CityViews: NY Desperately Needs More Advocates in Office

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Matt Wade photography

The New York State Capitol.

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City Limits doesn’t do endorsements. But as part of our Election Watch 2018 coverage of the races culminating with Primary Day (September 13) or Election Day (November 6), we invite supporters of candidates to submit their endorsements of the people they want to lead New York. Send your op-ed to editor@citylimits.org.
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Every time incumbent legislators—particularly Democrats—face a challenger we hear the same argument: the incumbent has “experience,” while the opponent is unqualified because she or he is new to politics. No doubt experience is important, but we have to ask: what kind?

That’s exactly the question I’ve been contemplating as I watch Julia Salazar run for New York State Senate in North Brooklyn.

Julia actually has a background we need more of in our politics: instead of following the typical path for running for office—political staff jobs, community board appointments, or amassing business wealth—she comes to politics organically having served for years as a community advocate and coalition builder.

With her grounding in the reality of our state’s struggles and potentials, and the process by which both impact our most marginalized communities, Julia will not only do the job as a legislator effectively, but her perspective and experience is one Albany—and our politics as a whole—desperately need.

I know Julia from our shared work with Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a coalition of dozens of community organizations and hundreds of partners across New York City dedicated to real police accountability, transparency, and criminal justice reform. CPR is one of the most genuinely diverse coalitions in our state: representing people from all over New York City, organizing folks from all backgrounds and identities, and composed of all types of vital organizations—from large legal providers to policy shops to the most cutting-edge grassroots advocacy groups such as VOCAL-NY, Make the Road, and Picture the Homeless.

Maintaining common cause among organizations with different structures, priorities, and member bases is neither easy nor inevitable. It takes patience, strategic thinking, and an unwavering commitment to active listening and learning. Julia exemplified these values as a leader within CPR, and would undoubtedly do so the same were she be elected to represent her district in Albany.

A core part of CPR’s strategy for winning change in our city is to target the halls of power with direct action, strategic campaigning, and mass mobilization—whether at City Hill in Manhattan or the state legislature in Albany. Julia played a major role in all aspects of CPR during her time with the coalition; working to raise the profiles of affected communities in some of the major fights of our time, including relentlessly pressuring the New York City Council to focus on police accountability, through the passage of major bills such as the Right to Know Act.

Getting tough legislation passed is almost always a long, fraught and complex battle. Whether you are an elected or an advocate, it’s not easy to motivate, mobilize, or message when the cameras are off, but organizers within CPR accomplish these important and difficult tasks effectively behind the scenes.

Julia was one of those key people in the coalition, who along with many other activists, worked tirelessly organizing communities to pack the courts during the trials of police officers who had murdered fellow New Yorkers, leading day-long lobbying visits in Albany, supporting the families of victims of police brutality, and taking a lead role in the March with a Purpose event last April, which sought again to shine a spotlight on the NYPD for its brazen and unaccountable murder of Bronx teen Ramarley Graham.

Too often, as we all know too well, Albany is a world unto itself, closed to outsiders, cut off from the public eye, prone to ugly backroom dealing and corrupted outcomes. To change that, we need legislators who can build diverse and effective political coalitions, who are nimble and responsive to social movements, and and who can organize both in the halls of power and back at home in our city. Most critically, we need elected representatives to pass laws that are informed and driven by the experiences of the New Yorkers most directly affected by state policy and legislation.

Julia Salazar has spent her time before this campaign doing the type of deeply critical political work that is far too unrecognized in our country: fighting for communities and supporting the voices of those ignored, undermined, and targeted by the powerful and their allies in elected office.

I support Julia in her campaign because she has the experience, perspective, and commitment to do big things for New York—and to do so in a strategic way and from the right perch. The time is now, more than ever, to send someone to Albany who understands politics in our state from the people’s perspective, not from a politician’s perspective.

Kumar Rao is a NYC-based attorney and racial justice advocate.

Julia Salazar faces incumbent State Sen. Martin Malavé Dilan in a primary for the 18th senatorial district, which covers a stretch of Brooklyn running from Greenpoint to Cypress Hills.

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