In the CNN interview this week, he said he used to think you needed to be a Kennedy, Bush or Clinton to be in politics, but that changed after Ocasio-Cortez won. On Thursday, he thanked her for a “beautiful moment” when she shook hands with kids from his district. Sometimes, he’d suggest that she essentially annoyed him into running: She was one of the people who “really threw a bug in me,” he said in a candidate forum complaining about her representation of the district where he grew up. Santos even saw a way to make money off his political neighbor. A political consulting company he co-founded charged over $100,000 to the campaign of Tina Forte, who was running hopelessly against AOC in 2022. By that time, Santos was trying for the second time to follow AOC to Congress himself.
“AOC demonstrated that you could come out of nowhere and beat the odds, get elected and become a national personality,” says Steve Israel, who used to run the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and once held the House seat Santos later won. Santos “followed that playbook.”
It’s possible that the the similar backgrounds of AOC and Santos made it easier for him to relate to and therefore imitate her. She was a fellow millennial — just a year younger than Santos — and came from a multilingual household like he did. Santos’ feelings about her looks and fashion sense are unsurprising, given his own attention to self-image. Santos has repeatedly claimed to be on Ozempic, and with his famous preppy-sweater-and-blazer combo, he clearly knows the value of a recognizable political costume — especially for someone young, inexperienced and constantly photographed. They’ve also both worked rank-and-file jobs: AOC was a bartender in Union Square; Santos worked in a Dish Network call center in a dusty corner of Queens, often hustling to scrounge up cash.
Both legislators also grew up on the outside looking in at power and status. Class consciousness was at the heart of both congressional candidates’ early political makeup: In the viral video that introduced many voters to Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, she argued that “women like me aren’t supposed to run for office” and that she wasn’t born into a “wealthy or powerful family.” Santos had the same mindset, one that only sometimes revealed itself under all his stories about Wall Street wealth and fancy degrees. In our very first conversation, in 2019, before he’d polished his political pitch, Santos told me with defiance that nothing had been handed to him in life — that he worked in private equity his entire career (a falsity), though he was “not a one percenter.” Instead, he said, “I work for the one percent.”
Of course, Santos and AOC have opposite-aisle political views on how to change economic circumstances, along with pretty much everything else. She’s not a serial liar, for one thing. (When I asked for her thoughts about Santos’ fandom, she did not respond). But ideology has often been fungible for Santos, who has flip-flopped on everything from abortion bans to Covid-19 precautions when convenient. The more constant truism in Santos’ life has been a desire for advancement and fame, from his drag-dressing days to his lies about being a finance star. His jump into politics coincided with a moment when politics became the hot place to be for a young person burning with conviction and ambition — a person like AOC.
Santos and AOC have taken divergent paths in their time on Capitol Hill. Ocasio-Cortez built a brand off her digital swagger, outsider mentality and willingness to be confrontational with the power structure, something she demonstrated during her new member orientation by joining a climate protest at Nancy Pelosi’s office. This kind of aggressive behavior was right up Santos’ alley. But in the years since, AOC has expanded her skills at the inside game, reaching beyond her progressive allies in The Squad, while Santos has leaned into confrontation. He could afford to: He is uninhibited by committee work or much chance at reelection. Unlike AOC, he has not set himself up for a long career in elected politics. While she fundraises with ease and serves as a vice-ranking member for an important committee, Santos is even more of an outcast than he was back when he used to think you had to have a famous last name to run. He is now threatened with expulsion and years in prison. With little left to lose, he is free to stay in the friendly confines of Rep. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s embrace; able to lob potshots at his own party with AOC-style panache; eager to solidify his outsider brand in the time he has remaining in the spotlight.