- Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s longtime partner, Riley Roberts, has stayed far away from the intense media and public attention the freshman lawmaker’s received since she unexpectedly won her primary race last year.
- Roberts, a web developer, is passionate about politics and played an important role in Ocasio-Cortez’s insurgent campaign, friends say.
- “[In] everything from the emotional to the strategic to the practical, he has been a really important partner to her,” said Rachel Lears, director of the Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House.”
- But Roberts faces longstanding sexist biases that hold that male partners of female politicians are more powerful or influential than they really are.
- And Ocasio-Cortez, like many of her younger, very online colleagues, might not need her partner to help humanize her.
One night in the middle of her 2018 campaign to unseat Rep. Joe Crowley in Queens and the Bronx, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s longtime partner, Riley Roberts, broke some bad news.
He’d finished her favorite ice cream, leaving none for her.
“That’s really messed up,” Ocasio-Cortez joked. “You’re, like, so unrepentant about it, too.”
The moment was captured in “Knock Down the House,” a 2018 Netflix documentary chronicling four progressive women running primary campaigns for the House and Senate.
Roberts appears about a dozen times throughout the film, but almost always on the periphery. He’s often wearing a purple campaign T-shirt and filming an event on his phone, or listening intently at a candidate gathering.
The background is where Roberts likes to be, sources told me — something the film emphasizes. He’s there for her.
Later in the film, director Rachel Lears shows us what that looks like. It’s the day of a major debate with Crowley, and Ocasio-Cortez sits on her living-room couch, marking up her notes with a yellow highlighter.
She’s stressed. She rests her face in her hands and sighs. She looks at Roberts across the room. It’s more like a stare. He smiles at her.
“I can do this,” she says.
“I know you can.” He smiles bigger, and nods.
“I am experienced enough to do this,” she says, looking at him.
“I am knowledgeable enough to do this,” she goes on.
“I am prepared enough to do this. I am mature enough to do this. I am brave enough to do this.”
She’s gesturing with the highlighter now, jabbing it in the air.
“And this whole thing, this whole time, he’s going to tell me I can’t do this. He’s gonna tell me I’m small. That I’m little. That I’m young. That I’m inexperienced.”
They look at each other, sharing a quiet moment. Then Ocasio-Cortez pushes her hands forward into the space in front of her. She exhales and clenches her hands into fists.
In August 2011, Roberts took the microphone at Boston University’s second annual TEDx event. Then a rising college senior double-majoring in sociology and finance, he spent much of his time behind a computer. The public forum, which he organized with a few students, gave him a chance to “break the connection and engage others,” he wrote on the website publicizing the event.
The theme Roberts and his friends chose for the night was “twisted logic,” which he defined in his remarks as “unconventional thinking that challenges the status quo.”
That night, he wanted to explore “the ideas and beliefs that the heretics and the people on the fringe believe in,” the tall redhead told the audience in his introduction. Those who embrace twisted logic “go and challenge the majority into changing their viewpoints.”
Polite applause followed.
She and Roberts met at Coffee & Conversations, a Friday-afternoon student town-hall hosted by BU. There, students discussed everything from the meaning of love to the news of the day, Raul Fernandez, a mentor of Ocasio-Cortez’s, told me in December.
Ocasio-Cortez often drove the sessions, ending them with thoughtful conclusions that included “her own twist” on the subject, Alveena Shah, a college friend, told me last year.
Roberts was quieter. “You could see him in the corner of the room really thinking through things,” said a mutual college friend of the couple, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss Roberts candidly. She described him as a “philosopher” type.
After getting to know each other through the Friday talks, Ocasio-Cortez and Roberts started dating, but they weren’t showy about it. The mutual friend said she didn’t know they were in a relationship until several years after they had all graduated from college.
After school, the two broke up and Roberts moved back home to Arizona. He spent much of his time there working with startups on web design and advertising. In 2014, he helped found a subscription home-management service called Homebinder. (“I love helping other subscription startups implement the best practices I’ve developed to quickly and sustainably grow with Facebook Ads, website conversion-rate optimization, and user experience design,” he wrote on his LinkedIn profile last year.)
Eventually, Roberts and Ocasio-Cortez rekindled their relationship. He moved to New York to be with her and worked out of the apartment they shared in the Bronx while Ocasio-Cortez tended bar and organized for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential primary campaign.
After Trump’s victory in 2016, Ocasio-Cortez wanted to do more. While protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, she received an email from a Sanders-inspired group: Would she consider a House primary bid in NY-14, her home district? Her answer, of course, was yes.
Scott Starrett, a graphic designer, befriended Roberts and Ocasio-Cortez in 2016 at the Manhattan taqueria where she worked. Starrett, who would later help design Ocasio-Cortez’s distinctive posters and website, said Roberts exemplified the campaign’s scrappy ethos. He did paid work and volunteered for the campaign, helping with digital marketing and Facebook outreach.
Roberts holds strong views about how campaigns should be run – and how not.
Halfway through the Netflix documentary, Ocasio-Cortez sits in her living room and lays out her campaign’s direct-mail strategy. She compares her sharp, postcard-sized mailer to the glossy brochures promoting her rival, Crowley.
