Those paying close attention to the Democratic primary for Brooklyn’s 18th district in the state senate will observe that it has, once again, become a cultural proxy war between the party’s culturally conservative establishment and a relative newcomer, backed by the DSA. As the primary date next month approaches, both candidates are accusing each other of taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought the typical gestures of doorknocking and handshaking to a grinding halt.
That Julia Salazar is now the incumbent, having held the office since her upset win in 2018, has had little effect on Brooklyn Democratic party politics. Andy Marte, her most prominent rival and a former campaign manager for the late party boss Vito Lopez, had been campaigning with the quiet backing of one of the neighborhood’s own party bosses, district leader Tommy Torres, who is, himself, facing a challenge next month from Samy Nemir-Olivares, who Salazar officially endorsed on Friday.
A weekend before, Senator Salazar accused Marte of turning at least two city-sponsored food and mask giveaways earlier this month into de-facto campaign events and fumed at fellow Democratic Party incumbents who sanctioned violation of campaign finance laws that, she says, prohibit the use of public money to actively endorse political campaigns. Both events carried the imprimatur of city sponsorship: a mask and meal giveaway at the Lindsay Park public housing development in Williamsburg; a protective mask giveaway that, per at least one flyer, was being run by the mayor’s office. On Marte’s Facebook page, a photo published that weekend depicted a sea of hand sanitizers, each neatly stickered by Marte and Torres’s campaign.
A section of the New York City Charter actively prohibits the use of the city’s “governmental funds or resources for a public communication that contains an electioneering message.”
Salazar says that by putting stickers advertising Marte’s candidacy on bottles of hand sanitizer that are being given away as part of the city’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, he’s breaking that law.
“This isn’t to say that any candidate, myself included, is legally barred from volunteering in the community,” Salazar tells Bushwick Daily, “but the moment that you say ‘I’m running for office, the election is June 23rd, vote for me,’ or you put a sticker [saying that] it’s a clear violation.”
“I take compliance really seriously,” she adds, adding that “it’s frustrating when you’re playing by the rules and your opponent is cheating.”
But Marte disagrees with Salazar’s take on campaign finance law.
“For me to go out there and give them food is something that’s meaningful. For Salazar to make this something negative speaks to the character assassination that they want to pull on me,” he told Bushwick Daily, adding, “Salazar, has been doing much the same.”
He points to a fundraiser that Salazar is currently running to raise money to purchase hot plates for residents in a NYCHA housing complex in Bushwick. “It’s being run through Salazar’s campaign fundraising account on ActBlue, which, Marte says, looks awfully suspicious.
“A campaign finance violation, if you ask me,” Marte says.
“It’s not at all a violation of campaign finance law to use campaign funds to provide goods for a NYCHA development or for any community,” she says. She adds that it’s very common for politicians in New York to use campaign funds to provide funding for programs and even to provide for their office when state funding falls short.
Salazar adds: “Anyone can attest that, in the support that we raised for 303 Vernon, I never, in any way, said anything about my campaign or the election in the context of providing those resources to them.”
Like Salazar’s successful effort in the 2018 State Senate Race agaist Martin Dilan, primary races against incumbents are typically a space for voices outside the political establishment to level their arguments for taking the place of those who are already there. But Marte is challenging Salazar with the seeming blessing of some of the party’s own power brokers. Online, his campaign loudly touts appearances with Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s current borough president, who is widely expected to make a high-profile run for mayor next year. In addition to campaigning with Marte, Torres co-signed a public letter Marte put out earlier this month on the need for additional stretchers to handle the COVID-19 caseload at Wyckoff Heights Medical Center. Both Adams and Torres appeared at the mask distribution event at Lindsay Park where Salazar says that Marte was campaigning. Right above Marte on the bill for that other COVID-19 mask giveaway? Darma Diaz, the party’s choice to replace Rafael Espinal in a hotly contested New York City Council race.
Online, Eric Adams told Salazar that he “wouldn’t associate with any COVID-19 relief of a campaign nature,” and says he did not approve the flyer for the event that ended up with Marte’s campaign insignia. A spokesperson for Adams’s office told Bushwick Daily that the borough president wasn’t endorsing anyone in the primary race. Neither Torres nor Diaz responded to a request for comment.
Marte is not short on criticism of the incumbent Salazar.
“She’s nowhere to be found. Everywhere you go, everyone’s asking where she’s at. You go to community boards, you go to the police precinct council meetings, she’s nowhere to be found,” says Marte, painting an image of a politician who hasn’t done the gladhanding work of Brooklyn politics.
Despite the criticism, Salazar recently got an endorsement and the nod of support from Bernie Sanders’s fundraising apparatus, shortly after the two-time presidential candidate had suspended his latest campaign.
Differences in their respective support bases also speak to the larger political and cultural differences between the two rivals.
When he spoke with Bushwick Daily, Marte took aim at Salazar’s support of sex workers, a core part of her campaign platform in her successful run for the office two years ago. Marte says the dangers of decriminalizing sex work are “beyond clear.”
“Ask any reasonable adult who grew up in Bushwick when prostitution was rampant,” says Marte, a little incredulous at the question.
He declines to specify further but connects the platform, to Salazar’s support of a bill, currently in the state senate, that mandates human papillomavirus immunization, which he does not support. Relatedly, or not, Salazar has labeled Marte an “anti-vaxer,” noting a sceptical tone that Marte once took in a social media post, advertising his podcast, toward a prospective COVID-19 vaccine.
“I’m not an anti-vaxxer, I’m against government mandates,” Marte told Bushwick Daily. “I’m against a nine-year old girl getting a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease, it doesn’t make sense,” he says.
When asked where Marte stands on other issues, he points to his status as a lifelong Democrat, and his service as a local delegate for Obama at the 2012 Democratic Convention.
“I was the president of the Bushwick Young Democrats, I founded the Brooklyn Young Democrats. I don’t know what else I need to prove in order to show that I’ve been a Democrat longer than she has,” Marte tells Bushwick Daily, noting that Salazar did not spend as much time as he had inside the Democratic party as he had and, in fact, was once a Republican, a line that dates to that very long story on Salazar’s past published by Tablet in 2018.
“Trying to stir up people–that’s not good for the people she’s advocating for,” Marte says.
Marte points, again, to his allegation about Salazar’s fundraiser, which he insists needs to be covered in order to combat Salazar’s work of “coming up with lies and hope the press catches it.”
He says he’s hip to her ways.
“I know I’m from Bushwick but I’m a very astute person,” he adds.
Top photos courtesy of candidate’s Facebook pages.
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