This Is the Story of How a Campaign Goes Off the Rails

What Julia Salazar’s topsy-turvy summer may mean for future insurgent candidates on the far left

Exactly one week before the New York state primary, 27-year-old Julia Salazar faced a political candidate’s worst nightmare. She briskly walked away as reporters chased her, shouting questions about a new scandal — her fifth in five months on the campaign trail.

This particular controversy involved allegations from her college years. In 2011, Salazar was arrested for impersonating Keith Hernandez’s wife in order to commit bank fraud. Charges were never brought, yet the Daily Mail concluded that she’d had an affair with the former Mets star, also known for his Seinfeld cameos.

Over the previous five weeks, Salazar, a Democratic Socialist state senate candidate billed as a rising star in the vein of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, had to explain herself, a lot — for questions about her Jewish identity, for having misled voters about whether she was an immigrant, for her anti-abortion and pro-Israel activism and her very brief stint as a Republican. Just as this story was going to press, she was doing more explaining: Salazar tweeted that she was about to be outed as a sexual assault survivor.

Still, the Keith Hernandez story was so bizarre that her team seemed to spin into crisis mode. “One-hundred percent false,” Salazar said at the time.

A campaign staffer barked that they’d formally respond later in the day. Her team’s official statement, released that night, flatly denied the accusations. “A British tabloid (one which described me in overtly sexist terms such as a “socialist pin-up”) published the fraudulent claims, even though legal authorities recognized the claims as utterly baseless,” it read. “The claims were so transparently baseless and malicious that I sued my accuser for defamation, and I received a monetary settlement as a result. Despite this, the fraudulent claims are now being repeated; that’s why I’m writing today to let you know the facts.”

Salazar explained that Hernandez and his wife, Kai, were friends of her family. The couple was going through a divorce seven years ago when a then-20-year-old Salazar house-sat for them. She says she found drugs and guns she claims belonged to Kai, and alerted Keith. Salazar says she was contacted by police later, and wrongly arrested for impersonating Kai to gain access to her banking information. Salazar claims that Hernandez’s wife falsely accused her in retaliation for snitching on her, and Salazar sued for defamation, winning a large cash settlement several years later. Her supporters point out that the arrest was never followed up with charges and that it’s not easy to prevail in a defamation lawsuit, as Salazar did. Her mother, Christine Salazar, says the experience was traumatizing. “That horrible case,” Christine tells Rolling Stone. “[She] was falsely accused, linked to a famous person. It’s clickbait, but it was a horrible thing that she went through.”

In her statement, Salazar said that the focus on scandals from her past were overshadowing what really matters to the voters of District 18, which encompases the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bushwick, Williamsburg and parts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville. “And so, now we are talking about these baseless accusations rather than how to protect affordable housing or win universal health care — issues my opponent has refused to champion and address as a State Senator and throughout this race. Women in politics always face a double standard, and the extreme scrutiny of my personal life in this race has been a manifestation of that.”

Salazar’s explanation did little to quell the controversy. Affordable housing isn’t much of a headline grabber when guns, drugs, fraud and “sex with Keith Hernandez” become part of the story. Salazar tells Rolling Stone that she regrets that her campaign’s media message spun out of control, creating a distraction from policy. “I think that this race and every race should be an opportunity to talk about the issues affecting the district,” she says. “It should be an opportunity to talk about how our 16-year incumbent has totally failed the community and to amplify the organizing that’s happened for decades in this district. I think we’re close to finally winning via a grassroots campaign that’s actually accountable to the residents of the district.”

As the Internet lapped up the salacious tale — and, as the Internet does, made nasty jokes — her critics blasted out more stories that undercut biographical details of her life that her campaign had promoted, which she readily admits she didn’t correct when she absolutely should have.

Including … the architecture of her childhood home. Salazar’s brother, Alex Salazar, in a series of interviews with reporters, claimed their family had been far better off than his sister suggested on the trail. Her mother tells Rolling Stone that her kids perceived their upbringing differently, in part because of their age difference and their ideology. She confirms that the family struggled, especially after her divorce from Julia’s dad when she was seven, and that reporters, in a rush for more clickbait, mischaracterized their history.

The stories added to a sense that Salazar is untrustworthy, already a topic of conversation following accounts that she’d misled reporters about being an immigrant (she was born in Miami; her father had immigrated from Colombia), and that her politics had shifted to the left from so right-wing that she’d once appeared on Glenn Beck’s show as a college student to vent about anti-Israel sentiment on campus. Today, she does not back away from the fact that she’s advocated for the rights of Palestinians for years, following her evolution on the Israel-Palestine conflict. “I’m open about having worked to support the human rights of Palestinians,” she tells Rolling Stone.

