AOC Aide Complains Dem Staffers Don't Want to 'Burn Down' Political System

Center for American Progress president calls AOC aide 'judgmental' (Updated)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
February 14, 2019

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's (D., N.Y.) legislative assistant Dan Riffle, who goes by "Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure" on Twitter, expressed his frustration with Democratic staffers looking to get cushy jobs as lobbyists instead of wanting to "burn" the political system down.

The Washington Post published a profile piece on Thursday about Ocasio-Cortez's Capitol Hill staffers, shedding light on the diversity of their backgrounds, including her 31-year-old legislative director, Ariel Eckblad, and 37-year-old legislative assistant, Riffle.

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.

Riffle, who the Post labels as a former "pot activist" when he was in fact a registered lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, has said that when he first started working on Capitol Hill, he thought Democratic aides would be "activists and idealists." However, he found instead that they were 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," Riffle said. "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."

"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,'" he added.

Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, pushed back on Twitter against Riffle's characterization of Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill, telling him that he needed to "be more forgiving and less judgmental of other progressives."

"I had some hard circumstances as a kid. I worked on the Hill. I’ve never worked on K St and most people I know from the Hill haven’t either," Tanden tweeted. "Everyone has dumb quotes. Maybe just be more forgiving and less judgmental of other progressives on here and elsewhere."

Riffle fired back at Tanden to accuse of her making "upwards of $300K/year" and said that CAP is "K-street-adjacent."

You make upwards of $300K/year working for an advocacy organization that takes large corporate contributions. You and CAP do some great work, but it is, to be generous, K-street-adjacent," Riffle said. "And I stand by the sentiments in the quote. If anything, I feel better about it after today."

Other Hill staffers didn't want to respond to Riffle's view, but Elaine Kamarck, a member of the Democratic National Committee and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued that Riffle was missing a key point about Democratic staffers.

"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," Kamarck 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."

Later in the profile piece, the Post sheds light on Riffle's rough childhood with his mom drinking heavily and getting evicted several times. He also wrote in his application to work for Ocasio-Cortez that his one meal per day as a child was often his free lunch at school.

"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," said Riffle "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.

Updated 6:38 p.m.: This post has been updated to include Riffle's argument with Tanden on Twitter.