On Julia Salazar and Politics as Usual

Maybe it’s time to address the media frenzy around Julia Salazar. I’m friends with Julia, and I’ve volunteered and helped raise money for her, but I have no formal affiliation with the campaign, and I’m speaking here only for myself.

Let’s step back for a minute. Julia is a 27-year-old activist who had to be dragged by her DSA friends, hand over foot, to run for state senate. The rationale for her campaign was never about her apt or angelic biography; it was always about North Brooklyn, which for decades has been ground zero for New York’s corporate real estate speculation and yawning inequality, and yet is represented by Martin Dilan, the landlord lobby’s favorite Democrat in Albany.

Once it got underway, Julia’s campaign was not driven by a heroic personal story, or the idea that her identity made her ‘the best fit for the district.’ It was always about her independence from corporate money and her unwavering positions on rent control, healthcare for all, college for all, and dismantling the deportation machine.

Given his own public record — especially atrocious on housing — Dilan knew he had no chance to contest Julia on these issues. So from the start, his campaign has tried to make the race about identity and biography, casting himself as a “real Democrat” and Julia as a “gentrifier” from out of state. Dilan’s first move in this direction failed, when a laborious and expensive legal effort to throw Julia off the ballot was rejected in court three times. But the recent spate of coverage, concentrating exclusively on Julia’s personal background, has pushed the race right back where Dilan wants it — very, very far from anything that might make a material impact on the lives of people in North Brooklyn.

If there was anything individually notable about Julia’s run for office, it was the idea that an ordinary person could pick up the mantle to run for state senate, not based on a claim of spectacular virtue, but a commitment to represent the needs and values of the people in her district. Now we see what happens when an ordinary person — bound to the ordinary extraordinary complexities of a life lived outside the confines of a resume — challenges the power of a political elite.

OK, yes, some of the headlines sound pretty wild. But let’s take a deep breath. This round of coverage began when Tablet magazine did Dilan’s work for him with a 4,000-word essay that framed the race not as a struggle over the future of North Brooklyn, but a referendum on Julia Salazar’s personal identity: her religion, her nationality, her class status, her political trajectory. The piece was built around alleged discrepancies between Julia’s personal story and the account given by her brother, Alex Salazar. Without the direct quotations from Alex, the piece could never have been written as a dramatic gotcha story, nor would it have driven a further round of hostile reporting, all of it framed around the investigation of these supposed “inconsistences” in Julia’s story.

It’s unfortunate that Julia has a brother who is willing to go on record against her (and is ideologically hostile to her campaign). But American politics is littered with unfortunate siblings, from Roger Clinton to Neil Bush to Malik Obama: imagine if stray comments from any one of them, along with a handful of tabloid follow-ups, caused the elite media to make a game-changing re-evaluation of a candidate in the days before a major election. It would be worse than a scandal; it would be a journalistic crime.

That’s exactly what’s happening to Julia. The Keith Hernandez story came to light in the pages of a right-wing tabloid; it was laundered through Tablet and appeared as a blank curiosity, without any independent reporting, in the New York Times. Julia won a defamation settlement based on the slanders associated with that story! Yet somehow the Times and others have ingenuously presented it as “another crazy day for Julia Salazar,” without even the barest investigation of the people who made wild claims against Julia.

Are there lessons to be learned from this experience, both for the DSA and for the larger struggle against New York’s political establishment? Yes, of course, and we’ll have plenty of time to discuss them this fall and winter.

But this week is not for debating electoral tactics or campaign messaging. This week is about the fight to build a more equal New York — and the enormous, energetic, and highly resourceful opposition to that project, which expresses itself bluntly in corporate donations and subtly in the “troubled” tone of major media coverage.

It’s funny: on first glance, some of these stories about Julia sound bizarre or fantastical, but on second look they amount to the literal definition of that hackneyed phrase, “politics as usual.” Politics as usual means using anything and everything — from Trumpist tabloid sludge to highbrow concern-trolling — rather than confront the most urgent and most basic needs of 99% of the people.

I’m canvassing for Julia tonight, and I just gave her another $27 to fight this kind of diseased politics as usual. I hope you will consider joining me.

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