For decades, the New York City Democratic machine has capitalized off of low-turnout elections to keep its members in power. However, a new generation of progressive New Yorkers is rejecting that model, arguing that mobilizing new voters can drive electoral success. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking victory in June highlighted, this “mobilize the base” strategy can upend the political establishment.
Like Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar, a 27-year-old state senate candidate, is mounting a volunteer-driven challenge to a long-time incumbent, running as an open democratic socialist and rejecting corporate money. In a city that has been confronted with a systemic housing crisis and mass displacement, many candidates from the Left see machine-affiliated incumbents as complacent and vulnerable to populist criticisms. Salazar is no different. At the heart of her campaign is a critique of her opponent’s proximity to New York real estate interests and his role in propelling a rent crisis in the district. Rent stabilization laws in New York State are up for renewal in 2019, making this a decisive election year. Among Salazar’s chief platform planks are ending vacancy decontrol and instituting universal rent stabilization.
Salazar’s opponent is 16-year incumbent Martin Dilan in New York’s 18th Senate District, which includes parts of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bushwick and Cypress Hill. Dilan is one of the last holdouts of the political machine of Vito Lopez, the now deceased former Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair. Lopez was a state assemblyman for 30 years. During his tenure, he turned his nonprofit, the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, into a formidable political operation. At its height in 2010, the RBSCC held $100 million in city and state contracts and engaged in classic quid-pro-quo politics. Lopez resigned as Brooklyn Democratic Chair and Assemblyman in 2013, after facing highly credible sexual harassment allegations. Dilan and his son, Councilman Erik Dilan, were among the largest beneficiaries of Lopez’s machine, funneling taxpayer money to RBSCC in exchange for political support.
But Lopez’s machine is no more, and there are strong reasons to see strength behind Salazar’s challenge. In 2014, and again in 2016, activist Debbie Medina mounted spirited challenges against Dilan’s proximity to real-estate interests and his failure to effectively respond to skyrocketing rents. However, the summer before the September 2016 primary, child abuse allegations surfaced against Medina. Despite losing critical endorsements and suffering from a crippling deficit of volunteers, Medina still won nearly 41 percent of the vote.
Clearly, voters in the 18th District are open to change. The question is whether Julia Salazar can capitalize on it.
Past under scrutiny
Salazar’s personal biography has come under scrutiny in recent weeks. Her identity as an immigrant, her assertions of growing up working-class and her Judaism have all been questioned, revealing a complex series of accounts from the candidate that could be characterized as everything from deliberately misleading statements to forgivable lapses of judgment. It was additionally revealed that she was previously a leader in right-wing activism at Columbia University, and that she was questioned over impersonating a family friend to access their financial information. As with many questions of personal identity, the story is not entirely black and white.
While Salazar’s website referred to the candidate as a “proud immigrant,” in August it was revealed that she was actually born in Miami, Fla., though she traveled back and forth between the United States and Colombia as a child. Salazar says she “never intended to misrepresent my personal narrative or my immigration status,” and that while several outlets, and even she herself, had made reference to her immigrant status, her statements were the product of imprecise early childhood memories and a strong identification with Colombia and her father’s family. She expressed regret that she hadn’t more thoroughly interrogated her memories as she began to run for public office, saying that “when I set out to run for State Senate I wasn’t critically thinking about my biography, specifically what has been challenged in my early childhood.”
Her early childhood has come under scrutiny from another angle: her class status. She has positioned herself as coming from a working-class background. The first time we talked she described how her economic conditions are foundational to her politics. However, her father worked as a pilot, and her brother has strongly contested her narrative of a working-class upbringing. Salazar admits that her early childhood, until age six, when her parents separated, was not one of economic uncertainty. However, she told me that after the separation, her father paid child support inconsistently at best, and the family relied on Social Security once he became disabled. She said that her mother had to return to college and made $17,000 dollars in one year while raising two children, and that her family’s “economic status varied greatly throughout my upbringing. The background that my parents came from, paired with the financial experience I had in elementary school or middle school are very safe to describe as working class.”
She says that “the lines aren’t fixed when it comes to class status. But when I talk about having working-class or middle-class experience, I mean that I understand the financial insecurity that people in my district face.” She says that “it’s not helpful or meaningful to debate whether I was poor,” but rather that her campaign is “about building solidarity with people who have to work for a living with families that know that if someone gets sick they could lose their home.” Salazar claims that class isn’t a rigid identity, but that it varies with economic status, and the combination of financial precarity and security in her upbringing complicates discussions of her class.
