Julia Salazar, the controversial 27-year-old democratic socialist running for New York State Senate, faces her big test in the New York primary

  • Julia Salazar, a 27-year-old New York State Senate candidate, is facing a barrage of criticism and media attention amid reports that she misrepresented aspects of her background.
  • While some progressives believe questions around Salazar’s credibility make her an unsuitable candidate, many, including other progressive New York candidates, are standing by her.
  • New Yorkers will decide on Thursday whether Salazar will replace a longtime incumbent Democrat in their Brooklyn district.

When Julia Salazar, a 27-year-old progressive activist, was convinced to run for New York State Senate early this year by fellow members of the Democratic Socialists of America, there was no evidence that a young political novice on the far left could upend the party’s political order and oust a longtime Democratic incumbent.

But on June 26, when fellow DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned the nation by beating 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic US congressional primary, the landscape shifted.

As national media scrambled to cover a story they largely missed, Salazar – who bears striking similarities to Ocasio-Cortez – found herself in the spotlight. Two months of glowing stories followed. Reporters painted Salazar as the next young Latina to inspire millennials and traditionally marginalized voters to forge a new path in Democratic politics from her Brooklyn district.

But the outsize media attention began to hurt her in late August. The Jewish online magazine Tablet took a deep look into Salazar’s transformation from a conservative, anti-choice, evangelical Christian activist to a pro-Palestine progressive, who converted to Judaism while an undergrad at Columbia University. (The Tablet reporter who wrote the story, Armin Rosen, was previously a reporter at Business Insider.)

The story was panned by Salazar’s supporters, and even some critics, as an unfair attack on her religious and ethnic identity. Salazar told Vox she was “deeply hurt on a personal level” by the excavation of intimate details of her personal, political, and religious evolution.

But a week later, City and State New York published another story in which Salazar’s brother and mother disputed a host of claims Salazar made about her personal background, including that she is a Colombian immigrant (she was born in Miami), and that she was raised working class.

Salazar’s backstory grew stranger last week, when reports emerged that she was arrested in 2011 on identity theft and other criminal charges as part of a dispute with the ex-wife of former New York Mets player Keith Hernandez.

Salazar claims she was “defamed and victimized” by Hernandez’s then-estranged wife, Kai, when she fraudulently attempted to break into her own bank account while impersonating Salazar and falsely accused the then-19-year-old college student of having an affair with her husband. Salazar sued Kai for defamation in Palm Beach County in 2013, which, years later, resulted in a $US20,000 settlement for Salazar.

“The more parsimonious explanation is that there’s something about her,” said a former friend of Salazar’s, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid online harassment from Salazar’s supporters.

The friend added: “She’s sort of been asking her supporters not to believe what their ears are hearing and not to believe what their eyes are seeing.”

Salazar has acknowledged that her campaign was somewhat caught off-guard by the intense media scrutiny, and that she and her small staff “weren’t on the same page” about some aspects of her background.

“The people who have been involved in supporting her and running her campaign – none of us were prepared for the amount of attention that her race would get,” a DSA member who has organised with Salazar since 2016, and wished to remain anonymous to protect his relationship with the candidate, told Business Insider.

Sexual assault allegations

The media storm surrounding Salazar grew on Tuesday – just two days before Thursday’s primary election – when The Daily Caller, a conservative website, reported that she had accused a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, David Keyes, of sexually assaulting her in his Manhattan apartment in a November 2013 Facebook post that she later deleted.

Salazar objected to the publication of her allegations, which appear to have been first reported in a Times of Israel editorial in the spring of 2016 – the basis of The Daily Caller report.

“There’s a reason women don’t often come forward after a traumatic experience – because of the triggering and vicious responses that follow,” the candidate wrote in a statement shortly before the publication of the article. “I strongly believe sexual assault survivors should not be outed in this way, and am saddened by the effect this story may have on other women.”

Later on Tuesday, Wall Street Journal reporter Shayndi Raice tweeted that she also once had a “terrible encounter” with Keyes.

“The man had absolutely no conception of the word ‘no,'” she wrote. “I was able to extricate myself quickly and it was a very brief and uncomfortable moment but I knew as I walked away I had encountered a predator.”

Keyes denied Salazar’s allegations on Tuesday, using the controversies surrounding her background to boost his defence, telling Haaretz, “This false accusation is made by someone who has proven to be repeatedly dishonest about her own life.”

An authentic progressive

Despite questions about Salazar’s character, her supporters maintain that that she’s a devoted champion of progressive change.

Salazar is challenging state Sen. Martin Malavè Dilan, a well-funded 16-year Democratic incumbent, and is running on a deeply progressive platform that includes Medicare-for-All, tuition-free public college, abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and establishing universal rent control.

Salazar’s allies cite years of work as an organiser and political activist as evidence of her authenticity.

“Just the fact that she has been present when we’ve needed people to show up – that just means the world to me,” the DSA organiser said. “There’s no lying about that … you can’t fake that.”

Dilan has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from Wall Street and the real estate industry – a point Salazar has used to draw contrasts with her campaign, which banned corporate PAC money.

The DSA organiser said Salazar’s win won’t be a referendum on her personal story, but a testament to the work of grassroots organisers and others who powered her campaign.

“I do not have any doubts that a state senate with Julia in it would be better than one without,” he said.

‘Muddying the waters’

Salazar is one of a broad slate of progressive insurgents – many of them women and people of colour – aiming to upend New York State’s political order this year. On Thursday, voters will decide her political future along with that of Cynthia Nixon – the former actress challenging Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and a slew of other candidates, including for state Senate, looking to oust incumbent Democrats.

Salazar has campaigned with and been endorsed by Nixon, attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout, Ocasio-Cortez, and others, who’ve branded themselves as a movement. They have all stood by Salazar over the past few weeks.

But some say the cloud of bizarre allegations and misrepresentations dogging Salazar’s campaign is unhealthy for the larger progressive movement.

“I’m rooting for a progressive future in politics – young, articulate progressives changing the conversation,” the former friend of Salazar’s said. “I think this is such a bad precedent, partly because it’s embarrassing and the right-wing media’s having a field day with it, but also because it’s turning people into the populist mob that they claim to detest on the other side… truth and integrity and common sense are going completely out the window for partisans of this movement.”

Some say that if New York progressives, including candidates and elected officials, don’t distance themselves from Salazar, they will risk their reputations and that of the groups they belong to.

Ocasio-Cortez “defending someone who seems to have real credibility problems, if not outright lies, is a very dangerous thing – it muddies those waters and smears the narrative,” Harry Siegel, a columnist for the New York Daily News and Daily Beast editor, told WNYC.

He added: “You do have this binary choice, if you want this venal Democratic hack or if you want an exciting young candidate, I just have questions about this exciting young candidate’s credibility.”

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