If you walk one avenue block from Julia Salazar’s Bushwick campaign headquarters and hang a right onto Troutman Street, you’ll find yourself in the shadow of a 125-unit complex called “CastleBraid,” a luxury condo building for artists—or, as Gothamist once put it, an “opulently priced hipster Wonderland” made especially for the “parentally subsidized hipster.” In March 2012, CastleBraid's management reassured tenants: "CastleBraid is absolutely not required to set aside 20% for low income housing."
“It kind of looks like a dorm,” Salazar says, staring up at the yellow building, its name displayed in letters several feet tall. Then something else catches her eye—her face. A tenant has taped up her campaign poster for the New York State Senate’s 18th District race in their first-floor window.
Salazar, a 27-year-old first-time Latina candidate, has made housing the centerpiece of her bid to defeat Martin Dilan, the longtime incumbent currently holding the 18th district seat. If Dilan wins a ninth term, Salazar says it means rents will continue to rise at unsustainable rates and more people will be displaced from their homes. A Salazar victory, her campaign pitch goes, means an advocate in Albany fighting to expand rent stabilization, secure state funds for affordable housing, and stave off gentrification in the parts of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Cypress Hills she would represent.
Voters will choose on September 13.
Dilan's office disputes this characterization of the state senator's record, telling Broadly Dilan will "continue to seek greater rent-stabilization enforcement, and accountability of public funding so that it does produce affordable units," adding that he's supported the "redevelopment" of thousands of lots in the district. It's worth noting Dilan has voted in the past for vacancy decontrol, which some argue encourages landlords to harass tenants so they leave, giving them free rein to hike up the rent. (Dilan has said he regrets his vote on the issue.)
Essential to Salazar’s vision for how the community could transform under her leadership is democratic socialism, a political ideology that forms the basis of campaign platforms like housing, criminal justice reform, free tuition at city and state colleges, and single-payer health care.
“The idea of housing being a human right isn’t really compatible with capitalism,” she says.
Around 4 PM on a Wednesday afternoon, Salazar sits in her Bushwick offices, a shuttered coffee shop that the owner rented out to her for a “good rate” when he learned what she would use it for. She hasn’t eaten lunch yet—something wrapped in foil sits between us while we talk. In the next room, a few campaign volunteers sit at folding tables, quietly typing on laptops with “Abolish ICE” stickers on the front. On a far wall, there are two massive maps of the 18th District; opposite them, a sign reading, “New York needs a living wage.”
“With capitalism, you cede control to market forces, which won’t grant a poor person the right to stay in their homes, or to see a doctor,” she says. “That’s all in the hands of the person who has more capital.”
Salazar can talk about the national political climate and her opinions on federal policy in one sentence, and, in the next, explain how she can approximate those policies for her neighbors in Bushwick. Take the movement to eliminate the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency— Salazar can see clearly how an abolish ICE platform translates to the state level. She mentions the Liberty Act, legislation currently stalled in the State Senate that would end local law enforcement's cooperation with ICE and provide undocumented immigrants facing trial with public attorneys.
"I don’t want to project more power than I’m seeking," Salazar says, emphasizing she wouldn't be able to vote on federal legislation to abolish ICE as state senator. She doesn't necessarily want to, anyway, at least not right now: Under the Trump administration, she says a state legislature is the best place she could be.
"If we only try to effect change at the federal level because we see it as the maximum level of power, then we’re going to be stuck and have a really hard time. We’ll always be focused on harm reduction," she continues. "In a state like New York, while it’s far from perfect, it’s still a much more favorable climate for us as advocates for democratic socialism to actually take power for the people and change policy that affects people’s lives."
Early on, Salazar agreed someone should challenge Dilan, a centrist Democrat with a history of accepting corporate donations, something Salazar repudiates. She just didn’t think the opposing candidate should be her. Despite her years of organizing experience as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and an employee at Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, when Salazar tried to conjure an idea of who might defeat Dilan this year, she couldn’t blot out the image of an “old, white man.”
“At the very least, it wasn’t a 27-year-old Latina,” she says.
It took a bit of convincing to get her to run. Her friend Nick Rizzo, the male District Leader for Williamsburg and Greenpoint and a fellow DSA member, was the first to float the idea.
