The Left Wave Keeps Growing with Democratic Socialist Julia Salazar’s Insurgent Win

Salazar won a stunning victory in New York by running on an ambitious left platform—and never shying away from challenging capitalism.

Amir Khafagy and Miles Kampf-Lassin September 14, 2018

Julia Salazar speaks to supporters in Brooklyn following her underdog win. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

It’s been a long and tumul­tuous cam­paign for Julia Salazar, but despite the neg­a­tive press that hound­ed her cam­paign in recent weeks, she emerged vic­to­ri­ous on Thurs­day. In a stun­ning upset over real estate-backed incum­bent Mar­tin Dilan, Salazar — an open demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist — tri­umphed in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry with 59 per­cent of the vote, and is on her way to becom­ing Brook­lyn’s newest state senator.

Salazar's win is the latest in a wave of progressive insurgencies that have ousted establishment Democrats across the nation.

This is a vic­to­ry for all of us who believe that a bet­ter world is pos­si­ble. That we are going to build a New York that works for the many and not just for the few,” Salazar pro­claimed to a packed crowd of sup­port­ers at her vic­to­ry par­ty in East Williamsburg. 

Start­ing out as a lit­tle-known local effort to rep­re­sent New York’s 18th Dis­trict, Salazar’s cam­paign was cat­a­pult­ed into the lime­light in the wake of Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez’s shock­ing vic­to­ry in June over the pow­er­ful Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bent Rep. Joe Crow­ley. Build­ing on the momen­tum from Ocasio-Cortez’s vic­to­ry, Salazar’s cam­paign cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of pro­gres­sives across the city — and the country.

Seem­ing­ly overnight, Salazar was por­trayed in the media as the next big demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist chal­lenger to an entrenched, Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine politi­cian. Giv­en the many sim­i­lar­i­ties between Salazar and Oca­sio-Cortez — both Lati­na, decid­ed­ly left-wing, first-time can­di­dates — the main­stream press began to exten­sive­ly cov­er Salazar’s cam­paign. Her sup­port­ers have hoped she’ll become anoth­er ris­ing star on the Left — and anoth­er face of the pro­gres­sive resur­gence sweep­ing the coun­try. After Thursday’s win, that seems all but assured.

Salazar her­self appears hum­bled by all the atten­tion, telling In These Times, Over the course of the last year, this cam­paign has shown me that peo­ple are no longer will­ing to tol­er­ate these men in pow­er betray­ing us any­more. Not only are they will­ing to speak out on it but they are will­ing to take action by replac­ing them with lead­ers who tru­ly rep­re­sent them. And I’m proud to be a part of that.” 

Salazar’s win is the lat­est in a wave of pro­gres­sive insur­gen­cies that have oust­ed estab­lish­ment Democ­rats across the nation. Along with her vic­to­ry, six left chal­lengers to incum­bent mem­bers of New York’s con­ser­v­a­tive-lean­ing Inde­pen­dent Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­fer­ence (IDC) won on Thurs­day: Alessan­dra Biag­gi, Rachel May, Jes­si­ca Ramos, John Liu, Robert Jack­son and Zell­nor Myrie. These wins in New York fol­low those of oth­er left-wing insur­gents such as DSA mem­ber Rashi­da Tlaib in Michi­gan, Ayan­na Press­ley in Mass­a­chu­setts, Ilhan Omar in Min­neso­ta and Andrew Gillum in Flori­da. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is shift­ing,” Salazar says. This wave of chal­lenges has shown that.”

Giv­en the pro­gres­sive atmos­phere in New York and around the coun­try, Salazar, a mem­ber of the New York chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) — which endorsed her run — ran a spir­it­ed cam­paign aimed at bring­ing a more equi­table dis­tri­b­u­tion of resources to her com­mu­ni­ty. And she took aim at cap­i­tal­ism head-on on. Peo­ple in this dis­trict deserve bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion than what they have now,” says Salazar. Peo­ple are being dis­placed from their homes. Peo­ple can’t afford to get sick. Peo­ple deserve to live with dignity.”

