Julia Salazar does not look like the type of 27-year-old you would expect to find in a Bushwick bar at 4:00 in the afternoon. Her sheath dress is conservative, her jewelry is understated, and even the tattoo of an airplane on her inner bicep is kept hidden until she removes her jacket. On November 6, Salazar will become the state senator for New York’s 18th District, which stretches across Brooklyn from Greenpoint through Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Cypress Hills. During the Democratic primaries in September, Salazar defeated the eight-term incumbent, Martin Dilan, and as there is no Republican candidate in the general election, her victory is all but secured.
In the weeks leading up to the primary, Salazar found herself in the type of media spotlight normally reserved for national political candidates or minor Kardashians. Because of her similarities to soon-to-be House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—another 20-something, Latina, Democratic Socialist who upset her incumbent opponent in the primaries—Salazar suddenly became a person of interest. Soon journalists were questioning whether she had misrepresented her religion, her socio-economic background, her place of birth, and, most bizarrely and intemperately, whether or not she had absconded with Pottery Barn gift cards belonging to Keith Hernandez’s ex-wife. Despite the controversies, Salazar won her election decisively.
On Halloween, I sat down to chat with Salazar at Precious Metal in Bushwick, where we were served our beers (her: Other Half IPA; me: Five Boroughs Gose) by a cheery bartender dressed as a “zombie dominatrix soul snatcher.”
What made you decide to run for State Senate?
I was a community organizer doing advocacy around police accountability and criminal justice reform at the city and state level, and I was increasingly frustrated with having to go back to the same legislators over and over again—especially progressive legislators—to ask them to do the right thing. And I was becoming frustrated with a lack of adequate representation for our community in North Brooklyn. Without a representative in Albany who wanted to bring our voices into the room, thousands of people were being displaced from their homes every year. People can’t afford to take their kids to see the doctor. We have one safety-net hospital in the district, and it’s been threatened with closure. So earlier this year, my friend texted me while I was on my way to work, and he said, “Someone needs to run against Dilan.” And I said, “Yeah, someone does need to run against Dilan.”
The general political opposition were unsettled. They don’t want Democratic Socialists to get elected. They don’t want young women to unseat machine Democrats.”
You were like, “You’re right!”
I was like, “Oh yeah, definitely.” So I wanted someone to run. Then the next weekend, my friend came over to my house and said, “We’ve got to run someone against Dilan, and you're the candidate.” I was highly skeptical and a little shocked because I had never considered running for office. I just didn’t think that it was feasible. I told him, “I’ll think about it, but I’m pretty much a hard no.”
What were the reasons he gave you for saying, “Guess what, it’s you”?
He’s witnessed my commitment to the community, my passion for empowering people. He’s heard me say before that we need to elect organizers—people who will lead in the right way. I’ve been a DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] member for the last two years and am committed to trying to build democratic socialism. Additionally he knew that I love Bushwick, that I’m Latina, and that I wanted to see more young women challenging entrenched incumbent men. The current state Senate is 77 percent men—mostly white men.
So you gave him a hard no. What brought you around?
I thought, “Next year, the rent laws expire.” The reason I emphasize housing justice so much is because it disproportionately affects this district. We want to take this opportunity next June to finally pass protections for tenants because otherwise we’ll have to wait several more years. I felt that urgency.
In this federal political moment I think everything feels more urgent. It was was sort of a counter-argument to, “Well, if I start thinking about this now, maybe in two years I’ll be ready.” In my neighborhood alone, something like a third of residents are not citizens, and many of their family members are not documented. As state legislators, there's a lot we can do to protect our non-citizen and undocumented neighbors. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we have so much to lose by not even trying. But I was terrified. And rightfully so!
You faced a tremendous amount of scrutiny in the press—an almost unheard of amount for a state Senate candidate. Do you feel like you were treated fairly?
I think it was to some degree misogyny and sexism, but I don’t even think that was most of it. After Alexandria [Ocasio-Cortez] won, at her victory party people were coming up to me saying, “You’re next.” The next day I woke up and we’d raised $20,000 or something—which for us was huge. The general political opposition were unsettled. They don’t want Democratic Socialists to get elected. They don’t want young women to unseat machine Democrats. Like, my opponent was a corporate Dem who received more real estate money than any sitting senator other than Jeff Klein.
Senator Dilan—I’m not trying to kick someone when they’re down, but there were plenty of things that would have been fair game to criticize. His failure to step up in very specific situations, especially in regards to housing, didn’t receive nearly as much attention as, like, a New York magazine article that did a genealogy of my father’s family. Which was kind of cool. I’m like, “Thank you for the free comprehensive genealogical report.”
