Julia Salazar Is Looking to Land the Next Blow Against the New York Democratic Machine

Democratic socialist Julia Salazar's bid for the New York state Senate carries echoes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's insurgent campaign.

Photo: Alex Purifoy/Julia Salazar Campaign

Julia Salazar, a candidate for the New York state Senate, was standing outside a barbershop in her North Brooklyn neighborhood one recent afternoon, when a barber looked up and saw her through the window. Squinting through the glass, he pointed to a “Salazar for Senate” sign on the wall of the shop, gestured in her direction, and mouthed, “That’s you?” She smiled. “That’s me.”

The 27-year-old community organizer has become a recognizable name and face in the neighborhood thanks to an aggressive ground game in her challenge to eight-term incumbent Democratic state Sen. Martin Dilan. Salazar and scores of volunteers have blanketed the district collecting signatures to get her name on the ballot for the September 13 primary. Salazar, her campaign told The Intercept, plans to submit many times more than the requisite 1,000 signatures from registered Democrats in the district by the July 9 filing deadline.

Dilan, a vestige of the corrupt patronage machine of former Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez, has held the North Brooklyn seat since Salazar was 11 years old.

Interest in Salazar’s insurgent campaign spiked last week when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another millennial Latina, shook the political world by trouncing Queens Democratic Party boss Rep. Joe Crowley in a congressional primary. As news of Ocasio-Cortez’s upset spread, Salazar tweeted, “This is the most inspiring campaign victory I have ever witnessed.” Over the past few months, Ocasio-Cortez and Salazar have shared stages, knocked doors together, and endorsed each others’ campaigns. “Alexandria, mi hermana, mi heroína,” Salazar wrote on election night, “I am so grateful to be in this movement with you.”

“@SalazarSenate18 isn’t the next me, she’s the first HER.”

Saturday morning, Ocasio-Cortez emailed her supporters encouraging them to sign up to petition for Salazar and a few other progressive women candidates. “I can’t think of a better place to start the fight for progressives like us than helping get Julia Salizar [sic], Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon on the ballot!” she wrote. (Nixon, who’s challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also endorsed Salazar this week.) “When nobody else would endorse us or cover our race, these three women broke ranks and endorsed Ocasio 2018. Now it’s time to stand by them.”

Ocasio-Cortez followed up with a tweet on Monday, encouraging her followers to help gather signatures on Salazar’s behalf: “@SalazarSenate18 isn’t the next me, she’s the first HER.”

A win by Salazar would help solidify the gains made by Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated, but did not vanquish, the party machines. The similarities between the candidates are more than superficial. Both are committed socialists endorsed by Democratic Socialists of America. Both support abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a once-fringe rallying cry that has seeped into mainstream liberal discourse in recent weeks. Both were raised by working-class parents and threw themselves into community organizing as teenagers. And, tragically, both endured the deaths of their fathers before their 20th birthdays. Most of all, Salazar and Ocasio-Cortez represent a new generation of young, diverse, unapologetically radical women poised to take over the Democratic Party.

The night of Ocasio-Cortez’s win, Salazar, who was at the victory party, felt the earth shift beneath her feet. “At first, I was shocked,” she told me last week. “I’m less shocked now. When you do this kind of work, you’re constantly managing expectations. You have a grander vision, but on a daily basis, you’re just putting one foot in front of the other. That night, I realized we can do so much more. We can win.”

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 26: Progressive challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is joined by New York gubenatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon at her victory party in the Bronx after upsetting incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph Crowly on June 26, 2018 in New York City.  Ocasio-Cortez upset Rep. Joseph Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which includes parts of the Bronx and Queens. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Progressive challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is joined by New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon at her victory party in the Bronx after upsetting incumbent Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley on June 26, 2018 in New York City.

Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images

I met Salazar the day after Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory, a few minutes before a North Brooklyn DSA meeting in Bushwick. (I, too, am a DSA member.) She and her comrades were feeling some political whiplash, as the euphoria of Ocasio-Cortez’s win gave way to the Supreme Court’s anti-union Janus ruling and the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, which raised the prospect of another Donald Trump appointee on the bench. Nonetheless, there was a sense of cautious hopefulness in the air. A socialist — one of their own — was a shoo-in for Congress.