Ultimately, she believes that “voters are more concerned with my record as an advocate and my ability to fight for constituents.”
Which is why her history as a right-wing college activist bears addressing. After first registering as a Republican in Florida in 2008, Salazar says that after moving to New York she intended to register as an Independent but instead accidentally registering for the state’s Independence Party.
At Columbia University, she was involved with both pro-Israel and pro-life activism. Columbia is where she embraced the Jewish faith, which she says was spurred on by the death of her father, who “had made allusions to a Sephardic surname.” Her integration in Jewish life at Columbia, through organizations like Challah for Hunger and Hillel, encouraged her to visit Israel. The details of her trip have also been a source of controversy about her Jewish identity, as the trip was planned by Christians United for Israel rather than a Jewish organization. Nevertheless, she cites her visit to Israel, in 2012, and seeing the separation barrier particularly, as disabusing her of her firm pro-Israel stance. Being “very disturbed by the violence I saw there,” she says she made “a significant decision to reject pro-Israel advocacy.”
She described her experience in pro-life activism, with Columbia Right to Life, as echoing her other right-wing commitments. Her allegiance was shifted in the controversy around the creation of a Columbia abortion fund, which every student would pay into as part of their university-provided health plan. Salazar led the Support Pregnant Students Initiative, aiming to provide support for students who choose to keep their pregnancy. After she published an op-ed in the Columbia Spectator arguing her position, she was confronted by a number of close friends who, through a series of “very hard conversations,” led her to “realize I was deeply miseducated and wrong about abortion.”
When asked why she hadn’t made her political evolution part of her campaign story, Salazar says she was more focused on the community that had encouraged her to run for office, and that she “didn’t think about my own narrative so much and my own evolution.”
As an outgrowth of her political evolution, Salazar helped organize a rent strike against an abusive and absent landlord during her junior year at Columbia. She and her fellow tenants took their landlord to court and won. Her victory, though, was fleeting: when her lease ended a few months later, her landlord declined to renew it. Accordingly, the event holds two meanings for her: while “it was empowering to see how people without law degrees, without any institutional power were able to fight management and win,” she “was still being displaced. It was a very vivid example of the need to fight for systemic changes to systemic problems.”
Salazar says that experience helped propel her run for office.
When we spoke the first time, Salazar expressed how she was “tired of having to ask the same elected officials over and over again to do the right thing.” Her work in Albany and New York City, along with the support of her community and fellow organizers, convinced her that the solution wasn’t bird-dogging her representatives, but replacing them.
Julia Salazar’s campaign is just one hint that change may be on the horizon in the New York State Senate. Members of the Independent Democratic Conference, (IDC) a group of Democratic senators who caucused with Republicans for the past eight years, are appearing increasingly weak in the face of strong primary challenges. And, if he wins reelection, Gov. Andrew Cuomo may find himself between a rock and a hard place come 2019.
According to Bill Lipton, the New York State Director of the Working Families Party, a progressive, or even a Democratic majority in the state senate is just what Cuomo has been trying to avoid. “Andrew Cuomo has spent the last eight years doing everything he can to keep progressives out of power in Albany — from allowing the Senate Republicans to gerrymander their own districts after promising repeatedly not to, to refusing to campaign for Senate Democrats, to helping the IDC steal the Democratic majority away in 2012, to fostering division between IDC and the Democratic caucus.” This arrangement has allowed Cuomo to act as the power broker in the state senate while both helping block progressive legislation and retaining his Democratic credentials.
Lipton claims Cuomo has utilized this arrangement to masquerade as a progressive while keeping legislative threats to his moneyed friends dead in the water, all the while joking to Senate Republicans about how little he supports Democratic candidates. That Cuomo has managed to build one of the largest campaign war chests in the country through corporate donations speaks to the immense wealth that this arrangement has granted. Lipton says real estate is among the chief interests that pay into this racket: “Real estate is to New York what coal is to West Virginia — the lifeblood of oligarchy.”
It may be difficult for many residents of the 18th District to square their soaring rents with the $200,000 in real estate money Sen. Dilan has raised during his tenure in office, especially in a district ravaged by pro-real estate legislation and ensuing gentrification. Dilan’s vote has been instrumental in both implementing vacancy decontrol in 1994 as a city councilman, and defusing attempts to repeal the law in 2010 as a state senator. Vacancy decontrol, which allows landlords to freely raise the rent on vacant rent-stabilized units, is at the center of the city-wide housing crisis. According to Salazar, the 18th District alone loses tens of thousands of rent stabilized and controlled units every year.
