The state Senate campaign of Julia Salazar, a prominent member of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America, was jolted last week when Tablet Magazine published a story casting doubt on several parts of the candidate’s biography — from self-describing as an immigrant to her claim of Jewish lineage.
The controversy represents a new chapter for DSA, as it grows from a marginal player on the fringes of politics into an organization with serious political clout. The group grew during the 2016 primary campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders and then surged in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, as activists looked to take down not just the agenda of the new president, but also the political and economic system that created him. The June victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cemented the organization’s place in New York politics, leading Cynthia Nixon — who also endorsed Ocasio-Cortez and attended her victory party — to solicit the group’s endorsement.
In the wake of Ocasio-Cortez, the No. 1 NYC DSA priority has been to elect Salazar, a project that was humming along until the Tablet revelations. At a crossroads, the organization has decided to stand firm with its comrade, dismissing the story as much less important than the issues she is running on.
“We just want to really point to the issues and not focus on, you know, labels and whether somebody fits a label or not,” New York City DSA co-chair Bianca Cunningham said about the discrepancies in Salazar’s biography.
Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin magazine and a DSA member since he was 17, said that the Tablet article only deepened his commitment to Salazar’s campaign.
The article reviews Salazar’s turn as a former conservative activist, strident supporter of the Israeli government, and opponent of abortion rights, to a democratic socialist and critic of Israel. That broad journey had been reported before, but the real grenades were a pair of revelations that suggested she had concocted elements of her biography. First, the author interviewed Salazar’s brother, who said that her father never identified as Jewish, contradicting the candidate’s claim that she has Jewish lineage. This has led to criticism and examination in the Jewish press.
Julia Salazar (or any Jewish person of color) doesn’t owe you her backstory of how she’s a Jew. She had a community that claimed her before any campaign, that’s all the proof she needs. Yet here she is sharing her story, to be accountable in the face of a dishonest & racist smear https://t.co/60362rQ1Cx— Rebecca Pierce (@aptly_engineerd) August 26, 2018
Secondly, the story notes that Salazar was born in Miami, contradicting a number of press outlets — including this one — who had identified her as a Colombian-born immigrant. The revelation also contradicted her own website, which described her as a “proud immigrant.”
The article forced Salazar into crisis mode, with the campaign issuing a response linking questions about her stated Jewish faith to “bigoted policing” of who is allowed to be Jewish.
In response to the article’s section about her place of birth, Salazar claimed that she had never said she was born in Colombia:
It really bends over backwards to try to put words in my mouth, instead of seeking to understand that my US-born mother and Colombian-born father had two different kids and raised us between two different places. I don’t present myself as an immigrant nor as a non-citizen.— Julia Salazar (@JuliaCarmel__) August 24, 2018
My mom lived in Colombia via my father (my father is the Colombian immigrant here) but she was born in the US! To be clear I have never misrepresented that fact in any interview I’ve given. I think it’s even in the article.— Julia Salazar (@JuliaCarmel__) August 24, 2018
In an interview with Jewish Currents published on August 27, Salazar addressed the fact that she was wrongly identified as an immigrant on her own campaign website. She blamed confusion among staffers for the mix-up. “My mistake was that I didn’t sit down and make sure everyone knew where I was born. So many times reporters contacted this staffer to confirm details of my life. And that included, was she born in Colombia? And they thought I was,” she said. “And I wasn’t included in those background conversations, and that was normal. But we weren’t on the same page. We’re a first-time team.”
Cunningham said the DSA has had no meetings on how to respond to the story, and dismissed its importance. “Julia’s been completely transparent about her very complicated background from the very beginning. It’s not on her to try to explain her identity. If anything, we think it’s disgusting and racist the way she’s being attacked,” she said.
Journalist Emma Whitford, who interviewed Salazar for a piece for the Village Voice that didn’t end up running, shared some notes she took from early May, in which Salazar identified herself as having been born in Miami:
i share this simply because these details shared in an on-the-record conversation w/ a reporter, so early in her campaign, challenge the notion that she crafted some sort of alternative narrative about herself (just listened back to the tape to be sure) pic.twitter.com/ou3Wbyikh7— Emma Whitford (@emma_a_whitford) August 24, 2018
But over the summer, Salazar repeatedly implied that she herself was an immigrant.
During a July 3 event with political podcast Chapo Trap House, she was asked to explain her biography. “My family immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia when I was a little kid,” she said.
The Bushwick Daily, which covered the event, then identified her as Colombian-born.
At a fundraiser around the same time, she used similar language. “I immigrated to this country with my family when I was very little,” she can be heard saying in a video taken at the event.
She was born in Miami, but traveled between Colombia and the U.S. as a child, she said later. At the time she was born, she said in a statement in response to the allegations, “my parents had been living in Colombia, where my father was born and immigrated from, before settling permanently in Florida when I was still a small child.”
When pressed on whether DSA should at least offer a response to the public for electoral reasons, Cunningham said that voters would not care about the story. “Constituents don’t really care about why she practices the Jewish faith or whether or not a woman of color can practice that religion. I think people care about their rents going up and being displaced from their community,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez herself has also stood by Salazar. On August 24, a day after the Tablet article, Ocasio-Cortez reiterated her support of Salazar, without referencing the allegations.
And of course, these are in addition to our endorsements of— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) August 24, 2018
- @SalazarSenate18 for State Senate (https://t.co/us26UkHk3B)
- @CynthiaNixon for Governor (https://t.co/MTkATnB53e)
- @ZephyrTeachout for Attorney General (https://t.co/XkO4kOCCRH)
NY: VOTE?VOTE ?VOTE? ON SEPT 13th!
And on Thursday, the pair will be canvassing together. Corbin Trent, a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez, said that she remains “100 percent behind Julia.”
“Julia is far and away the best choice to represent the people of North Brooklyn in Albany,” Trent said. “As part of a broader movement in New York and across the country she has been working to improve the lives of all New Yorkers by fighting for universal healthcare, affordable housing, and wholistic criminal justice reform. A vote for Julia on September the 13th will bring much needed new leadership for North Brooklyn to Albany.”
Canvass for Julia and meet @Ocasio2018!— Julia Salazar for State Senate (@SalazarSenate18) August 27, 2018
After our Thursday canvass, we'll head to @ourwickedlady for a @T4CatOWL event supporting our campaign. Anyone who canvasses that night will be put on the guest list for free entry before 9pm!
RSVP at: https://t.co/85MNo4lidl pic.twitter.com/NEgOT6OITw
Salazar appears to be arguing that going back and forth to Colombia as a child allowed her to experience a version of life in the U.S. as an immigrant. “There isn’t one immigrant identity. Colombia is where my family was and where I was in the first years of my life. Most of the time when people asked about my childhood, they haven’t been interested in literally where was I born. They wanted to know how the first years of my life were spent, and where my family came from,” she told Jewish Currents.
“I would never claim nor have I ever claimed to share the experience of someone who has lived a life threatened by deportation. That’s not part of my narrative. [But] I’ve experienced people exoticizing me, or alienating me, or treating me as different. … I can acknowledge the importance of my family, and how I’ve been separated from my family, and how my family chose to live in the U.S. to be safer. All of this is part of an immigrant narrative.”