Young activists buzzed around the meeting space, putting out pizza boxes and filling up jugs of water. All of them stopped to say hello to Salazar. Escaping the fanfare, we made our way to a quiet alleyway behind the building, beside an overfilled recycling bin. As I turned on my recorder, it started to sprinkle.

“I guess this as good as we’re gonna get,” Salazar said with a smile, projecting toughness despite her small and wiry frame. A tattoo of an airplane on her inner bicep honors her late father, a cargo pilot who loved to fly. Unlike her Bronx counterpart — whose fierce eloquence and toothy grin have charmed the liberal media sphere since her win last Tuesday — Salazar is soft-spoken, an introvert. It took her many years to overcome her shyness. “If community organizing was like learning basic swimming skills,” she told me, “then running for office is like being thrown into the middle of the ocean during a storm.”

And yet, there’s a quiet urgency in Salazar’s tone. She chooses her words carefully, and there’s never any doubt that she means every single one of them. “I’ve worked with Julia for years on racial justice fights in New York,” said Bianca Cunningham, NYC-DSA co-chair and founder of DSA’s Afro-Socialist Caucus. “People immediately respond to her humility and resilience. It’s obvious that she is a fighting person, a person with clear values.”

Salazar said her family emigrated from Colombia to South Florida when she was a baby. Her mother, already a U.S. citizen, wanted to raise Julia and her brother in the States, she explained. Subsequent reporting revealed that Salazar was born in Miami, a fact she has acknowledged, saying that her parents were living in Colombia at the time and moved the family to the United States when she was a baby. At age 14, Salazar began to work in the service industry, taking jobs as a barista and then cleaning houses. She moved to New York in 2009 to attend Columbia University. She was an atypical Ivy Leaguer. Between classes, she worked 30 hours a week as a nanny on the Upper West Side, using the income to pay rent and other expenses not covered by her scholarship. She lived in Harlem in a building owned by a notoriously abusive landlord who neglected his tenants and ignored their complaints. After shivering through a winter without heat, Salazar and her neighbors took matters into their own hands, organizing a rent strike. After three months, they won concessions in housing court. But when her lease was up a few months later, her landlord hiked the rent and priced her out.

“It’s obvious that she is a fighting person, a person with clear values.”

“The experience was both empowering and clarifying,” Salazar told me. “We won because we fought collectively, and that was amazing. But it also made clear that if you want to change a systemic problem — and landlord negligence is absolutely a systemic problem — then you need a systemic solution. And that comes from policy.”

The problems that plagued her neighbors in Harlem are just as pronounced in her state Senate district — New York’s 18th — which includes parts of Bushwick, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Cypress Hills, City Line, East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Brownsville. “Rent-stabilized units are being deregulated at an alarming rate. Thousands of our neighbors are being evicted and displaced every year,” Salazar said. “Landlords are incentivized by bad laws to harass and evict tenants.”

“North Brooklyn is in crisis,” she continued, “and there are a lot of issues that can’t be addressed by city legislation. We need someone in Albany who will actually fix it.”

Salazar’s road to Albany might be made easier by the same counterintuitive factor that helped propel Ocasio-Cortez to victory: gentrification. As The Intercept reported on Sunday, Ocasio-Cortez did particularly well in areas of her district experiencing an influx of white transplants — disrupting the narrative that she won solely because nonwhite voters wanted a nonwhite candidate. Though these new residents tend to be wealthier than their neighbors, they’ve also experienced downward mobility as a result of the financial crisis and tend to support Bernie Sanders-type universal programs.

The tension between long-term residents and newcomers is not easy to overcome, said Salazar. “At the very least, new folks need to stop calling the cops,” she said, referencing the frequency with which white gentrifiers unnecessarily call the NYPD to resolve conflicts, endangering their nonwhite neighbors. At the same time, she said, collective struggle can produce solidarity. After all, they’re all tenants, facing soaring rents and the danger of being priced out by the next luxury development. “A campaign like this where people are uniting around the issues that directly affect all of them, that is a weapon against the divisions caused by gentrification.”