“I don’t have to join ancestry.com now, thanks.”
Yeah! But people read more about my religion than they did about Dilan taking tons of illegal donations and some deeply consequential corruption. So that’s why I think it was unfair. I think that I made mistakes in the campaign. I had established a campaign with capacity for a normal state senate campaign, not for what happened. It’s not normal. I went to Liverpool after the election, and people would come up to me—people in Liverpool, England. Granted, it’s a very left-wing, trade unionist town, but it was still wild that people there knew who I was. It was bizarre.
Because there was such an intense spotlight on your personal life, do you worry that this will have a chilling effect on other young women who might consider running for office?
I have some concern about that. Two days before the primary, I received an email from the Daily Caller saying, “We know that you are the person who accused [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson] David Keyes of sexual assault.” They’d received a tip from a right-wing source, and they were going to seek to frame it as me lying about being a survivor. At that point I was like, “I’m about to be outed, I would rather just put it out there.” I tweeted about it. That same day, David Keyes was forced to take a leave temporarily because something like 12 women in total came forward. I spoke out because I was forced to, I was sort of blackmailed into it, but I suspected. Anyway, that’s my fear, that other victims of sexual assault—also just other women—would see this and think, “Oh, what if…” I want to speak to every woman and say, “Look, when I went into this, I did not have thick skin.” Everyone should interrogate the reasons that they want to run, but I also hope that when young women evaluate this race, they remember that I just won by nearly 59 percent of the vote to an entrenched incumbent, and that was after going through extraordinary scrutiny. If I can do it, they can. And they should consider it.
What does being a Democratic Socialist mean to you?
To me, being a Democratic Socialist means fighting to make sure that every person is empowered to be able to determine their own destiny. That all of us have access to not only basic needs, but to what we need to thrive in society. Housing is a human right, not something that should be at the mercy of the market. Health care is a human right, similarly, that shouldn’t be accessible only by income or status.
You were raised in Florida and come from a conservative family. Tell me about your political conversion.
When I first went to college I was a registered Republican. I started to experience an evolution as soon as I gained independence from the environment that I was raised in and began receiving a comprehensive political education in college—inside and outside the classroom. By the time I was 22, as someone who had worked in the service industry and as a nanny and a domestic worker, I just thought, “This is in my self-interest to be a socialist.”
What arguments did classmates make that had an impact on your thinking? How do progressives win hearts and change minds?
I couldn’t tell you what is was that they said polemically, but it was that they said anything at all. So often if you communicate some kind of hawkish foreign policy, someone with a more progressive perspective might say, “I can’t even have a conversation with you.” So I’m grateful that there were friends and peers in college who were willing to talk to me and have a real conversation. That’s really how I came around.
In 2004, 57 percent of undecided voters said they would rather get a beer with George W. Bush than with John Kerry. Do you think we should be electing candidates on that basis?
I completely understand why people say, “Who would I rather hang out with?” To some degree that’s intuition, and that’s important to consider even though I think every voter should make an educated and informed choice. If somebody were running on my same platform but I had a bad feeling and didn’t inherently trust them, then it would be hard for me to vote for them.
We need to be serious about empowering young people to seek to represent our communities and be involved in politics.”
People may have a certain idea of what it looks like to be 27 and living in Bushwick. Has the shitstorm surrounding your running for office impacted the way you go out and socialize in your neighborhood?
Not negatively. I have been surprised that I still get catcalled. There’s something about being the state senator in my own district and somebody catcalling me...
Is the surprise around someone not knowing who you are? Or that maybe he does but still feels like it’s acceptable to catcall you?
It isn’t that I expect a catcaller to know who I am, but I do meet strangers on a daily basis in my neighborhood who say, “I’m sorry, but are you Julia Salazar?” I’m pretty introverted by nature. As an organizer it demanded that I be more socially assertive than I naturally am, but if that was learning to swim, then running for office is being thrown into the deep end. The biggest thing that has changed is that when I meet someone, they already know something about me. That’s a very weird thing.
What do you say to people who say that 27—or 29, in Ocasio-Cortez’s case—is too young to hold elected office?
You’re considered a young legislator if you’re in your 40s, and that simply does not represent the majority of the population. In my district it definitely doesn’t; the average age is late 20s. We need to be serious about empowering young people to seek to represent our communities and be involved in politics. Because we live in a hyper-capitalistic society, most of the people in power—it isn’t just that they’re older, it’s that they've accumulated wealth, they are able to take time off to run for office, they’ve traded favors. All of these things don’t make you more qualified. I’m determined to represent everyone, and I think that anybody should have the opportunity to run. We’ll see.