She derides Crowley’s mailer as a “Victoria’s Secret catalog,” designed by over-paid political consultants. It lacks basic information, including the date of the primary election. Crowley’s policy positions — beyond his promise to stand up to President Donald Trump — are nowhere to be found.
Roberts, who’d been quietly watching Ocasio-Cortez’s monologue after handing her a cup of coffee, then appears on camera. Sitting beside her on the couch, his elbows resting on both knees, he looks straight into the camera. “One of these core, core issues with the Democratic establishment is that their consultants are garbage,” he says, clapping his hands for emphasis. “They’re losing.”
Lears, the documentary’s director, told me Roberts played a big role in the campaign. “Everything from the emotional to the strategic to the practical, he has been a really important partner to her,” she said.
Yet Roberts has largely stayed out of the public eye. He declined to speak with me for this story, and Lears told me “it took a long time for me to gain his trust.” Eventually, Ocasio-Cortez “convinced him to be part of the story because of how important he was to her.”
But even as Ocasio-Cortez’s profile exploded, Roberts has stayed on the margins. He got a taste of what fame might mean for him when a UK-based political reporter derided his “scruffy” appearance in the documentary, calling him a “ bin racoon” in a tweet that went viral. The episode blew up into its own mini news cycle.
Ocasio-Cortez has respected Roberts’ desire for privacy. She hasn’t posted a photo of him on Instagram since 2015, and has mentioned him in only two of her 8,500 tweets, each time in response to media inquiries about Roberts. He rarely appears in his partner’s Instagram livestreams of her cooking mac and cheese, grooving to Janelle Monae, and assembling IKEA furniture.
“They’re really a team,” the mutual college friend said, adding that Roberts is Ocasio-Cortez’s “grounding force” behind the scenes. “There’s one messenger and that’s her.”
Following Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning primary victory on June 26, 2018, Roberts joined the relatively small club of male partners of famous politicians.
How should he act?
Dan Mulhern, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s husband, said his wife’s aides preferred he stay in the background “taking care of the babies … to reflect the reality that my wife was in charge” while he served as the state’s first gentleman in the mid-2000s.
“There were ideas when my wife was governor that a lot of people with implicit bias had that I was much more important, powerful, and strategic than I was,” Mulhern said.
Laurel Elizabeth Elder, a professor of political science at Hartwick College, has found through her research that voters today prefer spouses to be visible but strictly supportive — what Elder calls “new traditionalism.”
“[Americans] really react positively to spouses who play a very supportive role, who get out there and speak, but when they do they talk about the candidate and not their own accomplishments,” Elder said.
Chasten Buttigieg, the 29-year-old husband of South Bend, Indiana, mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, for instance, quit his teaching job to join his husband full time on the campaign trail. He’s given numerous interviews about the joys of raising the “ First Dogs of South Bend,” and talked about the difficulty of coming out to his socially conservative family. He doesn’t talk politics. Along the way, he’s amassed over 350,000 Twitter followers, adopting Ocasio-Cortez’s social-media-heavy playbook.
Doug Emhoff, the husband of California senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris, is also playing an increasingly active but supportive role in his wife’s 2020 campaign. The high-powered LA entertainment lawyer describes himself as Harris’ “hubby/stan” in his Twitter bio. He posts romantic photos of the couple and gushes about Harris’ cooking.
Buttigieg and Emhoff jokingly compete with each other for the stronger “2020 spouse Twitter game.”
“Americans are fascinated by the spouses of presidential candidates,” Elder said. “People feel like it’s a way to understand them as a person, to get the authentic side of the person.”
But here’s the thing: Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t need help with authenticity. Neither do many of her new colleagues.
Last year, many of the dozens of women who ran for federal office infused their policy-driven campaigns with their personal stories and experiences. Some spoke openly about being sexually abused. Others breastfed their babies on the campaign trail.
Ocasio-Cortez went viral with a campaign video in which she applies mascara in her bathroom and changes into heels on a subway platform. “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” she says.
Maybe Roberts is doing what more men should.
“Too many men have spoken for women in the past,” Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said.
“Ceding the stage a little bit is an OK thing.”
Roberts seems committed to it. The “bin racoon” episode wasn’t the first time the spotlight he’s been avoiding has suddenly landed on him. In February, a conservative political strategist accused Ocasio-Cortez of putting Roberts on her office payroll. She quickly refuted the claim, explaining that he had simply been given a House email address so that he could access her Google calendar. Each controversy was a moment when Roberts could have strode forward and made it about him. Each time he leaned out instead.
These days, Roberts walks Ocasio-Cortez to work a few mornings a week, keeps her company in the office when she has to stay late for a vote, and joins her staff for team dinners, according to Vogue. He’ll sometimes step in as Ocasio-Cortez’s informal bodyguard.
He commutes between the Bronx and the couple’s DC apartment, where he’s continued to work from home.
Last January, on the day of Ocasio-Cortez’s swearing-in, a reporter from the New York Post spotted Roberts and chased him through the halls of the Capitol.
It could have been a big moment for Roberts, an opportunity to introduce himself to the world.
So what’d he say?
“A really incredible day, really special.”