Sen. Martin Malavé Dilan, D-Brooklyn, works in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Sen. Martin Malavé Dilan, D-Brooklyn, works in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, in Albany, N.Y.

Photo: Mike Groll/AP

Salazar has made housing central to her campaign and claims that her opponent bears some responsibility for enabling Brooklyn’s eviction crisis. In 1994, as a city councilperson, Dilan voted in favor of “vacancy decontrol” (tenants’ groups call it the “eviction bonus”), which allows landlords to charge market rates in formerly regulated units once tenants move out of apartments costing at least $2,000 per month. Vacancy decontrol, tenant advocates say, encourages landlords to neglect — and sometimes harass — rent-controlled units, forcing long-time residents out so they can upsell to newcomers.

Dilan told The Intercept that he regrets the vote. “The way I saw it, and the way other outer-borough council members saw it, was that it was not going to impact our districts,” Dilan said. “At the time, in Bushwick and Cypress Hills, rents were around $300 or $400 a month. We did not see Manhattan prices. There was virtually no comparison.”

But in 2009 to 2010, when Democrats briefly held a one-seat majority in the state Senate, Dilan was one of a handful of Democrats who refused to sponsor legislation to repeal vacancy decontrol. The Senate never voted on the repeal. But another pair of pro-tenant bills, which would have closed loopholes allowing landlords to raise rents on regulated units, came to the floor. According to longtime tenant advocate Michael McKee, who wrote about the vote shortly after it happened, Dilan was prepared to vote against the package but instead, was convinced to leave his seat during roll call. Both bills failed.

Dilan denied that he abstained from the vote. He told The Intercept, “I regret that the measure lacked enough support to pass and that an important bill was brought to the floor without adequate votes.” He added, “We could have moved a lot of progressive measures during that tumultuous time: elections reforms, Reproductive Health Act, and others. You play the cards you’re dealt.”

Dilan has since co-sponsored repealing vacancy decontrol twice, though doing so without Democratic control is a less meaningful gesture. Dilan also touts his support for the Loft Law, legislation designed to protect tenants living and working in commercial and factory buildings. He’s also sponsored legislation to make it a felony for landlords to sabotage rent-controlled units.

“I know I’m dedicated to strengthening rent protections for all New Yorkers when the Democrats take a sound majority in 2019,” Dilan said.

“Time and time again, Dilan has proven that he is not up to the task.”

But local advocates have long memories. “In the face of widespread displacement of communities of color, strengthening and expanding rent stabilization is the critical issue for New Yorkers in 2019,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, a grassroots group that works on racial and economic issues that endorsed Salazar this week. “Time and time again, Dilan has proven that he is not up to the task. And it’s no secret as to why. Dilan has consistently funded his campaigns with landlord money.”

According to New York Board of Elections data, Dilan has received well over $200,000 in campaign donations from the real estate industry over the course of his career, including tens of thousands from anti-tenant lobby groups like the Rent Stabilization Association and the Real Estate Board of New York. It was the RSA that aggressively lobbied for vacancy decontrol in the 1990s and has continued to fight to deregulate New York City’s housing stock. Between 2009 and 2010, Trump was one of RSA’s “honorary directors.”

Dilan declined to comment on these donations, telling The Intercept, “I’ve always been a champion for working-class, low-income, and senior tenants in the district.”

Salazar, like Ocasio-Cortez, refuses to take any corporate donations and is instead powered by small-dollar donors. In the week since Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, Salazar’s campaign has raised more than $20,000 from hundreds of contributors.

Dilan rose to power with the support of Vito Lopez, the late Brooklyn power broker who resigned his Assembly seat in 2013 in the wake of an investigation into his sexual assault of multiple staffers, for which he was ultimately fined $330,000. Lopez ruled Brooklyn politics for the better part of the three decades, using his perch on the Housing Committee and control over the Ridgewood-Bushwick Senior Citizens Council — a powerful nonprofit with a formidable get-out-the-vote operation — to dole out lucrative jobs, judgeships, contracts, and votes to his political allies. In exchange, legislators like Martin Dilan and his son Erik (a city councilperson turned State Assembly member) steered millions in taxpayer dollars to Ridgewood-Bushwick over the years.

