The Daily Beast, September 2018 (with Emma Whitford)

Socialist ‘Vessel’ Julia Salazar Soldiers On in Brooklyn

While her story has received national attention rare for a first-time local candidate, in her district it still comes down to persuading a few more Democrats to vote at all.

When 27-year-old New York state Senate candidate Julia Salazar took the stage at a campaign rally in Williamsburg’s Continental Army Plaza on Saturday afternoon, she nodded at the questions about her political evolution and identity that have drawn national and even international attention ahead of Thursday’s primary.

“We will not be distracted,” she said firmly. “And we will not be divided.”

Early the next morning, replying to a critic on her personal Twitter account, Salazar was more openly frustrated about “going through hell” on the campaign. “I chose to run for state senate because people I respect in my community and in this movement persuaded me to,” she tweeted Sunday. “I wanted to be a vessel for this movement.”

In Williamsburg, Salazar had rallied along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another young Latina socialist whose upset victory over Queens Rep. Joe Crowley in the June congressional primary immediately elevated the profile of the state Senate hopeful. In the months since, Salazar has become a legitimate threat to incumbent Martin Dilan, who’s represented a Brooklyn district spanning from Greenpoint to Cypress Hills for the last 16 years.

But recent reports have stirred up a frenzy of commentary about her personal life. Salazar did not immigrate from Colombia as a small child—details of her biography were apparently misunderstood even among her own campaign staff—but was born and raised outside of Miami in an occasionally precarious middle class home. Reports have also detailed her dramatic evolution on divisive issues like Israel and abortion (she is now staunchly pro-Palestine and supportive of reproductive rights).

Throughout, Salazar's response to each new revelation seemed to invite reporters to keep digging, and hit new stories. Bizarrely, a just-surfaced defamation suit details a dispute between Salazar and the ex-wife of former Mets player Keith Hernandez, Kai, who once had Salazar arrested for allegedly trying to access her bank account, a charge that was dropped.

Supporters have leapt to Salazar’s defense on social media as detractors have dismissed her as a liar. This weekend, we asked whether, and to what degree, the debate has reached voters on the streets of her district.  

“I think that a lot of the people we talk to still believe that a candidate should not be taking money from corporations or developers,” said 22-year-old Jahan Nanji, a Columbia student and Salazar volunteer, training a group of canvassers to knock on doors. “They still believe in Medicare for All, they still believe in ending cash bail, and that’s what Julia stands for and that’s what matters.”

Charlie Dulik, a 23-year-old Williamsburg resident who attended the rally, said that while “some of the misrepresentations about her background” are concerning, “it comes down to policy in the district. She has a million policies I support from being staunchly pro-BDS to being for universal rent control.”  

But within Salazar’s own camp, at least one close ally has acknowledged regrets. “I’m still convinced Julia’s the best candidate we could run for this seat, but I really wish we’d known some more information,” Greenpoint/Williamsburg District Leader Nick Rizzo, who has taken credit for recruiting Salazar to run and defended her staunchly in recent days, told The Daily Beast at the rally Saturday.

“I knew that Julia used to be conservative and used to be somewhat anti-abortion,” he continued. “A lot of this stuff I don’t think is important and we already knew. But yeah, it’s a bunch of first-time enthusiastic people, and collectively some stuff was said that shouldn’t have been said and I regret that.”

Anders Lee, a 27-year-old Bushwick resident and member of DSA, said he worries people are “getting a little too focused on backgrounds and biographies,” and that this has affected his canvassing for Salazar in the district. “Basically for people who are still on the fence about it, I just say to them, ‘Look: she doesn’t have to be your best friend. But would you rather have someone with Dilan’s record?’”

That record is heavy reliance on money from the real estate industry just as gentrification in New York City, and in Dilan’s district in particular, has exploded. Dilan has taken $325,400 from real estate interests since 1999, accounting for 15 percent of all the campaign cash he’s collected in the timeframe, according to an analysis of his campaign donations by Gothamist. Dilan was also an ally of the late former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who ran north Brooklyn Democratic politics with an iron first for decades and was only drummed out of office in 2013 following a wave of sexual harassment revelations.  

