Brian Jones Kraft
Take a walk up Flushing Avenue these days, through the rapidly changing industrial corridor, turn right on Wyckoff and keep walking over the L train route towards Broadway Junction.
Keep an eye out for Martin Dilan signs- you’ll definitely find a few ads for the 18th District’s State Senator’s re-election bid. Chances are though, you’ll see a whole lot more bearing the face of Julia Salazar, his young challenger, in the windows of bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and shops all over the place.
Neither campaign has been without its’ own unique drama and both candidates have had their past scrutinized by the public.
Dilan, currently serving his eight term in the seat, is associated for some with the establishment. And also with Vito Lopez, the power broker politician who ran the Democratic Party machine in North Brooklyn in the 90s and 00s before his ouster amid a slew of sexual harassment charges.
Dilan has his defenders, but to his detractors, the name represents State Democratic Party politics as usual at their worst- website followthemoney.org, run by the nonprofit National Institute for Money in Politics, lists Dilan as having received a total of $209,250 from the ‘finance, insurance, and real estate’ industries, with $125,376 more coming from ‘Lawyers and Lobbyists.’
A recent Gothamist article outlined Dilan’s participation in a 2008 real estate industry funded lawsuit to overturn New York campaign finance laws restricting developer donations, using a lawyer responsible for the Citizens United case that led to the landmark 2010 Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates for corporate money in elections.
Dilan hasn’t been without progressive opposition- a domestic abuse scandal with tragic implications helped sink previous Dilan challenger Debbie Medina in 2016- but this year would prove to be more significant. Following Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shock primary triumph over establishment Democrat Joe Crowley for New York 14th Congressional District seat, Ocasio-Cortez made a point of using the spotlight afforded by her victory to endorse fellow Democratic Socialist Salazar in her own challenge of Dilan.
Salazar’s campaign, which had launched in front of a sparsely attended rally in Maria Hernandez park in April, quickly began racking up profiles in publications like The Guardian, New York Magazine and Vice’s Broadly. All this alongside a wealth of Cortez post victory coverage, extolled the virtues of door knocking and pitched the grassroots campaigns as the sort of squeaky clean, bootstrapping cure to the hideous poisons of the Trump era.
Donations and volunteers followed. Like Ocasio-Cortez’s, the campaign relied heavily on canvassing, rejecting corporate donations in favor of small ones, often in the amount of $27.
If Dilan didn’t seemed impressed with his young challenger- “She’s really not my opponent,” he told City Limits in July, “My opponent is this national organization that’s supporting her”, the actions of his campaign revealed a rattled political intelligence lumbering to assert itself.
Talking to Kings County Politics in July, Dilan campaign spokesman Bob Liff referenced Salazar raising money at ‘fundraisers hosted by people like hedge funders and from big financial firms,’ attempting to cast suspicion on $70,000 in unitemized donations the campaign had received.
The Salazar campaign quickly made the information public, showing less than $200 left unitemized. In fact it was Dilan’s campaign that would prove to have issues with disclosing donors- a September 10th Daily News story documented $25,000 unreported campaign contributions- a violation of campaign finance law- and some $28,000 more filed incorrectly.
The same month found Dilan attempting to sue Salazar off the ballet, with a suit questioning her New York residency. It was evidently based on a Florida drivers license she obtained in 2016- only to find it rejected by both a State Supreme Court judge and a Court of Appeals.
The Senator’s campaign did find handy artillery in the form of stories detailing Salazar’s political roots as a right wing activist at Columbia. In late July, a chaotic gaggle of protesters began shouting down a press conference featuring Salazar and fellow insurgent Cynthia Nixon. Cracks in the challenger’s image had started to form.
Salazar’s biography proved to be a subject of ongoing controversy after an article in City and State revealed that Salazar’s own mother and brother- to varying degrees- both disputed her descriptions of being raised in a Jewish household, as well as her descriptions of the family as working class immigrants.