Even as some instantly deemed her a fraud, others in the Jewish activist community stood up for her. In early September, activists who knew Salazar in college vouched for her political awakening. Salazar says that she grew interested in her dad’s Sephardic heritage after his death.

“We came to know Julia during her college years, a key period where her politics and Jewish identity were shaped and formed. Her personal story is complex, and it has been misrepresented by her opponents as she has gone from being a private individual to a public candidate for office over the course of just a few months,” a group of her former classmates wrote in a letter published on the website Forward. “We are writing this letter to affirm who we know Julia to be as a Jew and as someone with moral character that we believe more than qualifies her to represent North Brooklyn in the New York State Senate.”  

Through it all, the main tenets of Salazar’s campaign message stood up to scrutiny. Unlike her opponent, the incumbent Martin Dilan, Salazar has refused all corporate cash, relying instead on small donations. That’s in keeping with other insurgent campaigns in the state, like Zephyr Teachout’s race for attorney general and Cynthia Nixon’s challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Julia Salazar, candidate for NYS Senate, and Zephyr Teachout, candidate for NYS Attorney General, held a press conference on August 6th, 2018 to endorse one another in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. Photo credit: Erik McGregor/Getty Images.

Her politics are to the left of Dilan on a host of issues. She refuses to take money from the powerful New York real estate industry, wants to abolish ICE and believes that sex work should be treated as work — leading sex-worker groups to rally behind her.

The same day the Keith Hernandez story broke, Gothamist published an article exposing how much  money Dilan has taken from real estate interests: Since 1999, the state senator has gotten more money from developers than any state senate Democrat besides Jeff Klein, head of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democrats who have allied with Republicans since 2011.

The article also revealed that Dilan had taken part in a lawsuit against the Campaign Finance Board, seeking to overturn the city’s restrictions on campaign contributions from developers and others doing business with the city.

“If you want to send me a check, I’m going to accept,” Dilan told Rolling Stone in July. “But that doesn’t mean that you’re going to tell me to vote against the interests of my constituents.” Dilan emphasized his lack of pickiness about the sources of his funding. “If the DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] wants to send me a check, I will take it!” On September 10th, the New York Daily News reported that Dilan had failed to report thousands of dollars in donations since 2016.

It seems clear that neither Salazar nor her campaign staffers were sufficiently prepared for this storm. If you’re a candidate pledging to take on a long-time incumbent and the New York real estate industry, there should probably be a strategy in place in case it comes out that you were once arrested for allegedly trying to defraud the wife of a famous Met. (Salazar now says that she thought she wasn’t allowed to talk about her lawsuit.) More than anything, Salazar’s scandal-plagued campaign might raise questions about the DSA’s vetting process as it becomes a far more prominent voice in national and state politics.

But was Salazar the wrong candidate for the DSA to back in this race? Or was she unfairly targeted in a series of attacks fueled by sexism, anxiety about her leftist platform and the obsession with digging up dirt on a hot-shot insurgent campaign?

I followed Salazar off and on all summer, and I’m still not sure I know the answer.

***

Three months ago, Salazar’s campaign was just beginning to hit its stride. Many people failed to predict Ocasio-Cortez’s victory and its impact on other, similar races. Seeing another young Latina taking on an older male incumbent suddenly put a big spotlight on this particular New York state senate race. When I spoke to Dilan’s press person, not long after Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in June, he griped about how hard his job was now that everyone wanted to talk to him about Salazar.

On a hot summer morning in mid-July, Salazar stands in front of the Brooklyn housing court where New Yorkers go to face off against their landlords. For some, it’s a final bid to fight eviction and stave off homelessness. Outside in the sun, she outlines her vision for making New York a place one can live without fear of rent surges and landlords who prioritize profit over, say, dealing with rat infestations.

“Housing is a human right,” Salazar says. “We need to fight for stronger rent laws. We need rent laws that will finally work for tenants.”

When Salazar attended Columbia University, she worked as a nanny and spent a brutal New York winter in a Harlem apartment she says didn’t have heat. She organized a successful rent strike, won concessions in housing court, then was unceremoniously booted from her apartment when the landlord hiked her rent.