Between Dilan’s finances and the atrophying power of machine politics in the Brooklyn, progressive groups saw an appetite for an energetic challenger. Salazar’s small team has focused primarily on door-knocking, every day of the week, and sent out thousands of canvassers over the past few months with flyers and voter registration forms. But The Daily Beast encountered among some voters if not apathy, a kind of inattentiveness in a district of 100,000 registered Democrats where fewer than one in ten has usually turned out to vote in primary elections.

“I just passed by and I was trying to figure out what's going on,” Joshua Cruz, a 27-year-old lifelong Williamsburg resident, told The Daily Beast as he stood in the Williamsburg park with his bike. Cruz said that he pays attention to “presidents and governors and mayors and shit like that,” but doesn’t spend much time thinking about the state legislature. Even though he feels like policies coming out of the state Senate have had an effect on the shifting demographics of Williamsburg over the last two decades, Cruz said that “in the long run, it always ends up benefiting them and not us.”

Jesse Vogel, a 23-year-old Bushwick resident and self-described progressive who works in tech, also bumped into the rally while out riding his bike Saturday. He wasn’t familiar with Salazar, but pointed to a campaign poster taped to a tree. “She’s the woman on the left there?” he asked, pointing to Cynthia Nixon. “Oh,” he said when told that was the woman challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the party’s gubernatorial nomination. “I’m not sure who’s who at this point.”

A group of skateboarders in the plaza right behind the stage, busy grinding on the steps of the statue of George Washington, weren’t moved to any curiosity by the crowd right next to them. “I’m just trying to skate, man. It’s my day off, you know?” a skater named Steve said when asked about the election.

More aware, left-leaning voters were difficult to read. A man who opened his door to Lee, the Salazar canvasser, quickly asked, “Oh is she a Democrat?” when Lee began his spiel, in an apparent effort to hurry him away. “We’ll remember her name when we vote for Cynthia Nixon,” he said, before taking a flyer and closing the door.

One of Salazar’s first endorsements came from Make the Road Action, the electoral arm of Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that fights for immigrant and tenant rights and has a large membership base in her district. Member Maria Rubio, 48, told The Daily Beast in Spanish that her support for Salazar has not wavered. An East New York resident, she says she was displaced two years ago when her landlord sold her building to a new owner who turned off the heat during the winter.

“This is just political propaganda,” she said, of the news cycle. “When you know [Julia] you know what she’s about, and that she stands with us. We know for instance that Dilan is someone taking a lot of money from real estate, and that’s the truth.”

Now, Salazar has four more days to present her progressive, anti-gentrification politics to as many voters as possible.

“I don't follow it because it's useless, it's purposeless. Y’all [politicians] don't do anything,” Liz Rodriguez, a 40-year lifelong resident of Bushwick, told The Daily Beast while she barbecued with friends in front of a playground on Troutman Street a few hours after the rally disbanded. “This used to be our Bushwick, but we’re outsiders now.”

“This apartment building used to be all family,” she said gesturing to a building across the street, “now you got one left hanging on a thread.”

“You know, new people, a lot of them do roommates, six or seven people,” chimed in 32-year-old Angel Sanchez. “We don’t do that. It’s one family. We can’t afford $3,000.”

Rodriguez said she “didn’t even know” who Dilan was, and that she would look into Salazar before Thursday’s primary, having been canvassed by her campaign once.

“Someone was in my building, promoting her. I asked the same thing, what's she gonna do for me? He was part of her team, but he definitely wasn't from Bushwick. And if he was, he was part of the gentrification,” Rodriguez said laughing. “He said, ‘Ah, you know, cause that's how I feel in Harlem.’ Oh, so y’all taking over Harlem too?”