“I was going around, talking to other people in the DSA about who we could recruit to run against Dilan,” Rizzo tells me by phone Monday. “I saw that Julia was someone who was articulate, knowledgeable on policy, and had taken on a lot of responsibility within the organization. When I brought up her name, people were like, ‘Oooh.’”
Salazar was reluctant. Rizzo asked other DSA members—many of whom now make up her campaign team—to call her and give her a confidence boost. Salazar says they were “holding a mirror” up to her for weeks, trying to get her to see what they saw: a fierce competitor to Dilan and, ultimately, an effective state senator.
Crucially, Salazar wasn’t the white male politician she envisioned. “Most people in this district are either a person of color who is very worried about the cost of housing, or a bright, young quote-unquote ‘millennial,’” Rizzo said. “Julia is both.”
Salazar’s run is part of several movements that all converge on her candidacy. She’s part of the record number of women running for office in 2018, many for the first time. She’s one of a handful of Latina women, and even more specifically, Colombian women, running in New York State. And, as a democratic socialist running on the Democratic Party line, Salazar joins candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is running for Congress, in bucking the narrative that democratic socialism isn’t “ascendant” in mainstream politics, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently opined.
Ocasio-Cortez’s June victory in the primary election has buoyed Salazar’s campaign. Though she’d already generated excitement around her campaign on her own merits, in the week after Ocasio-Cortez’s upset, Salazar raised over $20,000 and collected 4,000 signatures to power her upcoming primary bid—well over the 1,000 signatures she needed to appear on September’s ballot. Salazar has been scooping up endorsements at a rapid pace, earning the official backing of gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, Make the Road Action, a Latino PAC, and sitting elected officials, like City Councilman Antonio Reynoso and Representative Nydia Velazquez, in recent weeks.
“Martin Dilan has been inactive and missing in action as market-rate rents in North Brooklyn have spiraled, instead cultivating cozy relationships with real estate developers and landlords,” Velazquez tells Broadly. “I’m confident Julia will put North Brooklyn working families’ interests first, and we need her voice in Albany.”
If Dilan is nervous, Salazar says he doesn’t show it. And a recent incident did little to rehabilitate his reputation for being absent in the district.
Last week, Dilan failed to appear at a meeting with members of the Brooklyn Young Democrats, who planned to interview both him and Salazar for an endorsement. According to email exchanges obtained by Broadly, a campaign volunteer from Dilan’s office asked that Dilan be “added to the agenda for interview” on July 6, ten days in advance of the meeting. The night of, however—at 8:40 PM—the volunteer told BYD President John Wasserman there was a “mix-up with the Senator’s schedule,” and that he wouldn’t be attending after all. (A spokesman later told Broadly that Dilan had been attending a community meeting and "called the Young Democrats afterward to apologize and see if there were other options available.")
Wasserman passed out the questionnaire Dilan had turned in for members to review, but the group gave its endorsement to Salazar.
“We were really considering Senator Dilan, and were going to give him a fair shot to talk about his accomplishments,” Wasserman tells Broadly. “But young people are choosing to sit out of elections every year, and I believe it’s partly because elected officials aren’t making themselves accessible to us."
It’s difficult to imagine an incumbent feeling safe in his seat this cycle, especially when pitted against the kind of indefatigable resolve candidates can have when they've been told they can never win.
A victory for Salazar would be significant, another sign that the systems that have kept politicians in power for decades are losing their potency—another sign that the voters who perhaps once welcomed middle-of-the-road candidates are hungry for progressivism. Because she's modest, this is what appeals to Salazar most about the possibility of her winning. She doesn't see herself as special, or singular.
"If I were extremely unique in terms of leadership qualities, then this wouldn’t be a movement campaign," Salazar says. "We need this campaign to be about amplifying the work community members have been doing for decades. I can’t do it on my own. It isn’t worth doing on my own."
A smile creeps over her face, though, as she considers a delicious vision.
“Winning would mean—well, it wouldn’t lead to the end of capitalism, of course,” she says with a laugh. Although: “That would be cool, I would be fine with that."
“But it would change the power dynamic between tenants and landlords if rent stabilization were expanded; if vacancy decontrol ended; if there were more ways to protect tenants from harassment,” she continues, plunging back into her housing platforms. “All of this can be done as soon as next year. I think we can do it.”