AOC Biography Shares Details on Her Private Boyfriend's Support and Highlights Bond with Late Dad

Take Up Space explores New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's background as well as the struggles and successess of her grassroots campaign for office

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Riley Roberts
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her boyfriend Riley Roberts. Photo: James Devaney/GC

Two of the most important people in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's life are featured in a new biography about her rise in national politics: her late father and inspiration, Sergio Ocasio-Roman; and her boyfriend, Riley Roberts, a steady source of support away from the spotlight.

"What we do know about Roberts doesn't fit the stereotype of a politician's partner," writes Josh Gondelman in an essay in Take Up Space: The Unprecedented AOC by the editors of New York magazine, which was published last month.

"He doesn't seem focus-grouped or media-trained for state dinners and press conferences. We know he's supportive and encouraging in private," Gondelman writes. "And his expertise, as far as his public image goes, is his elusiveness and restraint."

Ocasio-Cortez's shocking win for a New York City seat in the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms — which made her the youngest woman ever elected to Congress — immediately certified her position as a politician to watch.

Her progressive politics and aversion to the establishment also made her a target of conservatives and even some of her party colleagues, who didn't like her democratic socialist ideas and her headline-making social media presence.

Take Up Space explores the now-32-year-old Latina's Bronx, working-class background, a prominent theme of her political persona, as well as the struggles and successes of her grassroots campaign for office — and how she became the voice of a new wave of Democrats.

"History suggests that, as a young politician who has no famous parent, is not a member of a political dynasty, and was never married to a rock star, only a handful of people should know her name at this point in her nascent career," Rebecca Traister writes in the biography's introduction. "But after just three years in government, Ocasio-Cortez feels like a symbol of her own brand of insurgency, armed not with guns or Confederate flags but an insistence on an entirely new approach to taking and using power."

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Alex Wong/Getty

Few know the scope of Ocasio-Cortez's abilities better than her partner. She met Roberts, a web developer, when they were at Boston University. Every Friday afternoon, the Thurman Center hosted a debate circle, "Coffee and Conversation."

Ocasio-Cortez's friend Eric Baker watched her in action, according to the biography.

"She was very precise," Baker says in Take Up Space. "She would let everyone else go and then she would raise her hand, and people would pipe down, the ruckus would temper. And then she would give her answer in this eloquent, succinct, very deliberate style. People would be like, 'Oh, this is amazing.' "

Debate topics ranged from "the war in Afghanistan" to Kanye West, with Ocasio-Cortez serving in a leadership role, helping engage more debaters and "defusing conflict," according to the book.

"Every guy went through their phase where they had a crush on her," Baker says, per Take Up Space, "and she'll probably stab me in the heart for saying that."

Roberts was one of those guys, but he also served as one of Ocasio-Cortez's main "sparring partners."

Take Up Space the Unprecedented AOC
Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster

"Riley was, for lack of a better term, the s----starter," says Baker. "Riley's just as smart as anyone you've ever met, probably smarter, but he would actively say things just to stir the pot."

Baker explains in the biography that Roberts saw it as his duty to stir up the conversation when the debate "began to have the collegiate, navel-gazing feel of collective concord."

"Riley was just like, 'This is dumb. Why are we all going around in a circle saying the same thing?' He enjoyed intellectual combat," Baker says, "and I think she enjoyed his pushback."

The couple did break up once after they got together — a temporary interruption in their romance. They now live with their dog, Deco. The New York magazine editors write in the biography that Roberts has found ways to support his girlfriend strictly behind the scenes, unlike many of the wives and partners of politicians expected to perform in the public spotlight.

Still, since Ocasio-Cortez's 2018 win, the public has gotten glimpses of Roberts — such as in the Netflix documentary Knock Down the House. Comments and criticism (some of the Mean Girls variety) about Riley's appearance started popping up on social media, leading Ocasio-Cortez to announce that Roberts had trimmed his big red beard.

"The internet roasted Riley into getting a haircut/glow-up after Knock Down the House," the congresswoman reportedly wrote on her Instagram story.

A friend of the couple, Raul Fernandez, was at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of the documentary in 2019, and previously told Vanity Fair that Roberts was "just bawling" while he watched the scenes about her dad's death.

Fernandez recalled, according to the magazine, "I was like, 'He really, deeply loves this woman.' What more can you ask for?"

Sergio Ocasio-Roman also loved his daughter deeply. When he died in September 2008 of lung cancer, at just 48, Alexandria was devastated.

The new biography of her revisit one especially moving memory — their last moments together, a week before he died — and explores previous reporting about how unmoored she felt in the months after his death.

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez Sergio
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her dad. Courtesy Photo

"I didn't know that it was going to be the last time that I talked to my dad, but toward the end of our interaction, I started to feel like it was," the newly elected lawmaker told TIME in a March 2019 profile. "I said goodbye, but I think he knew, and I knew. And so I started to leave, and he kind of hollered out, and I turned around in the doorframe, and he said, 'Hey, make me proud.' "

Ocasio-Cortez has often spoken about how her dad's love and support shaped her life.

After his death, her family struggled both emotionally and financially. In July 2019, Ocasio-Cortez spoke at a prescription drug prices hearing held by the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

"My family almost lost our home in order to try to keep him alive and just try to keep our family together," she said.

"Many people know that I was working in a restaurant when I got elected, but they don't know why," Ocasio-Cortez continued. "And the reason why was because we lost my father to a rare form of lung cancer. We couldn't find treatment for him."

Before she decided to run for congress or took a job as a waitress, Ocasio-Cortez was working on a couple of projects to help kids, but neither took off, according to Take Up Space. She "became extremely discouraged," the authors write.

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"Alex, I think, had a Mary Poppins understanding that you follow a particular pathway and bingo! You're successful," says Ernesto Nieto, a co-founder of the National Hispanic Institute (NHI), which Ocasio-Cortez attended during high school and college. Nieto explained that recognizing the divide between how Ocasio-Cortez saw herself and how the other people saw her "was not very pleasant. That's the journey for a lot of Latinos. The same doors are not there for us as for somebody else," per the book.

Sometimes, on car rides to NHI events, Nieto and Ocasio-Cortez would share their struggles with each other and cry.

Ocasio-Cortez was able to push through with her family's support. Her brother, Gabriel Ocasio-Cortez, was the one to nominate her to the now-named Justice Democrats, which led to her 2018 election. Their mom, Blanca Ocasio-Cortez, reportedly helped her during the campaign.

Throughout it all, her dad's love and life lessons have guided her.

"I don't think there's any way to overstate how close I was with my dad," Ocasio-Cortez told Vanity Fair for the magazine's October 2020 cover story.

"That sense of ambition to try things when the odds seem so unfavorable, that very, very much comes from my father."

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