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How One of DC’s Best-Known Viral Activists Ended Up as Andrew Yang’s Spokesperson

Photograph courtesy Erick Sanchez.

Erick Sanchez’s path to the Yang Gang began with a 23-year-old British hip-hop song. He was watching a stream of the 2019 Iowa Democrats Hall of Fame Dinner last June, for which he’d chosen walkout music for his old boss, US Representative Tim Ryan. Sanchez had suggested “Old Town Road”—an effort to break out of what Sanchez calls the “Fleetwood Mac, U2 mold” so many candidates default to when choosing music. He was pleased with how that went over, but kept watching as a little-known businessman named Andrew Yang followed, entering to Mark Morrison’s 1996 hit “Return of the Mack.”

“Return of the Mack” is one of Erick Sanchez’s favorite songs. Easily up there in his Top 3.

“My eyes kind of lit up, my ears perked up,” he tells Washingtonian. “And honestly at that point, I didn’t hear anything he said in his speech.” Over the following months, Sanchez researched Yang’s thoughts on universal basic income and how automation will affect working people and found him to be “a candidate wasn’t just identifying the problems, but actually putting real solutions together and packages it in a way that I feel is relatable.” It didn’t hurt that Yang skateboards and crowd-surfs.

“I thought he was a very human person who was not afraid to do something that’s relatable to all of us, whether it’s dancing, doing the Cupid Shuffle or, or, you know, basically willing to let his hair down and put himself out there,” Sanchez says.

Sanchez knows about putting yourself out there. If you’ve lived in Washington over the past decade, you’ve probably heard of one of the 34-year-old’s stunts: There was the time he raised money to hire Kenny Loggins to play in his parents’ living room in Oakton. The time he spearheaded a petition to convince José Andrés to pull out of the Trump International Hotel, back when Donald Trump was himself a long-shot candidate. And after Trump’s surprise win, it was Sanchez who organized a rally to support Comet Ping Pong when it was under attack by far-right nut jobs and Sanchez who organized a goodbye party for Joe Biden outside the Naval Observatory that Biden showed up for. Also, Sanchez has somehow made friends with Sinbad, but, honestly, we don’t have time to parse that right now.

“A Mexican Iranian American from the DMV. You can’t make that up,” says Sanchez’s friend Jason Rezaian. “He is America in 2020. He understands our collective psyche like no one else I can think of. Andrew Yang is lucky to have him. So was Tim Ryan. My biggest professional regret is not letting him leak news that I was exploring a run for presidency. For the record, I wasn’t.”

So, yes, in many ways, Yang’s DIY campaign, which has essentially hacked its way  through the Democratic primary, is a perfect fit for a congenital disrupter like Sanchez. (So’s Yang himself–not only are both  both the first-generation children of immigrants, “we were both Nintendo kids growing up, both love Street Fighter,” Sanchez notes.) But Sanchez isn’t just a funny media stunt guy. He’s paid his rent over the years with a succession of jobs in leftward politics, from working for Ryan and former US Representative Kendrick Meek, to the Senate Bill 5 initiative in Ohio, to a gig with AFSCME, to founding his own strategy firm, Quixotic, after he moved to New Orleans with his wife, Caroline Friou, in late 2017. Despite having been unsuccessful so far in his ambition to meet fellow DC expat Walter Isaacson, Sanchez says he loves New Orleans and that Washington will always feel like home.

Sanchez says he wasn’t planning to get involved in this year’s primary until Ryan took him up on his offer to help, which he likens to offering to help a friend move because you own a truck, fully expecting them to say no. As Ryan’s race wound down last fall, Sanchez returned to New Orleans, where he and Friou live with their dog, Gumbo (a name Sanchez notes “is not really cool in New Orleans”) only to send an inquiry to the Yang campaign, quickly receive an offer, and fly up to Des Moines help out.

Since then Sanchez’s life has been a succession of early mornings in Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as lots of road food and, perhaps not coincidentally, a bout with gout. “I usually just kind of gauge it and how my pants are feeling on any certain day and I feel like if my jeans are inadvertently becoming skinny jeans then that’s a real problem,” he says of his trail regimen. As Yang’s traveling press secretary, Sanchez deals with media requests, shepherds the candidate to interviews, and attends countless town halls, events, and rallies. “I’ve enjoyed having Erick as part of my travel team and the guidance and support he offers as I campaign vigorously in the early stages,” Yang tells Washingtonian. “His optimism and civility have been an ideal fit for me and the campaign we are running.”

Few prognosticators expect Yang to win in the early states, though as every American knows, stranger things have happened. Still, he’s got a shot. I asked Sanchez what kind of talky events (he prefers the term “digital activism”) he might organize as President Yang’s press secretary.  “Well, I think if you look at the pattern of those events that I put together it was because of the Trump presidency,” The says. “The perpetuation of actually fake news, things like Pizzagate. Subsequently, adjacent actions were all a result of a candidacy and a presidency that I felt disparaged local and official Washington. And I would hope that, and I strongly believe and affirm, that a Yang presidency wouldn’t require that type of activism.”

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Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.