasio-Cortez’s team made its first high-profile mistake late last week, as staffers accidentally released and then retracted a fact sheet about the Green New Deal that had won the support of most of the party’s 2020 presidential candidates and more than 60 House Democrats.

Many freshman lawmakers avoid the national spotlight, and it is very rare for their staffers to speak out. But just as Ocasio-Cortez is blasting away some of the conventions of politics, so is her team.

In an interview in Ocasio-Cortez’s office earlier this month, Riffle, a former pot activist, said: “I remember getting to the Hill thinking, ‘The staffers here are going to mostly be activists and idealists.’ Then I got here, and I found out that’s not true at all. These are careerists. These are people who grew up on the Upper West Side and went to Ivy League schools.”

“I don’t mean to paint too broad a brush. But these are people who don’t think big and aren’t here to change the world. They’re here because it’s a good, safe, stable job, and this is a good platform to get to K Street. Which is what the vast majority of Democratic Hill staffers do.”

He added: “They only conceive of the world as it is, and work within that frame. They don’t think, ‘Here’s the system; it sucks and we should burn it down.’ ”

Other Hill staffers said they didn’t want to respond to that view. But Elaine Kamarck, a member of the Democratic National Committee and senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, argued that it misses a key point about the Democratic experience on Capitol Hill the past eight years.

“Perhaps another way to understand the current Hill staffers is that for the past nine years, since the Republicans picked up more than 60 seats in the Congress in the 2010 elections, they have been fighting to maintain the progressive legacy of the Democratic Party,” she said. “ ‘Thinking big’ is not an option when you are not in control of the House and you are fighting every day to protect food stamps, Medicaid and the other critical pieces of the social safety net that Republican majorities have attacked.”

While Riffle is frequently seen accompanying Ocasio-Cortez around Congress and publicly defending her from critics on Twitter, Eckblad has a somewhat quieter presence on the Hill.

Her résumé stands out. She was a Fulbright scholar and a fellow at Yale University, holds master’s degrees from the University of London and the University of Oxford and a law degree from Harvard University, taught at Georgetown Law, and worked at the Office of the Legal Adviser at the U.S. State Department.

“There’s a school of thought called ‘constructivism’ that became very important to me,” Eckblad said. “The basic premise is that we’ve created the worlds we live in, and so, maybe, we can re-create them.”

Most recently, Eckblad worked for Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), focusing on foreign policy. She first heard of Ocasio-Cortez after the former bartender defeated then-incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), and Eckblad was excited by what she heard.

“Leadership that pushes people’s perceptions of what is possible can be very, very scary,” Eckblad said. “Because you don’t know what the reaction will be. Will people validate you? Or will they laugh at you?”

Eckblad spent her early childhood in Berkeley, Calif., where her dad, a Minnesota native, worked as a janitor while in seminary school. Her mom, who was born in Nigeria and lived through the civil war, took on part-time jobs while working toward medical school. Her mother would tell Eckblad stories of her native country, where she and other children endured long aid lines and bouts of hunger because of food blockades related to the civil war.

“I became deeply, deeply perplexed and troubled by that sort of suffering,” said Eckblad, who is now 34 weeks pregnant with her second child. “And it stuck with me.”

Riffle was born to a single mother in eastern Tennessee who worked as a waitress at Red Lobster and drank heavily, he said. In his application to work for Ocasio-Cortez, Riffle wrote that his one meal a day as a child was often his free lunch at school. Riffle was evicted from “most” places he lived with his mother, moving “15 or 16” times.

“It needs to be pointed out how insanely greedy” it is to be a billionaire, Riffle said. “We have to comprehend the scale of $1 billion — just the amount of money we’re talking about. Five million dollars is a lifetime’s fortune; you can live off the interest of that and still be in the top 1 percent. Five million dollars, times 100, is still only halfway to $1 billion.

“It’s a systemic failure on society’s part. On one part of the city, we have people with helipads and yachts that they park inside of yachts, and on the other side we have thousands of people who are homeless and children without health care or food. Those things should not exist simultaneously in a society.”

Riffle attended Ohio State University and Capital University Law School in Ohio, working tables at Dave & Buster’s to help pay the bills, before taking a job in the prosecutor’s office in Vinton County, Ohio. Fed up by the number of low-level drug cases he had to prosecute, Riffle later moved to the District of Columbia to take a job at the Marijuana Policy Project, a lobbying group pushing for marijuana legalization.

Riffle went on to work for former congressmen John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), becoming the key staffer handling the “Medicare for all” health bill in the House. While working for Conyers, Riffle said, he was deterred by colleagues from his efforts to push toward a single-payer health-care system with the Justice Democrats, an outside group pushing primary challenges against Democrats that later helped Ocasio-Cortez defeat Crowley.

Democrats from the more centrist wing of the party have said Ocasio-Cortez does not understand that she represents an almost uniquely liberal area, which includes Queens and the Bronx and is significantly more diverse than the rest of the country.

"What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says makes a lot of sense in Queens, apparently, and it tends to get a lot of attention,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), chairman of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, told reporters last year.

Riffle thinks that’s the wrong way to look at it. The key distinction, Riffle said, is not ideological but between the “lawyers, bankers, CEOs and more lawyers” who are members of Congress and the constituents whom they are supposed to represent.

Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, worked in tech most recently. Corbin Trent, her communications director, joined Justice Democrats after his food truck in Tennessee burned down. The congresswoman herself was working as an activist and bartender last year.

“People in this office are really ... normal people. … And in part because of that, there’s a willingness to think outside the box and make mistakes — there’s no other office that has that,” Riffle said. “They didn’t come up in this system. So they don’t know how it works. And as a result, they don’t feel constrained by it.”

Accompanied by immigration advocates, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Feb. 7 said she would not support measures to fund ICE. (Video: The Washington Post)