She wants what she describes as actually affordable housing, not the current version, which defines “affordable” rent as no more than 30 percent of household income. The average rental prices in Williamsburg and Bushwick, which comprise the bulk of the district she’s running to represent, are $2,946 and $2,352, respectively. Salazar says she’ll prioritize fixing the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), where poor families battle vermin, crime, faulty elevators and dysfunctional boilers.

She’s also pledging to fight homelessness, which remains stubbornly high in the city: It’s estimated that 59,814 people were forced to seek homeless shelters during one night this August, including 22,123 children. More than 111,500 students experienced homelessness during the 2016-17 school year. That’s 10 percent of public school students in the city.

Shortly before her appearance outside of housing court, she’d also received the endorsement of New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, who has conducted studies into inhumane conditions at NYCHA and criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for spending lots of money on lowering homelessness without tangible results. (As of press time, none of Salazar’s major backers had officially withdrawn their endorsements. Bill de Blasio quietly endorsed Dilan this past weekend.)

Back in July, Stringer told Rolling Stone he’s backing Salazar because he’s sick of seeing New York change in ways that only serve the wealthy. “I’ve had enough,” the 58-year-old Stringer says. “The status quo is sucking the life out of the city. We need to support the next generation.”

Dilan told Rolling Stone earlier this summer that he wasn’t worried about Salazar, saying she was propped up by the DSA and she didn’t know the first thing about the people of District 18. “To this day, I never met her … I don’t know who she is,” he said. “She’s never been involved in my community and that’s all I know about her.”

Although Dilan said he wasn’t threatened by the challenge, he put a lot of work over the summer into kicking Salazar off the ballot. His campaign kept suing her, claiming she didn’t meet residency requirements to run for office, pointing to her Florida driver’s license. (Salazar’s deputy campaign manager, Michael Kinnucan, tells Rolling Stone that she’s lived in New York since college.) On August 9th, a judge dismissed the lawsuit, noting that Salazar “has clearly ‘lived’ in New York” since 2011. Dilan’s appeal of the decision was rejected on August 22nd.

When asked about the high rates of families experiencing homelessness, Dilan wondered if Rolling Stone was being fed false information by Salazar’s campaign. (In school year 2013-2014, 11 percent of students in Bushwick were homeless, according to Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness.)

“That’s the first time I hear there’s a high rate of family homelessness in my district,” he said. “We don’t have a problem with family homelessness. We’ve done a tremendous job of building many, many affordable housing units. You’re shocking me that there’s family homelessness.”

He sees Salazar’s political evolution as untrustworthy. “She went from extreme right to extreme left,” Dilan noted.

Salazar doesn’t apologize for the political shift she underwent when she was younger, which also involved anti-choice activism. She now strongly supports reproductive rights and expanded access to abortion. “I grew up in a conservative boot-straps family,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Growing up, I was definitely taught that to get an abortion was really shameful — all the typical misinformation about abortion and the typical demonization of women,” she says. “I realized quickly that I didn’t agree with this narrative that abortion was bad or that we should shame people for it.”

She presently has a 100 percent approval rating from Planned Parenthood. Nevertheless, her opponent seized on the information when it was revealed, trashing her as an opportunist.

“It’s never been cynical and it’s never been for the purpose of politics,” Salazar tells Rolling Stone. “I was active in the community but I’d never had political ambitions. The political evolution that I experienced, it informs who I am,” she says. “It informs everything that I do.”

***

After her day outside housing court, Salazar and I ride the F and M trains back to her campaign headquarters in Bushwick. That we had to take two unreliable trains from one part of Brooklyn into Manhattan, and then back into Brooklyn just to get where we were going, is another issue that fuels Salazar’s politics. Like most New Yorkers, she knows what it’s like to panic on a train platform over a mystery delay, and she pledges to work to stabilize and expand service.

As the M train crawls over the Williamsburg Bridge, Salazar tells me about how she — a self-described introvert — decided to campaign for political office.

“I was on the train platform on my way to work when my friend texted me and said ‘Someone needs to challenge [Rep.] Dilan.’” That friend was Nick Rizzo, Democratic District Leader for Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Salazar agreed but says she had zero interest in doing it herself. She didn’t think she could afford to quit her job as an organizer with the progressive group Jews for Racial & Economic Justice or that she had the personality of a politician. This was back in February, when it simply made no sense that a young, female Latina could stage a viable campaign against an older male Democratic incumbent. But her hard-no slowly became a soft-no.

“I became used to the idea that this could be realistic,” she says. She talked to her boss, she talked to other DSA people, she talked to community members, she talked to her friends, and, by spring, they convinced her that she should run, and that the time was now.

