State Senator Julia Salazar didn’t want to run for political office. So, in March 2018, eight months before she would go on to unseat Martin Dilan in the 18th District’s Democratic primary, Salazar’s friend Sam called her up and pleaded with her to mount a campaign. He told her that the community needed someone to fight against gentrification and big real estate. He told her that a narrow window of opportunity existed to change rent laws and that if she didn’t run, the opportunity would be squandered.
Salazar, who was working at the time as a community organizer in Bushwick, told Sam that she had thin skin — that she cared too much about what other people thought of her.
But no one else was stepping up, she explained. No one else was arguing for housing as a human right. No one else, it seemed, would do what needed to be done. So Salazar hastily put together a campaign and centered it around housing protections for tenants.
“Our communities are in crisis,” Salazar said during a televised debate with then Senator Dilan three weeks before the election. “Rents are skyrocketing, families are being displaced every year, and it’s because our legislators in Albany have failed us.”
Salazar defeated Dilan, a 16-year incumbent, with almost 60% of the vote. She was 27 years old.
Victory, though, did not come without its share of cruelties. By the time Salazar took office, her skin had already begun to harden, bearing the irreparable marks of battle scars picked up along the campaign trail.
When I called Salazar on a cold morning last week, she was walking outside, and I felt I could almost hear the vapor forming in the air on her exhales.
“I wasn’t sure if you were waiting for my call or I was waiting for yours,” I said apologetically.
“Can you hear me?” Salazar asked, halfway out of breath. “If you can hear me, then I’m good.”
When she first ran for office four years ago, Salazar became embroiled in a series of controversies that garnered national attention. At base, what she was accused of was not being who she said she was. Pundits and politicians from both the right and left claimed that Salazar had manufactured a left-wing identity for political gain. They claimed she had lied about being Jewish. They said she had concocted a Colombian immigrant origin story out of thin air. The integrity of her beliefs, of her personhood, were brought into question.
I wanted to ask her about this. I wanted to ask her about her scars.
“I never thought I had enemies. I never burned any bridges, but it just didn’t matter,” Salazar told me. “Politics is like a blood sport. It’s brutal. I wasn’t prepared for that.”
On the other end of the line, I heard a door open and the faint beeping of a security alarm waiting to be disabled. I heard Salazar punch in a code. The beeping stopped. I imagined her turning on the lights in her office, setting down her bags. I wondered if her days often started like this, with her alone in an office, or if she had a staff that usually punched in the security code for her.
“I was deeply unprepared for how particularly vicious and personal the attacks would be,” Salazar continued. “And I didn’t have a comms director. In hindsight, that’s something I learned I needed.”
Salazar was born in Miami. Her father was from Columbia, and she traveled there as a child. Her mother was the family’s primary caregiver. Salazar described their class location as working-middle class. Politics existed only in the background.
“My parents were not politically active, but they were both registered Republicans,” Salazar recounted. “What that meant was that Fox News was always on. That’s what I was exposed to.”
Immediately after she graduated high school, Salazar’s father died. A month later, she moved to New York to attend Columbia University.
“I probably should have taken time off,” Salazar lamented. “It’s already a formative time in your life, but it was additionally…” She trailed off, and then gathered herself. “I really was searching for meaning. He died and I was trying to pick up all the pieces. And reflecting, regretting, spiritually seeking. I was trying to make sense of the world.”
Salazar became involved with a pro-life student organization as well as Columbia’s chapter of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which she eventually became president of. She was 19.
I asked her about this time in her life, her conservative streak.
“There was this well-funded political lobby that was very present on my campus,” Salazar said. “They made it very appealing and empowering in a way… I definitely didn’t understand the world,” she continued. “Not that I do now … What I knew was that there was suffering in the world and I felt a responsibility to alleviate that suffering.”
When Salazar was young, her father had told her stories about distant relatives of Jewish ancestry who had immigrated to Colombia. Salazar’s involvement with CUFI prodded her to explore this history and, ultimately, to convert to Judaism. Around this time, Salazar elected to take an interfaith trip to Israel as part of the Birthright program. Ironically, it would prove to be the spark that, for Salazar, ignited a political transformation toward socialism.
