- Interview by
- Hadas Thier
In 2019, Julia Salazar became the first member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to serve in New York’s state legislature and also the youngest woman elected in the history of the New York State Senate. In 2020, she won the Democratic primary and reelection to State Senate District 18 in landslides.
In office, Senator Salazar has championed tenants’ rights, criminal justice reform, women’s rights, and the decriminalization of sex work. She played a leading role in winning the strongest legislative protections for tenants in New York history.
She spoke to Jacobin’s Hadas Thier about how she and other progressive lawmakers have stood up to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s abuses of power and budget cuts and have fought for an agenda that benefits working-class New Yorkers.
Throughout the pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo put himself forward as a beacon of competence, even publishing a book on leadership. Now it’s come to light that he covered up the number of COVID-19–related and nursing home–related deaths. And he’s digging himself in deeper, slandering and threatening legislators for speaking out about it. What does the way he’s handled the issue of nursing home deaths say about his handling of the pandemic?
Last March, at the beginning of the crisis, I was with my colleagues when we saw the first reported COVID-19 death in the state, which was actually in my district. Then, there were additional reported deaths, and we saw that the cases were rapidly rising. It was very clear that we were going to need to do something, that a state of emergency needed to be declared. It was clear that the situation was severe.
But at that moment, we faced a lot of pressure from the governor to pass a bill, with language that he provided, that would expand the power that the governor has in a state of emergency. That night, we looked it over, and we had a lot of concerns. I looked at it and said, “This is a power grab, an unnecessary expansion of the governor’s power.”
Other senators expressed similar concerns about it, but the legislature was really being pressured to do this or do nothing, basically. The narrative being pushed was that if we don’t pass this bill, we will not be doing anything in the face of a crisis. The bill passed that night and among the Senate Democrats, only myself and Senator Gustavo Rivera voted no. That legislation then allowed the governor to not only declare a state of emergency, but also gave him completely unchecked power to issue new directives without the approval of the legislature or the approval of anyone. It established this huge expansion of powers without accountability.
Some emergency powers in a crisis are important for an executive to have. You have to very quickly make decisions that could save people’s lives. But it was a mistake for the legislature to grant even more power to a governor who already has an inequitable amount of power compared to the legislature and who we could expect would not submit himself to accountability. This is a governor who has never willingly subjected himself to accountability.
Now it’s come to light that his administration withheld information from the Department of Justice (DOJ). Even if it was a clearly politically motivated DOJ, they withheld data that was reasonable for the DOJ to demand. They also hid the scale of the impact in terms of the number of deaths of New Yorkers in nursing homes from the public. And now they are trying to cover up dishonesty with more dishonesty.
The governor’s response to valid criticism is making a bad situation worse. The press has accurately reported that the governor’s office admitted to withholding damning data, from both the federal government and the state legislature, on COVID-related deaths in nursing homes. Instead of taking responsibility for this, the governor has since tried to lie to the public about what happened and sought to deflect accountability for it. The governor has even resorted to slandering an Assembly member, Ron Kim, and threatening to retaliate against legislators who seek to hold the governor accountable. It’s tyrannical behavior. It is dangerous for Governor Cuomo to continue to be the most powerful person in our state.
I wish that we could go back in time and for my colleagues to join me and Senator Rivera in not granting this huge expansion of power to the governor. Now we’re seeing a growing consensus in the legislature to demand that. But only after we found out that more than fifteen thousand people died in New York nursing homes of COVID-19. These deaths are in part due to a directive that the governor was able to issue which required these facilities to take in people who were recovering from COVID.
Ultimately, that policy failure is a symptom and a consequence of a more systemic policy failure, which is years and even decades of austerity. My critique of how the governor has handled this crisis is one, a lack of transparency, responsibility, accountability; and two, that he has insisted on continuing the austerity that he has so proudly overseen for his entire tenure. He is unapologetically supportive of cutting funds to hospitals and to Medicaid. He even tried to slash Medicaid funding at the peak of the pandemic. Thankfully, we were able to stop those cuts from happening outright. But the policies that the governor has insisted on are really draconian.
Can you talk about the alternative to austerity and about the suite of proposed legislation to tax the rich? Why are these bills critical in the context of a pandemic?
What we have seen over nearly a year of the pandemic is this: unemployment is at a record high, people cannot afford to cover basic living expenses, New Yorkers are relying on mutual aid and charity to survive. This is totally unsustainable and unnecessary. It is the product of policy failure and the failure of the government to take responsibility and perform its role.
Over the course of this crisis, the majority of New Yorkers’ lives have been impacted in some way. A huge percentage of people have lost loved ones or have had their lives changed because they needed to take care of people who contracted the virus; their lives have changed because they’ve lost their job, they’ve lost all or some of their income, their households have been affected.
And then there’s this slim percentage of people in our state, the wealthiest among us, who have actually seen their wealth and their profits grow over the course of the pandemic. That isn’t the case for the majority of New Yorkers.
I would advocate for the tax the rich proposals that are outlined in the Invest in Our New York package of legislation. These are completely reasonable fiscal policies that, at minimum, would make our tax system progressive. Our tax code in New York State is actually regressive. I would advocate, even outside of an economic crisis and a public health crisis, for these fundamental changes to our tax system in New York and to the financial sector, because they constitute economic justice. There’s no reason that even when the economy is doing well that working-class people should be bearing the tax burden that they have to bear.
