The Left Wave Keeps Growing with Democratic Socialist Julia Salazar’s Insurgent Win

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Salazar won a stunning victory in New York by running on an ambitious left platform—and never shying away from challenging capitalism.

Salazar's win is the latest in a wave of progressive insurgencies that have ousted establishment Democrats across the nation.

It’s been a long and tumultuous campaign for Julia Salazar, but despite the negative press that hounded her campaign in recent weeks, she emerged victorious on Thursday. In a stunning upset over real estate-backed incumbent Martin Dilan, Salazar—an open democratic socialist—triumphed in the Democratic primary with 59 percent of the vote, and is on her way to becoming Brooklyn's newest state senator.

“This is a victory for all of us who believe that a better world is possible. That we are going to build a New York that works for the many and not just for the few,” Salazar proclaimed to a packed crowd of supporters at her victory party in East Williamsburg. 

Starting out as a little-known local effort to represent New York’s 18th District, Salazar’s campaign was catapulted into the limelight in the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking victory in June over the powerful Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley. Building on the momentum from Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, Salazar's campaign captured the imagination of progressives across the city—and the country.

Seemingly overnight, Salazar was portrayed in the media as the next big democratic socialist challenger to an entrenched, Democratic machine politician. Given the many similarities between Salazar and Ocasio-Cortez—both Latina, decidedly left-wing, first-time candidates—the mainstream press began to extensively cover Salazar’s campaign. Her supporters have hoped she’ll become another rising star on the Left—and another face of the progressive resurgence sweeping the country. After Thursday’s win, that seems all but assured.

Salazar herself appears humbled by all the attention, telling In These Times, “Over the course of the last year, this campaign has shown me that people are no longer willing to tolerate these men in power betraying us anymore. Not only are they willing to speak out on it but they are willing to take action by replacing them with leaders who truly represent them. And I’m proud to be a part of that.”         

Salazar's win is the latest in a wave of progressive insurgencies that have ousted establishment Democrats across the nation. Along with her victory, six left challengers to incumbent members of New York’s conservative-leaning Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) won on Thursday: Alessandra Biaggi, Rachel May, Jessica Ramos, John Liu, Robert Jackson and Zellnor Myrie. These wins in New York follow those of other left-wing insurgents such as DSA member Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar in Minnesota and Andrew Gillum in Florida. “The Democratic Party is shifting,” Salazar says. “This wave of challenges has shown that.”

Given the progressive atmosphere in New York and around the country, Salazar, a member of the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—which endorsed her run—ran a spirited campaign aimed at bringing a more equitable distribution of resources to her community. And she took aim at capitalism head-on on. “People in this district deserve better representation than what they have now,” says Salazar. “People are being displaced from their homes. People can't afford to get sick. People deserve to live with dignity.”

Among the many left policies she supports—such as Medicare for All, abolishing ICE and ending mass incarceration—none were more central to Salazar’s campaign than universal rent control. The 18th is one of the most quickly gentrifying districts in the city, spanning Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Bushwick, Cypress Hills and parts of East New York. Over the course of the campaign, gentrification and displacement became some of the most important issues of contention between Salazar and Sen. Dilan. “The issue that affects every inch of my district is housing,” Salazar says. “My opponent supports policies that contribute to displacement and that needs to change.”

Dilan never embraced universal rent control, and of the $1.35 million in contributions he received over the course of his political career, nearly 15 percent came from the real estate, insurance or financial industries, according to the National Institute for Money in Politics. As recently reported at Gothamist, that’s “nearly twice as much as any other state senator.” And while he claimed to be a champion for working-class tenants, Dilan also received substantial financial support from pro-landlord lobbying groups.

For her part, Salazar refused any corporate or real-estate donations. According to Salazar, her campaign was an entirely grassroots effort led by a dedicated volunteer army of at least 500 people, many of them DSA members. At her victory party, Salazar gave credit for her win “to every community organization, to every labor union, to every tenant association, to everyone who showed up for this campaign. This was a brutal race because they knew that we were a threat to the concentration of wealth and power in this state.”

Indeed, as the campaign drudged on, Salazar faced an onslaught of media stories that cast doubt on details about her life that seemed to chip away at her credibility and viability as a candidate. Questions were raised regarding Salazar's immigration status, her Jewish identity, her former registration with the Republican Party and her working-class credentials. The good government watch group, Citizens Union, even went so far as to rescind its endorsement. Yet regardless of these attacks on her integrity, voters in Brooklyn showed they were more interested in her ideas and policy preferences than her personal character.

Salazar emphasized throughout that her campaign was part of a broader movement, not just one individual’s quest for power. After being recruited to run by fellow organizers within DSA and other activist groups, Salazar laid out an ambitious platform of redistributive policies including everything from making housing a human right, to enacting single-payer healthcare and giving public employees the right to strike. As Salazar said to her supporters Thursday night, “I am so grateful to be in this movement with you.”

Salazar faces no Republican opponent in November and will almost assuredly be heading to Albany where, despite Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reelection, there will be a new and undeniably more progressive political landscape come January. And for that, she praises her dedicated supporters.

“The thing that inspires me on a daily basis is solidarity,” says Salazar. “We are sold this idea that people only look out for themselves yet this campaign has shown me that solidarity is the most powerful tool we have to fight against the ruling class.”

Amir Khafagy is journalist, activist, organizer, and performer based in New York City.  His work has been featured in City Limits, Shelterforce, Jacobin, City Lab, The Indypendent, Counterpunch and The Hampton Institute. Miles Kampf-Lassin is a Web Editor at In These Times. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Jacobin, Salon, Alternet, the Chicago Reader and NBC News.

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