On Thursday Julia Salazar, a twenty-seven-year-old democratic socialist candidate for New York state senate in North Brooklyn, beat her opponent Martin Dilan with 59 percent of the vote.
Dilan is an established centrist Democrat, a nine-term incumbent whose political career has been underwritten by real estate developers, school privatization advocates, and various wealthy power-players in New York politics. By contrast, Salazar burst onto the political scene this year, took no corporate money, espoused openly socialist politics, and sustained an onslaught of smears so ugly and invasive they’d take a presidential candidate aback.
And she still won, by a considerable margin. Because people are sick of diversions; they want political change. They don’t care about media flame wars, and most can’t be bothered to read think-pieces on the amorphous nature of identity. They want politicians to back solid policies that protect and materially empower ordinary people like themselves, so their lives will be better in tangible ways.
Salazar ran on a platform of rent control and tenant protections, comprehensive single-payer health care, the right to collectively bargain and go on strike, free college tuition and a commitment to public (rather than charter) K-12 education, aggressive pro-environmental policy, and ambitious criminal justice reform. In short, she ran on a working-class platform, full of proposals for policies that undercut the profits of elites to make positive change for everyone else.
Like many people in an increasingly complex world, Salazar has a complex life story. Her first attempt to tell it to the public — a public that’s conditioned to consume identity and biography in soundbites, despite soundbites’ inadequacy to the task — had some inconsistencies. Salazar and her campaign made some mistakes. But the politically interesting story here isn’t those inconsistencies. It’s the exceptional ardor with which her opponents seized on them.
A thorough investigation into the source of the smears against Salazar is in order. They were surely coordinated; after all, many wealthy and well-connected people backed Dilan and had a vested interest in Salazar’s defeat, and they know how to contact reporters. As Ben Beckett noted, “One aggressive anti-Salazar journalist publicly acknowledged he was tipped about at least one salacious story.” There’s likely more where that came from.
But whatever their specific provenance, the scrutiny Salazar was subjected to was completely unprecedented in a state senatorial race. News outlets questioned her faith and her identity —but that was just the beginning. They speculated on the contents of deleted twitter accounts from her college years, and rifled through her family’s decades-old mortgage applications and funeral notices. They called her mother and brother repeatedly and leveraged their recollections of a multifaceted family story, geographically diffuse and of mixed-class character, against her own.
They dredged up claims made against Salazar by the ex-wife of a family friend when she was nineteen years old — claims which were found to be fraudulent in a lawsuit Salazar filed against her accuser, leading to a monetary settlement in her favor — and circulated them in the national and even the international press. A Colombian genealogist looked into centuries of her family history; reporters used the genealogy to interrogate her claim to Jewishness. And by planning to run a story identifying her as a victim of sexual assault without her consent, they compelled her to discuss a highly traumatic personal experience before an uncharacteristically wide and unexpectedly hostile audience.
Julia Salazar was clearly a threat to somebody, or many somebodies, and they threw everything they had at her. As a result she received more news attention than any state senatorial candidate in American history, the vast majority of it biased negatively against her. And it didn’t work.
The smear campaign was an attempt to distract from the political distinctions between a democratic socialist candidate and a corporate centrist one. Salazar refused to let those distinctions fade into the background. Throughout the controversy, Salazar endeavored to retrain the focus on the political conflict between her and her opponent, and to characterize it as a proxy for a greater conflict between the working majority and the elite minority who control New York politics.
“I am not running on my identity. I’m running on my record, as a health care and housing activist, a criminal legal reform advocate, [and] a dedicated union member,” she said the first time she was obliged to make a statement about the media controversy. “Now we are talking about these baseless accusations,” she said the second time, “rather than how to protect affordable housing or win universal health care — issues my opponent has refused to champion and address as a State Senator and throughout this race.”
All the while Salazar, her campaign, and her dedicated volunteers — a large share from the Democratic Socialists of America, of which Salazar is also a member, but also from community organizations like Make the Road and New York Communities for Change — knocked doors tirelessly in an effort to expose as many people as possible to her political vision.
That vision was of a New York for the many, organized to sustain not just the survival but the flourishing of ordinary people: those who don’t own productive assets, don’t trade on Wall Street, don’t have an impressive real estate portfolio, but do constitute the vast majority of the populace, create all of society’s wealth with their labor, and have every right to expect their fair share.
With profit-driven landlords, developers, and speculators sending housing prices through the roof, with the private health insurance industry denying countless life-saving procedures and forcing millions into medical debt, with educational opportunities slipping away as public schools succumb to privatization and college tuition balloons, and with wages stagnating and workers losing their ability to fight for better conditions and pay, people are fed up.
They’re sick of the pro-corporate status quo, ready for change, and not nearly as vulnerable as perhaps they once were to scandal-mongering. They want to talk about how to make housing affordable, how to get necessary medication without going bankrupt, how to get the training and education they need to get a good job, and how to make sure that job stays good in an era of eroding worker protections and economic unpredictability. They don’t want to talk about what a candidate may or may not have tweeted in college. They want a new economy that works for working people.
And whatever else people may say about her, Salazar clearly stands for workers. In a stunning illustration of the principle, a paid Dilan canvasser stood up at Salazar’s victory party on Thursday night in Brooklyn and described how he ended up voting for Salazar, because politicians “need to fuckin’ listen.”
All told, Salazar received over twenty thousand votes — nearly three times the number of votes Dilan won with in 2014 and 2016. The stunner is not just that she won, it’s that she did so by bringing thousands of people into the political process. And you can bet those people weren’t the 1 percent.
Honestly, the pro-corporate Democratic Party establishment that backed Dilan better hope they didn’t put too big a dent in Salazar’s numbers with their coordinated smear campaign. Because if this is the fruit of a successful attempt to undermine a democratic socialist insurgent, then it actually spells doom for centrist Democrats. What would the numbers have looked like if they hadn’t waged an all-out tabloid-quality assault on Salazar’s reputation — a 65 percent victory for Salazar? 75 percent?
Democratic socialist electoral politics are on the move. Our candidates and campaigners will grow wiser about preventing and defending from attacks like those leveled at Salazar, and we’ll learn how to counter with principled opposition research, focused on the financial relationships and compromised political commitments of comfortable incumbents and establishment darlings. (Today, for example, East Bay DSA debuted a website about democratic socialist candidate Jovanka Beckles’s opponent’s corporate and wealthy donors — aptly titled buffywicks.money.)
And because our politics center the needs and demands of the broad and diverse working-class majority over the narrow profit-centric interests of the wealthy minority, there’s a decent chance that once we really get going, we’ll bring millions of people with us. For corporate politicians, Salazar’s victory is a terrible omen.