The Test Facing Democratic Socialist Julia Salazar in New York

Amid controversy, Salazar is working to make her state senate race against a real estate-backed incumbent about vision and policy.

Nick Vachon September 12, 2018

Julia Salazar campaigns in New York City. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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.

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.”

Mov­ing left

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.

Chang­ing landscape

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.”

Hous­ing crisis

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. 

Nick Vachon is a fel­low at Data for Progress, a writer, and a fourth-year Pol­i­tics stu­dent at Ober­lin College.
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