While her religion and background are multifaceted, Salazar was accused of stretching the truth to the breaking point in some cases- and other times lied, such as when she told Jacobin magazine, “My family immigrated to the US from Columbia when I was a baby.”
She was born and raised in Florida and her Columbian father was a naturalized citizen by that time. (Bushwick Daily was one of the outlets that referred to her as born in Columbia, based on statements made at the fundraiser we covered in July and other reporting.)
None of these fabrications may have stirred much interest individually but together they represented a glaring fumble. Not to mention an oddly needless one- Salazar’s Jewishness hadn’t really played a major part of her campaign, and her occasional evocations of her family’s background, while perhaps a factor in immigrant populated Bushwick- weren’t exactly soaring at Obama in 2008 levels.
The campaign’s appeal as a model of straight laced, issues focused progressive efficiency now threatened to be eclipsed by an embarrassing series of identity politics related missteps that had little to do with anything going on in North Brooklyn.
The trajectory was disappointing for supporters, especially those who shared the democratic socialist movement’s cornerstone conviction that the vast, untapped swaths of alienated non-voters are a more valuable resource then the finicky swing voters the media endlessly scrutinize every election cycle. An apathetic public conditioned to view political contests with weary skepticism- or just not view them at all- works just fine for the machines of the world.
Even her party doesn’t fall in lockstep – as Julia herself pointed out at the event Bushwick Daily attended in July, some Democratic Socialists view electoral politics themselves with skepticism, preferring actions like labor strikes as a means of creating change.
The campaign cruised ahead, touting endorsements, peppering Facebook feeds with topical news stories and cheery calls to attend volunteer events like ‘Bagels and Data Entry with Julia.’ Maybe their confidence wasn’t misplaced- in a district where twenty-somethings have been flocking for years to experiment freely with identity and heritages sometimes intermingle with casual idiosyncrasy- did anyone actually care about this stuff? In a race no one was expecting to get this much attention in the first place?
More drama emerged by September. Several publications including The Rolling Stone described how a 19-year-old Julia Salazar was arrested after being accused of pretending to be Kai Hernandez on the phone with a bank teller, while attempting to extract thousands from Hernandez’s account.
Salazar was arrested, but never had any charges filed against her for the incident, and later won a defamation suit against Kai Hernandez over the case.
But however true, or fair, or not, the story took on a life of its own and had to be addressed. Salazar responded with a letter calling the accusations the ‘demonstrably fraudulent’ work of a vindictive, drug abusing family friend that exacted an ‘emotional and physical toll’ on the then teenaged candidate and her family. In the opening sentence of her statement she slammed Dilan for accepting $18,000 from a pro charter school PAC.
Salazar also very recently accused David Keyes, the Prime Minister of Israel’s spokesperson to foreign media, of sexual assault. She tweeted that she had spoken to journalists about the incident, but never said anything about it on the record.
On August 30th Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “More imperfect people need to run for office. We need to eliminate the idea of ‘perfect’ candidates – there’s no such thing.
What matters are your values and the platform you’re fighting for. When the opposition goes into personal nonsense, it’s because they‘re empty handed.”
She was referencing a candidate challenging Ted Cruz in Texas, whom that state’s GOP had clumsily attempted to embarrass with some old photos of his alt rock band- but considering the timing, it seemed like telegraphed support for the candidate she first endorsed back in July.
Other endorsers continue to stand by her as well.
“The fact is Brooklyn voters recognize Julia will be a voice for tenants, not landlords, working families not Wall Street and an advocate for real progressive change in Albany,” Rep. Nydia Velázquez, according to City and State. “It sounds like that’s got some of the old guard worried and that’s why you’re seeing them peddle these attacks.”
Bushwick Daily reached out to Virgil Texas, a host of the Chapo Trap House podcast who interviewed Salazar at the event we covered in July.
“Julia Salazar has my full and unequivocal support,” he wrote back. “And I look forward to her victory this Thursday.”
Cover art by Tom Hemmerick