Among the many left poli­cies she sup­ports — such as Medicare for All, abol­ish­ing ICE and end­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion — none were more cen­tral to Salazar’s cam­paign than uni­ver­sal rent con­trol. The 18th is one of the most quick­ly gen­tri­fy­ing dis­tricts in the city, span­ning Green­point, Williams­burg, Bush­wick, Cypress Hills and parts of East New York. Over the course of the cam­paign, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and dis­place­ment became some of the most impor­tant issues of con­tention between Salazar and Sen. Dilan. The issue that affects every inch of my dis­trict is hous­ing,” Salazar says. My oppo­nent sup­ports poli­cies that con­tribute to dis­place­ment and that needs to change.”

Dilan nev­er embraced uni­ver­sal rent con­trol, and of the $1.35 mil­lion in con­tri­bu­tions he received over the course of his polit­i­cal career, near­ly 15 per­cent came from the real estate, insur­ance or finan­cial indus­tries, accord­ing to the Nation­al Insti­tute for Mon­ey in Pol­i­tics. As recent­ly report­ed at Gothamist, that’s near­ly twice as much as any oth­er state sen­a­tor.” And while he claimed to be a cham­pi­on for work­ing-class ten­ants, Dilan also received sub­stan­tial finan­cial sup­port from pro-land­lord lob­by­ing groups.

For her part, Salazar refused any cor­po­rate or real-estate dona­tions. Accord­ing to Salazar, her cam­paign was an entire­ly grass­roots effort led by a ded­i­cat­ed vol­un­teer army of at least 500 peo­ple, many of them DSA mem­bers. At her vic­to­ry par­ty, Salazar gave cred­it for her win to every com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion, to every labor union, to every ten­ant asso­ci­a­tion, to every­one who showed up for this cam­paign. This was a bru­tal race because they knew that we were a threat to the con­cen­tra­tion of wealth and pow­er in this state.”

Indeed, as the cam­paign drudged on, Salazar faced an onslaught of media sto­ries that cast doubt on details about her life that seemed to chip away at her cred­i­bil­i­ty and via­bil­i­ty as a can­di­date. Ques­tions were raised regard­ing Salazar’s immi­gra­tion sta­tus, her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, her for­mer reg­is­tra­tion with the Repub­li­can Par­ty and her work­ing-class cre­den­tials. The good gov­ern­ment watch group, Cit­i­zens Union, even went so far as to rescind its endorse­ment. Yet regard­less of these attacks on her integri­ty, vot­ers in Brook­lyn showed they were more inter­est­ed in her ideas and pol­i­cy pref­er­ences than her per­son­al character.

Salazar empha­sized through­out that her cam­paign was part of a broad­er move­ment, not just one individual’s quest for pow­er. After being recruit­ed to run by fel­low orga­niz­ers with­in DSA and oth­er activist groups, Salazar laid out an ambi­tious plat­form of redis­trib­u­tive poli­cies includ­ing every­thing from mak­ing hous­ing a human right, to enact­ing sin­gle-pay­er health­care and giv­ing pub­lic employ­ees the right to strike. As Salazar said to her sup­port­ers Thurs­day night, I am so grate­ful to be in this move­ment with you.”

Salazar faces no Repub­li­can oppo­nent in Novem­ber and will almost assured­ly be head­ing to Albany where, despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reelec­tion, there will be a new and unde­ni­ably more pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal land­scape come Jan­u­ary. And for that, she prais­es her ded­i­cat­ed supporters.

The thing that inspires me on a dai­ly basis is sol­i­dar­i­ty,” says Salazar. We are sold this idea that peo­ple only look out for them­selves yet this cam­paign has shown me that sol­i­dar­i­ty is the most pow­er­ful tool we have to fight against the rul­ing class.”

Amir Khafagy is jour­nal­ist, activist, orga­niz­er, and per­former based in New York City. His work has been fea­tured in City Lim­its, Shel­ter­force, Jacobin, City Lab, The Indypen­dent, Coun­ter­punch and The Hamp­ton Insti­tute. <b>Miles Kampf-Lassin is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. His writ­ing has appeared in The Nation, Jacobin, Salon, Alter­net, the Chica­go Read­er and NBC News.
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