“At first I was terrified,” Salazar tells me. “I’m not now.”

But that was July.

***

It’s a warm night in early August and the guys from Chapo Trap House, the politics and humor podcast, are hosting a fundraiser for Salazar at the Well, a large, indoor/outdoor bar in Bushwick. The show features New York AG candidate Teachout, who challenged Cuomo for the governorship four years ago, and a spate of other 2018 female comedians. Ocasio-Cortez was supposed to come but had flown to Hawaii last minute to campaign for progressive congressional candidate Kaniela Ing. Despite her absence, the space is overflowing with people, most of whom look to be in their 20s and 30s.  

Teachout bounds onstage to loud reggae. She draws laughs as she rags on Dilan and Cuomo.

“You put a ‘D’ next to your name and take a lot of real estate money,” she says, referencing Dilan’s apparent electoral strategy. She compares her experience with Cuomo to Salazar’s with Dilan: Both men seemed to put a lot of work into torpedoing the challenge from the left — yet acted, publicly, as if they were barely aware of it. “To this day, Andrew Cuomo has still never publicly said my name,” Teachout says. In August, the New York Times endorsed Teachout over Letitia James, Cuomo’s favored candidate.

Comedian Sydnee Washington gets up and talks about how hard life can be in the city, compared to unrealistic depictions of fabulous New York lifestyles.

“We used to watch that stupid-ass Sex and the City … [Carrie] met Big waiting for a cab?”

That same show propelled Cuomo’s current challenger, Nixon, to fame. Nixon, recently endorsed by the DSA, and Salazar have co-endorsed each other and have canvassed together. She has not withdrawn her support in the wake of Salazar’s scandals. “Cynthia is proud to be one of thousands of women across the country running for office for the first time, calling for a more progressive vision,” her campaign spokeswoman tells Rolling Stone. “She believes it’s important for those women to stand together and elevate one another’s voices, which is why she endorsed so many of the IDC challengers and other insurgents like Julia running against corporate Democrats. Together, these women are saying that Democratic Socialism’s vision of health care, housing and education as human rights isn’t a fantasy — it should be our reality.”

When Salazar comes up to speak, she shyly apologizes for the quality of her comedic material. “I’m only funny by accident,” she jokes. Noting the large crowd, she says when she first announced her senate challenge on April 18th in Brooklyn’s Maria Hernandez park, there were so few people there that the only person who asked a question was a random stranger wandering through the area.

As her speech builds momentum, she criticizes the Democratic establishment for hyperventilating about democratic socialism. “They claim socialism is off-putting to people. What people?” she wonders. “When we talk about democratic socialism, people don’t blink. It shows how out of touch the establishment is.”

Later, I ask Washington, the comedian, a person of color who is openly gay, what made her support Salazar’s candidacy. “Everyone is living above their means here. There’s no compassion, all everyone thinks is, ‘I gotta survive.’ And if someone is running on a platform of compassion, then they’re running with the right purpose.”

***

On August 23rd, two weeks after the Chapo event, Tablet magazine published a story that questioned Salazar’s Jewish heritage and emphasized that she’d been born in Miami (other outlets reported her birthplace as Colombia, which her campaign failed to correct. As mentioned, Salazar had previously told reporters she was born in Miami and chalks up the error to confusion by staffers). The story also chronicled the political conservatism of her early college years.

On one extreme, Salazar was instantly deemed a fraud. The New York TimesBari Weiss promptly  tweeted: “The candidate is running on her identity as a Colombian immigrant and Jew of color. But it seems she is neither of those things.” Her defenders pointed out that undergoing an evolution in your politics and identity in your early 20s should be allowed and that a journalistic deep-dive into whether she was truly “Jewish” would not have occured if she weren’t a woman of color.

Julia Salazar, center, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, right, meet constituents at an event for Salazar’s campaign for New York State Senate in New York, Aug. 30th, 2018. Scrutiny of Salazar’s history has revealed inconsistencies in her background that threaten to undermine her candidacy. Photo credit: Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times/Redux

The first time I speak with Salazar following the Tablet piece, we joke about whether she’d survive her first political scandal. But she takes responsibility and says she wished she’d had a better media strategy from the start.  

“I regret not having the foresight to anticipate being misunderstood. That I didn’t insist on a dedicated messaging and press operation. We never had that. It’s been learning as we go with best practices for campaigning,” she says. “This experience has shown me the importance of making messaging extremely clear.” She denies leveraging a false identity for political reasons.

