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AOC’s Departing Chief of Staff Reflects on Life in the Pressure Cooker

In an exclusive interview, Gerardo Bonilla Chavez talks about the Squad, his boss’s unique role in Congress—and what went down on January 6.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff, Gerardo Bonilla Chavez
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff, Gerardo Bonilla Chavez, at the U.S. Capitol on October 12

Gerardo Bonilla Chavez shot a short video of himself on his iPhone when he arrived at work at the Capitol on the morning of January 6, 2021. “There are a bunch of MAGA people out there, feels like a coup is about to happen,” he said into the camera from a tunnel underneath the Capitol, after noting with a chuckle that his suit no longer fit him.

“It had been six, seven months since I’d put on a suit because we’d been working remotely because of the pandemic,” Bonilla Chavez told The New Republic in an exclusive interview Wednesday. “I’d definitely put on some weight,” he laughed.

The tall, friendly, Mexican American millennial was until last Friday a fixture alongside his boss, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the three-term progressive representing parts of the Bronx and Queens whom he served as chief of staff for two and a half years. This week, Bonilla Chavez, known to his friends and colleagues simply as “G,” sat down with The New Republic for an exclusive exit interview about staffing his famous boss on January 6, leading and leaving a Squad office, and coming up in politics as the American son of a working-class family of migrant farmworkers from Mexico.

Portrait of a G

Bonilla Chavez wasn’t scheduled to come into the office on January 6, 2021, but he volunteered when road closures to accommodate the now-infamous MAGA march made his commute the most convenient among the staffers working remotely.

Two years earlier, the congresswoman hired him to lead a diverse team of four staffers responsible for the congresswoman’s policymaking. Most of AOC’s staffers are people of color, an anomaly in Congress, where workers of color account for only 18 percent of House staffers. In Congress, efforts to diversify the workforce are led by staff associations like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, which brought Bonilla Chavez to Capitol Hill via a fellowship on a Senate subcommittee, after he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics at the University of Minnesota.

“Gerardo was very diligent,” recalled Senator Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat who hired Bonilla Chavez out of grad school as a senior policy adviser on the joint economic committee he chaired.

“Fabuloso,” said Representative Nydia Velasquez, a New York Democrat who convinced the young Senate staffer to come over to the House Small Business Committee to work as a senior economic adviser. “Trabajador,” Velazquez said of G. (“Worker.”)

AOC agreed. “The perspective that G brings is not just rooted in reading about working-class experiences but being rooted in and coming from that life,” she said Thursday night, a full week since G’s last day on her team. She has not named his replacement.

Meanwhile, G plans to travel to Mexico City for the first time, to spend a month there, to recharge, and perhaps return to the Beltway and get back into the progressive work that motivates him.

Burnout factored heavily into his decision to leave, he says, which is a common story among former Hill staffers, who are often required to work long hours for relatively low pay, sometimes for scumbag bosses. In contrast, working for AOC is seen as a cut above the toxic political furnace of Hill life. She pays her junior workers better than other House offices and has always paid her interns. Staffers past and present speak highly of Ocasio-Cortez, including G, who said the typical job opening for a role in her office gets between 300 and 500 applicants—so many that, at first, he didn’t bother to apply for the legislative director job.

“It wasn’t until they reposted it online that I decided to shoot my shot,” he said. To his surprise, the congresswoman interviewed him. “We look for a certain temperament because I know that the conditions of working for a member like me can be very overwhelming,” said Ocasio-Cortez of her hiring process. “The amount of scrutiny is not what is normal for a member of Congress. The level of threats are not normal, and I think G has been a great leader in fostering an environment of care and humor.”

“People Are Going to Hate You Here.”

Born in Bakersfield, California, to farmworkers from Mexico, G saw his parents pick “grapes, oranges, cabbages, walnuts, almonds, and a couple of other foods” six days per week from dawn until dusk, as a child. “My parents would get up at four o’clock in the morning to be out the door by five to beat the immigration agents that showed up by 5:30 to pull brown people over to check their papers,” said G, who remembers bawling his eyes out to his mother over having to be dropped off at a neighbor’s.

Three decades later, G’s mother called him during the deadly right-wing attack on Congress. “I told her I really don’t know what’s about to happen here. I might not make it,” said Bonilla Chavez. “From history, I knew a spectrum of political violence that was new to us here in the United States but not new to Latin America.”

Plus, Bonilla Chavez became acutely familiar with gringo oppression from a young age. When he was 9 years old, G’s parents moved him and his five sisters from sunny California to icy Minnesota. “People are going to hate you here because of who you are,” his older sister told him.