During a moment like this, with the suffering that we’re seeing and the profound need for relief, all of that only underscores the urgency of passing these proposals. They will generate the revenue that’s needed to close the budget gap and to provide the relief that is not going to come from anywhere else, including from the federal government.
It’s astounding the phenomenal amount of wealth in New York, and yet Cuomo has categorically refused to increase taxes on the rich. Instead, he’s proudly overseen austerity measures for years. Has that changed during the crisis?
For the entire time that Governor Cuomo has been governor, he has been very proud to oppose any tax increases on the wealthy and any personal income tax increases. He really is an unapologetic fiscal conservative.
At the end of last year, going into the current budget process, the governor alluded to the idea that we’re going to need the wealthy to pay a bit more. Then, in his executive budget proposal, it was just insulting. It would start at $5 million as the minimum salary for which you would see any increase, leaving out many, many millionaires in the state, who can afford to pay marginally more in taxes. Additionally, his proposal would be temporary, clearly not accepting that this is about economic justice, beyond the pandemic. It may even include a rebate from the state.
It’s gotten no traction. I think it was universally understood that it was a garbage proposal. But the fact that he even made any proposal for a tax increase indicates that he knows what time it is. The governor realized that there is popular support for taxing the wealthy. And so he’s thinking, maybe I have to do this, but how do I do this in a way that doesn’t actually do it? I don’t think the governor wants to ask the billionaires and millionaires who have contributed to his campaign to give more.
I want to shift tacks to talk about housing justice, a major issue for New Yorkers. Up until recently, it’s felt like the hold of the real estate lobbies in New York is unbreakable. Then, in 2019, you helped win the most significant strengthening of tenants’ protections in decades. You’re continuing to put forward more progressive legislation on good cause eviction.
What have you learned from that struggle over how we can wield an inside-outside strategy to make wins like this possible?
The victory that we saw in the 2019 rent laws fight is the thing that I’m most proud of in terms of what we’ve been able to accomplish in the legislature over the last two years. It is the outcome of multiple factors, most centrally the power and the growth of the housing justice movement in New York State. Knowing that the rent laws were going to expire in 2019, this was the focus of the housing justice movement for the year or two leading up to that moment.
In comparison to the previous time that the rent laws had expired, about four years before, the difference was the solidarity between upstate tenants and downstate tenants, between tenants in the city and rural tenants. People all over the state rejected the myth that the real estate lobby had always pushed: that rent was just a city issue. That didn’t work anymore going into 2019, because of the impressive and powerful organizing of tenants all over the state in solidarity with each other, testifying at public hearings held by the legislature: tenants in Syracuse, in Rochester, in Buffalo, all over the state. There was a very powerful solidarity, and it defied this narrative that had been holding up changes previously.
And then there was also a critical shift in the power dynamic in Albany. The Democrats were now in power and had control of the legislature for the first time in a long time. So that was in our favor as well.
I don’t want to overstate my own role as one socialist in the legislature. I didn’t do it alone, by any stretch. But it was really meaningful and had an impact on what we were able to win, that we had tenants, myself included, in the legislature. It’s not just our lived experience, but also that some of us have maintained a commitment to not accept money from the for-profit real estate industry, from real estate PACs that have previously wielded outsize influence in Albany. This had held up policy that would help tenants. So those things made a really big difference. When you make a commitment to not be influenced by the most powerful lobby in the state, it really does translate to policy change.
Finally, I think one thing that we should be emulating in all of our policy battles going forward is a strategy that was uniquely used in the rent laws fight in 2019. It was clear that in negotiations over the rent laws, the governor was being obstinate. The Senate and the Assembly had been pushed by advocates in the housing justice movement to support this package of legislation regardless of what the governor was going to do, to support it for their constituents, because it’s the right thing to do.
So the Senate came up with our position, to pass all the bills. The Assembly came up with their position. And a two-way agreement was reached. This is usually not how things have happened in Albany. Negotiations over legislation or in the budget process are usually a three-way negotiation. But in the rent laws fight, a two-way agreement was reached between the Senate and the Assembly, and then we gave it to the governor, knowing that he wouldn’t dare to veto the necessary renewal of rent regulation and these popular provisions.
That was a really important lesson, because if the legislature had just done what the governor always tries to bully the legislature into doing, into negotiating with him first, I don’t think we would have won as much as we did, as big of a victory for tenants.
We need to continue to do that. We have an obligation to do what New Yorkers want us to do and what our constituents want us to do, what we know is right by working people, and by the majority of New Yorkers.
You’ve gone from the last couple of years of being the lone socialist in Albany to being part of a slate of socialists in Albany. What kind of difference does that make in terms of what is possible to win?
It is already giving me more hope and confidence in what we are able to win. We now have six democratic socialists in the Senate and the Assembly. I’m realistic about what this means in the context of a legislature of a little more than two hundred people. But it grows our ability to internally organize our colleagues.
And we represent more than just six people. Each of us respectively won, and collectively we won, with a mandate. So we’re not just going to Albany as six people. Collectively, the six of us represent something like a million New Yorkers. That is really powerful. I think that we have the opportunity to advocate for a socialist policy agenda, but also to bring more legislators on board to this policy agenda.
And then there are the things that are not as easy to quantify, but that are obviously really meaningful. We have the most socialists that we have had in the legislature in a century. It is historic that we have this many socialists in the state legislature. That is very meaningful for a socialist movement in the United States as a whole.