“Like Alexandria, Julia is up against an entrenched establishment candidate,” said Abdullah Younus, co-chair of NYC-DSA. “With all of these campaigns, we’re building grassroots power outside of Democratic Party’s fiefdoms across New York City. Every corporate politician should be running scared.”

But Dilan’s hold on the district is not as ironclad as it used to be. He was challenged two years ago by Debbie Medina, another DSA-endorsed candidate with a background in housing organizing. Medina’s campaign collapsed in its final weeks — staff members quit and she stopped campaigning — after it was revealed that she had testified at her son’s sentencing for murder, telling the court that she had beaten him with a belt when he was a teenager. Despite the implosion of Medina’s campaign and the tabloid fervor over her son, she received 40 percent of the vote. Voters, apparently, had wanted a change.

One of the more remarkable recent developments in New York City politics is that “socialism” is no longer a dirty word. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory represents a new high for DSA’s electoral efforts — the final, indisputable proof that the organization’s political might cannot be ignored. But the change has been a long time in the making. Last year, the DSA-backed Rev. Khader El-Yateem — a Palestinian Lutheran minister — was nearly elected to the city council in Bay Ridge. Salazar’s campaign manager Tascha Van Auken coordinated DSA’s canvassing machine for El-Yateem. Younus was his field director. Nationally, the organization has endorsed dozens of candidates, winning a Virginia House of Delegates race last year and statehouse primaries in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

“From campaign to campaign, we’ve been getting better and smarter,” Younus told The Intercept. “Our volunteers have gone from knocking their first door to running their own canvasses and training others to do the same. And those skills are transferable to organizing beyond electoral work.”

In some ways, Salazar’s campaign is more of a homegrown operation than that of the other DSA candidates.

But in some ways, Salazar’s campaign is more of a homegrown operation than that of the other DSA candidates. Almost all of Salazar’s staff are DSA members. Unlike El-Yateem and Ocasio-Cortez, who officially joined the organization after seeking their endorsement, Salazar has been a member for two years. And while DSA volunteers were a big boon to those campaigns, they will likely be even more indispensable to Salazar. According to the campaign, there are 650 DSA members in Salazar’s district. On Sunday, DSA members organized a “Labor for Salazar” canvass, collecting 500 signatures in a single day.

As for Salazar, being a socialist is not that complicated or controversial. “Fundamentally I’m a socialist because I value people’s lives over profits,” she said. “My vision for a democratic socialist society is one in which everyone is cared for — regardless of their socioeconomic status, their relationship to the market or to capital.”

While he does not identify as a socialist, Dilan told The Intercept that there is overlap between his policy positions and those of socialists and democratic socialists. He said, “Generally, I don’t think constituents think in terms of party labels. They know who delivers, and who promises.”

Dilan said he agrees with Salazar that ICE should be abolished and that marijuana should be legalized, but otherwise his campaign has yet to produce a detailed platform. Salazar’s website includes calls for universal health care, ending vacancy decontrol, ending cash bail, shutting down the notorious Rikers Island jail, free tuition at CUNY and SUNY, and extending collective bargaining rights to domestic workers.

I asked her how she plans to accomplish so much as just one person. “Well, I won’t be just one person,” she told me. “This is a movement. The problems in our district will only be fixed if the solutions are led by the people who are directly impacted. This concept is second nature in community organizing, but not everyone in electoral work gets that.”

“When we win,” Salazar said, “we’re all going to Albany.”

Correction: August 24, 2018, 2:51 p.m. 
An earlier version of this piece referred to Julia Salazar as a Colombian immigrant, based on claims she made to The Intercept and elsewhere. She refers to herself as a “proud immigrant” on her campaign website. The story has been updated to remove that reference, and to make clear that while Salazar said she emigrated from Colombia, she was in fact born in Miami.

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