Ana María Archila never imagined she’d actually run for office. It was daunting enough coming to a new country, learning a new language, and figuring out how to organize her fellow immigrants in a place that often treated them like second-class citizens. “I didn’t aspire to do traditional politics from the inside,” she said.

Now the Colombia-born Archila is undertaking the ultimate insider’s quest: a statewide campaign in New York. Archila, a cofounder of the prominent immigrant rights group Make the Road New York and a former executive director at the Center for Popular Democracy, is running in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. If she manages to win, she would be the highest-ranking progressive ever elected across the state—just a heartbeat away from the governor’s mansion.

None of this rattles Archila, who is used to the spotlight. A fixture in New York activist circles, she rose to national fame in 2018 after she was caught on camera confronting Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona, in an elevator after he decided to support the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh had been accused of sexual assault and Archila was reckoning with her own history as a survivor.

“What you are doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit on the Supreme Court,” Archila told Flake.

A spate of national media appearances followed, and Archila, in suffragette white, joined Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the 2019 State of the Union address. After that, she happily returned to relative anonymity. Electoral politics was not on her mind until the Working Families Party made an ask: run for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Jumaane Williams, the New York City public advocate trying to topple Kathy Hochul, who replaced the disgraced Andrew Cuomo last year.

“The party asked me about two weeks ago if I was willing to do this,” Archila recalled. “They knew I was in a moment of rest and reflection and I also was witnessing and worrying about ways people are demobilized—partly because everyone is exhausted, partly because everyone is in survival mode coming out of the pandemic.”

This is the second time the WFP has supported an insurgent ticket in a statewide race. Four years ago, the progressive third party, which has been a force in New York politics for more than two decades, backed actress Cynthia Nixon in her long-shot bid against Cuomo. Nixon’s running mate was Williams, then a city councilor, and while Nixon would not come close to winning—Cuomo was relatively popular at the time and spent nearly $30 million on the primary—Williams almost defeated the incumbent lieutenant governor: Kathy Hochul.

The institutional left in New York hopes this time an upset can be pulled off. One challenge is that Hochul is not nearly as polarizing as Cuomo. She has banked more than $20 million, fundraising from the same real estate and Wall Street elites as Cuomo, but she has been more accommodating to progressives, proposing a budget that is generous by the standards Cuomo set and offering other olive branches, like more state funding for rental assistance during the pandemic. She is genial and has dodged controversy. Unlike Cuomo, she embraces retail campaigning, spending much of her time in New York City, where a bulk of the Democratic votes will be.

Still, progressives have begun to grow restive, and Archila plans to wage a campaign against the Hochul administration that points to several glaring disappointments. Hochul was happy to allow an eviction moratorium to expire and has not, to Archila’s chagrin, replenished a fund for undocumented immigrants shut out from traditional unemployment benefits. She is also fighting to get the “good cause” eviction bill passed in Albany, which will safeguard tenants from arbitrary evictions. Hochul is not a backer of the measure.

“People want something different, actually. If there is something the right wing and left share, it is frustration with the politics of business as usual,” Archila said. “The biggest overall high-level failure is not actually meeting the moment. The pandemic revealed crushing pressures on working-class and middle-class families.”

Williams, the gubernatorial candidate, is formidable in his own right—had he run for mayor in 2021, he may well have beaten Eric Adams—but his campaign is, at the moment, severely underfunded. He had less than $200,000 in his account as of January, and there are no public matching funds for state-level races. Hochul will have millions to flood the airwaves in an election where television and radio matter much more than grassroots organizing. More than a million Democrats will vote in June.

Archila, however, has a less daunting task: defeat Brian Benjamin, the little-known lieutenant governor. A former state senator from Manhattan, Benjamin was tapped by Hochul last year as a way to shore up her support from Black voters in the five boroughs. In New York, the governor and lieutenant governor compete separately in the primary, creating an opportunity for someone unaligned with the top of the ticket to sneak through.

It’s not implausible that Archila could end up as Hochul’s lieutenant governor next year.

“You have low name recognition among both candidates. It evens out the playing field,” said Bill Neidhardt, a Democratic consultant who worked for Bernie Sanders and Bill de Blasio, of Archila and Benjamin. “She is a deep grassroots leader, very similar to Jumaane. She is someone who lives and breathes actual grassroots movement politics.”

Benjamin, who declined an interview request for this story, has no history of winning competitive elections, unlike Hochul. He was handed his state Senate seat in a special election and failed to win a city comptroller’s race last year, losing even the neighborhoods he represented in Albany. Lately, Benjamin has been beset by numerous ethics scandals that Archila’s allies will be happy to highlight, including the indictment of a campaign donor and the revelation that he was misusing the per diem system for state legislators.

The lieutenant governor has little formal power. Traditionally, the second-in-command has served as a cheerleader for the governor, attending ribbon-cuttings and promoting whatever agenda comes out of the executive mansion. Hochul was an energetic, if forgettable, number two to Cuomo, sidelined for almost a decade.

Archila, unsurprisingly, doesn’t plan to follow that path.

“I would not allow that office to be a ceremonial role,” she said. “You have to wonder what was Brian Benjamin doing when the eviction moratorium expired and people in the district he used to represent were losing their homes. What was he doing? What is the agenda he’s driving in that administration?”

If Benjamin’s hopes rest with the city’s Black voters, Archila’s depend on her ability to organize and inspire Latinos, who have never had a governor or lieutenant governor from their community. Eli Valentin, an adjunct lecturer and columnist who studies Latino voting patterns in New York, believes Archila has the potential to appeal to the roughly 14 percent of the gubernatorial primary electorate that is Latino.

“Coalition work is imperative for anyone to win at a statewide level. I really think Archila has a chance because of her previous work—her activist work and the attention she’s garnered as a result of that work,” Valentin said. “I think that in itself makes her an appealing candidate to progressive groups, to Latinos.”

To actually defeat Benjamin—and win a general election in a tough midterm environment—Archila will have to build a coalition. The good news is that there appears to be a sizable floor for insurgent lieutenant governor candidates in New York. Williams garnered more than 40 percent of the vote against Hochul, and so did Tim Wu, the star academic who ran for the same post in 2014. Archila can perform well in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan, winning a mix of upwardly mobile progressives and Latino working-class voters. She will also have to fend off another Latina candidate, a former city councilor named Diana Reyna who is running on a ticket with Tom Suozzi, a centrist Democratic representative.

Still, victory is far from assured for Archila, because Benjamin is likely to benefit from Hochul’s largesse, as well as the backing of major labor unions and institutional players who move votes. In campaigns like these, the insiders almost always win.

One secret weapon for Archila could be AOC. The two women are close, and an AOC endorsement earlier rather than later would provide a significant fundraising and media boost. Brad Lander, the city comptroller, is an Archila backer already and won his own primary last year—over Benjamin, among others—with the help of the WFP and Ocasio-Cortez, who made his race a top priority.

“Do I think AOC’s support of me was a very big part of why I won? Of course I do,” Lander said.

The “big challenge,” Lander added, will be “resources,” and how much Hochul will be willing to spend to help Benjamin. “Ana María needs to get in front of a lot more people. She is a pretty uniquely compelling figure.”