Then, on August 30th, two weeks before the primary, an article in the New York politics magazine City & State questioned her story of coming from a working class family and the frequency of her visits to Colombia. Her brother and mother claimed a middle class existence — including a nice house in Jupiter, Florida. Yet, even as they disputed her claims of hardship, they noted that there had been times the family struggled financially, especially following her parents’ divorce. (The reporters wondered if Salazar’s mom counted as a single mother since she got child support from her father. The answer is, yes, one is still a single mother, even if the father pays legally mandated child support.)

Salazar tells Rolling Stone that a lot of the confusion has arisen from genuine miscommunication and her inability to remember exact details from early childhood, like the precise number of times her family went to Colombia, or what year her parents mortgaged a home in Miami.

“But I’m not comparing my narrative to anyone else’s,” she says, “and I’ve never insisted on some singular immigrant narrative that’s not mine.”

***

On a drizzly Saturday in September, just six days before the state primary, Ocasio-Cortez gives an electric speech at Continental Army Plaza in Brooklyn. Nixon, lieutenant governor candidate Jumaane Williams and Teachout are all there, alongside community members and activists. At one point, they sing “Happy Birthday” to Bernie Sanders. “[We] must cleanse the bad, cleanse the wrong, cleanse the pain of the past,” Ocasio-Cortez declares. “And to imbue ourselves with hope and to take responsibility for our lives and our future!”

“Charging forward means we must support candidates that reject all corporate lobbyist cash,” she said.

Salazar is the next candidate to speak. It had been a tough week. Beyond the Hernandez saga, the Daily Caller went so far as to insinuate she had secret ties to Russia because she’d once been to a party with the writer Max Blumenthal. Nevertheless, Salazar is there as scheduled, and activist Nomiki Konst introduces her as “the next person to take on the machine in special interests!” But an astute attendee might notice that other candidates with close races coming up don’t enthusiastically praise Salazar by name.

Yet campaign posters of her face are still up everywhere. Members of her staff confirm that they’re still behind her. She looks rattled, but she’s never exactly looked comfortable onstage. The crowd chants “Julia!” and applauds her, with no less enthusiasm than at other points over the past few months.

The truth is, Salazar has never been the “next” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as many publications have tried to brand her. Ocasio-Cortez is electric and charismatic, especially in person; it’s no wonder she spent her summer jetting around the country to boost the profiles of other insurgent campaigns.

Salazar is shy and not a natural in front of crowds. But also, a big part of her pitch is that she’s a very reluctant politician, who agreed to run because she cares about people and policies that might makes their lives better.

Which brings us back to the question: Was she simply the wrong candidate for the race? Dilan’s last challenger, Debbie Medina, stopped campaigning months before the primary when it was revealed she’d abused her son as a child — her son went on to beat his then-girlfriend’s toddler to death. Medina still got roughly 40 percent of the vote.

Salazar’s mother, Christine, laughs at the idea of her daughter as a power-hungry political animal, willing to lie just to get ahead, and reiterates that she only wants to help other people, and is from the “you work your ass off class,” like her mother. “She’s always been … going back as long as I can remember, from age 14, a real fighter for the underdog. At every level. She really wants to help others. The people of Brooklyn…if she gets elected, she will be their advocate.”

On September 10th, three days before the primary, Princeton historian Matt Karp cautioned that Salazar’s experience would discourage others from taking on the status quo. “Now we see what happens when an ordinary person  —  bound to the ordinary extraordinary complexities of a life lived outside the confines of a resume  —  challenges the power of a political elite,” he wrote on Medium. He called on everyone to take a deep breath about the scandals and focus on Salazar’s politics, not the lurid headlines.

I flashed back to something Salazar had said two days before onstage. “What we are doing here today truly is revolutionary,” she started off. “Wealth and power in this country and in New York state are concentrated in the hands of so few. And those few want all of us to be divided so that it will remain that way. They want us to be divided and distracted because they know that when all of us work together, when we remain focused on our common goal and on this fight, that we can actually win, and we can actually create a New York that works for all of us.”

Summer had come and gone; New York was once again cold and rainy, and it was starting to get dark earlier. I realized that, even after all these weeks, the Salazar story might be less about her and more about the ecosystem in which she found herself. For every Twitter obsessive looking for the next tabloid-y detail, there are 10 potential voters waiting in line back at housing court. Will they care more about scandalous headlines and identity politics, or the fact that their current representative seemed confused when asked about family homelessness?

This story has been updated to correct “Grand Army Plaza” to “Continental Army Plaza” and to more precisely reflect Nick Rizzo’s job title.