“I had this idea of what Israel was that was divorced from reality,” Salazar explained. “I had the opportunity to visit the West Bank. I met Palestinians. They showed me what everyday life was like for them. It brought nuance to the image I had of Israel/Palestine. It made me ready to challenge what I was being taught. It marked a turning point for me.”
Here, I have to say that in my conversation with Salazar, I lingered on Israel too long. I had also traveled to Israel about a decade ago. I had also felt that it marked a turning point for me — that the propaganda machine was laid bare, that its visibility had allowed me to return to my own country with clearer, more discerning eyes. But Salazar was wary of my lingering on the subject, rightfully so. Nothing happens overnight.
“It was really influential for me,” Salazar conceded, “but at this point, in the context of my life – almost 10 years have past — I’ve had so many other experiences that were more formative in shaping my world view and political ideology. It’s not always these radicalizing moments, it’s the impact of learning over time.”
Salazar returned to the States and became active in groups furthering Palestinian solidarity. The activists were also involved in other social justice circles. Salazar branched out.
She began to think back on her teenage years. Her father had taken on a disability, and she remembered gathering his social security checks from the mail. She remembered the TV, the pundits and their tirades against public assistance. She started working low-wage jobs – restaurants, nannying. At that point, she felt like she had picked up on, through many conservative talking points, a general disdain for the type of labor she was doing.
Salazar recounted, “It became very clear to me as a young adult that I had real cognitive dissonance about feeling some affinity for conservative politics, realizing that conservative politics didn’t care for people like me.”
From there, Salazar read Marx. She threw herself into the history of socialist political philosophy. She attended reading groups.
In 2013, Salazar organized a rent strike of the dilapidated Harlem apartment complex she was living in. It worked. Her and her neighbors’ efforts pressured the landlord into making repairs. At the end of her lease, the landlord raised the rent, and she moved to Brooklyn. She said that it was then that she committed to being deliberate about being in and supportive of the community around her. She became an organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America.
“I see a humanity in democratic socialism,” Salazar told me. “It centers workers and human beings and the needs of people. It says in order for things to be better and more just and more equitable, we have to act. And action means regulation, means co-government – it means the government taking responsibility for making people’s lives better.”
Salazar then referenced a quote from the philosopher and Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg. Something about socialism or barbarism – that the world doesn’t get better on its own.
I thought about the capacity our society has to welcome change. Not on a cultural level, but on a personal one. Once we hold an image of someone, it’s difficult for us to allow them the space to change on their own terms. What does this say about the rigidity of identity in our eyes? Why is it that someone who is thought to have integrity is often someone who shows a stagnancy of thought? I know, on some level. Conviction, consistency, the will to remain true to your beliefs in the face of adversity, in the face of fast-moving times – this is integrity. But is it not also the ability to take in information and adapt? Doesn’t the critical interpretation of the world call for an ever-evolving vantage point? Isn’t this integrity? The criticisms leveled at Salazar when she first ran for office used her political journey as a means of portraying a moral inconsistency. What did she think about this now?
“It takes a strong will to be open minded about the world,” Salazar asserted. “It would have been much easier for me to stick with the beliefs I had. If you’re confronted with information that challenges your world view, it’s much easier to ignore it, to not allow it to shape and change your mind.”
In 2018, Salazar became the youngest woman ever elected to the New York State Senate. It was her age, she said, that made her especially vulnerable to charges of dishonesty.
“I continue to have to work harder to prove myself to people,” Salazar said. “Whereas, if I were older when running, people would consider it irrelevant to bring up that I was once engaged in some conservative activism.”
At this point, Salazar and I had been on the phone for an hour. I apologized.
“I’m appreciative of your time here,” I said.
“Nope,” she quipped. “It’s me that’s appreciative; I’m on your time.”
“So do you still care about what people think of you?” I asked.
Salazar sighed, thoughtfully. “Realistically … Yeah I do. I mean I don’t have as thin of skin, but I certainly care as a public servant. I have 341,000 bosses. In that sense, I definitely care. I care what people think.”
Featured image: an illustration drawn by Emily Rappaport.
For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.
Join the fight to save local journalism by becoming a paid subscriber.