She was right. “I felt my otherness,” G said of growing up in Minnesota. “I shied away from my Mexican culture, avoiding things like speaking Spanish, while also doing things to try to fit in, like wearing Abercrombie and Fitch.” He was one of only a handful of students of color in his high school class of hundreds. Minnesota has seen a threefold increase in Latinos over the last 20 years, but the demographic remains just 6 percent of the state’s population, despite being about one-fifth of the American people overall.

G’s upbringing prepared him to some extent for the right-wing threats his office received on a daily basis during his four years working for AOC. “It’s everywhere,” Ocasio-Cortez told me two years ago. “People will use any way they can find to get to you.”

One evening last July, AOC told me she has never felt safe in the Capitol complex. As the congresswoman replied to my question, we were interrupted by men shouting about “antifa” and “burn[ing] it down,” emerging from the dark of night in the House parking lot.

Just hours before, Ocasio-Cortez had been sexually harassed on the same Capitol steps by an internet clout chaser named Alex Stein. “Out of an abundance of caution, our officers stopped the man and ran his information, which did not show any warrants,” said a Capitol Police statement.

“It never stops,” Bonilla Chavez sighed, when we debriefed the following day in the Capitol basement where he had predicted the coup, early on the morning of January 6, 2021. “It’s exhausting.” I suggested the congresswoman not exit down the House steps after dark. These grown-ass men are creepy, I said, but what if they’re also dangerous? He agreed. So did the team. And the congresswoman changed up for a time.

Squad Offices Are Different

The Squad is the nickname claimed by four progressive women of color sworn in as House freshman in 2018. Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib brought a new, nerdy, confrontational energy to the House of Representatives. The informal group has since grown to include Cori Bush, Jamaal Bowman, Summer Lee, and other House Democrats defined in many ways by their willingness to break with their party leaders to fight for progressive policies.

These House Democrats of color are lightning rods for bigoted attacks, including death threats. Threats against members of Congress increased dramatically during Donald Trump’s presidency, more than doubling in the last five years to 9,600 cases in 2021. Last year, the Capitol Police investigated around 7,500 threats against members of Congress, with Squad offices—and in particular, Ocasio-Cortez’s—being top targets of threats that can be chilling in their specificity.

In October, the Capitol Police organized a special safety briefing for Squad offices, in response to the rising threats against them. Hill staffers (average age 31) are the front-line workers receiving the heaps of acrid political ire that arrives by phone, email, and on social media, including threats of kidnap, rape, and killing. “I’m the oldest person in my office,” Omar told me in 2021. “Most of them are pretty young people. This is their first job. Many of them are still idealistic and hold a lot of reverence for public service and for what this place represents. The fact that they are constantly subjected to death threats and vitriol that they deal with, it is a tragedy.”

As AOC’s chief of staff, Bonilla Chavez had the authority to let his traumatized workers allow the office phones go to voicemail, or send them home for the day when the shit got too real. Ocasio-Cortez has suddenly been assigned large, armed security details for her immediate protection on several occasions during her five years in Congress. Bonilla Chavez believes only former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saw a comparable number of threats against her office.

A J6 Hero

G locked the door behind him when he got to the office on the morning of Trump’s coup attempt. “The vibe was off,” he said, noting the charter busloads of Trump supporters that had arrived in his neighborhood near the Capitol in the days before the attack. “I was heads down at my desk when I heard this pounding on the outer door of our office,” he remembered. “I didn’t know who it was, but it wasn’t like a normal knock. It was more aggressive than that—like a loud, jolting banging on the door.”

G moved quickly into action, telling Ocasio-Cortez to hide and then locking the outer door of the office. There had been no announcement over the loudspeakers, no email guidance from the House sergeant at arms, no reason for anyone to be knocking on the door with such violence. The pounding continued as G secured his boss behind two sets of locked doors, then unlocked the main door to their office. A U.S. Capitol Police officer burst in shouting, “Where is she? Where is she?”

“He seemed more panicked than I was,” recalled Bonilla Chavez. “I was like ‘Whoa! Who are you? Who are you?’ In a state of panic, picking up on the details as little as a badge, you don’t notice that right away.”

The policeman ordered the congresswoman and her staffer to evacuate to a secure location. “We actually tried a couple of offices, but they were locked, and we couldn’t get in,” said Ocasio-Cortez who, along with G, was eventually taken in by Representative Katie Porter, a California Democrat.

AOC waited with G in Porter’s office for hours as the deadly coup attempt Bonilla Chavez predicted that morning unfolded outside and on television. “The way a person acts in a moment like that is incredibly revealing,” said AOC of Bonilla Chavez, on January 6. “I think what was revealing about him is a capacity for heroism and courage and bravery.”

I asked Ocasio-Cortez if G is a hero. She smiled: “I think so.”

* This article has been updated based on Ocasio-Cortez’s recollection of certain events.