And considering the state of New York City’s rent laws, which are set on the state level, that isn’t surprising. Once rent on an apartment reaches $2,733.75, landlords can “free” a unit from its rent-stabilized status and instead charge market rates.
There are two main ways that landlords jack up the rent: when a renovation is made owners are allowed a commensurate increase in rent, and the rent can be raised when a tenant moves out. In practice, both of these regulations produce perverse incentives. In the first case, landlords are given very little oversight when reporting the added value of a renovation, meaning they often make small improvements while disproportionately increasing rent. As for the second, landlords are incentivized to rent to short-term tenants, like college students and young people who don’t have ties to the neighborhood, and to harass their rent-stabilized tenants.
The scale of tenant abuse is staggering: A New York Times investigation found stories of landlords who punched holes in the roofs and walls of occupied rent-controlled units, bombarded tenants with eviction suits and harassed them with loud construction. The investigation discovered that the agencies responsible for regulation were “fractionalized, divided among three city and state agencies” and “essentially passive.” This regulatory environment has had devastating impacts on the 18th District. In Bushwick, a family living on the median yearly income, just over $42,000, would have to spend more than 60 percent of their income to afford the average rent of a two-bedroom unit. In Williamsburg, that number is 65 percent.
While Dilan argues that he never thought his vote would come to harm his own constituents, Jennifer Lenow, a member of NYC-DSA’s organizing committee for the Brooklyn Housing Working Group, says that Dilan’s “thousands and thousands from real estate speaks louder than his rhetoric.”
Salazar has been endorsed by the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez and City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, as well as Cynthia Nixon and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Michael Kinnucan, Salazar’s Deputy Campaign Director, is optimistic about her chances, citing the broad dissatisfaction with the political status quo, the support of local activist groups Make the Road Action and New York Communities for Change, and “one of the largest volunteer ground-organizations in the city.”
Polling shows state-wide enthusiasm for large-scale investment in public housing, signaling that New Yorkers would look favorably upon a more proactive approach to confronting the state’s housing crisis.
As part of their New Progressive Agenda Project, Civis Analytics, a data analytics firm, and the think tank Data for Progress (where I am a fellow) have shown that 59 percent of likely 2018 voters in New York support billions of dollars in investment in public housing, even after hearing Republican arguments against it and being presented with an explicit tax pay-for through tax hikes. “These numbers are pretty consistent with the very high levels of support we’ve seen for public housing ballot measures in cities like Portland and Seattle,” says David Shor, head of data science at Civis Analytics’ political practice.
Persona and policy
Salazar’s controversies, meanwhile, have continued in recent days. On September 6, allegations of an affair with former New York Mets player Keith Hernandez and an attempt to impersonate his then-estranged, now divorced wife, Kai, have come to light. Salazar had been family friends with Hernandez, and was arrested for, but ultimately not charged with, the felony impersonation of Kai. According to Salazar’s statement, the lawsuit was entirely the product of a vengeful ex-wife who had gone so far as to impersonate Salazar on the phone in an attempt to frame her for illegally accessing her finances. Kai’s motive, according to Salazar, was that while house-sitting at Kai’s request Salazar had found “a lot of drugs, syringes, and several guns.” Salazar says that after calling Keith and describing the condition of the house, he, along with local police came to document the scene. The next year she was called by local police and interrogated for allegedly impersonating Kai. After not being charged, in 2013, Salazar sued Kai Hernandez for damages and the two parties reached a settlement in 2017.
When asked for comment about the controversies surrounding Salazar, Martin Dilan’s spokesman Bob Liff said that while “Marty has been a progressive and stable champion for residents of the 18th district, his opponent will have to speak for herself.”
A victory by Salazar’s insurgent campaign would offer even more proof that the future of the Democratic Party is multi-racial, decidedly left, community-driven and not beholden to corporate interests. However, the narrative surrounding her has become thick with controversy, misrepresentation and outright lies. While many of Salazar’s supporters claim that the candidate has been victim to a right-wing smear campaign, there remain essential questions about how she has publicly presented herself throughout her campaign.
In a district whose neighborhoods are synonymous with gentrification, the question facing voters in the 18th is this: To what extent is representative politics about personality, and to what extent is it about policy? Thursday’s election will help provide an answer.
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Nick Vachon is a writer based in New York.