Of the many Democratic state Senate primaries to watch this year in New York, the 18th District race between incumbent Martin Malave Dilan and challenger Julia Salazar is the rare one that doesn’t involve complicated arguments about the now-defunct Independent Democratic Conference.
And in the absence of an argument over who is or isn’t a “real Democrat,” the race that will culminate on September 13 has become a referendum on another side of New York City politics: the changing face of power from a longtime officeholder to a younger newcomer, in this case one who represents a coalition of longtime residents and newer residents looking to send one of their own to Albany.
Dilan, the eight-term state Senator from the district representing a swathe of Brooklyn and Queens stretching from Greenpoint to Cypress Hills, is no stranger to primaries, having fended off challenges in the last three election cycles.
Similar to the race he finds himself in now, Dilan was in 2014 and 2016 challenged by neighborhood activist Debbie Medina, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who had the group’s official backing in 2016. But while Medina was unable to ride a wave of enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders to victory (and was hurt by revelations of child abuse late in the race), Salazar has caught her own wave of interest following fellow democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shock victory in her own primary race against incumbent Representative Joe Crowley. As Salazar has gone from a sparsely-attended kickoff rally in April to appearances in front of a packed house at an East Williamsburg beer hall in August, it suddenly seems possible that she can capture the district that went so heavily for Bernie Sanders in 2016.
That new national attention, combined with a second straight race where he has a DSA target on his back, has Dilan casting himself somewhat paradoxically as the underdog in this year’s primary.
“Basically, nothing has changed [compared to precious races] with the exception that we now have an outsider who’s a former Republican coming into the district to run and she has basically a national organization supporting her,” Dilan tells City Limits, making a reference to Salazar’s youthful flirtation with Floridian conservatism and four-year residency in the 18th District. “She’s really not my opponent. My opponent is this national organization that’s supporting her,” Dilan says about Salzar’s endorsement by the national chapter of the DSA.
But Salazar, a tenant organizer in a Harlem building she formerly lived in and an activist with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, disputes the idea that she’s an outside agitator. She tells City Limits that Medina’s peeling off 40 percent of the vote in 2016 despite her campaign basically shutting down for two months shows democratic socialism has appeal in the 18th District. Salazar says her push for statewide benefits that reflect her democratic socialist values, like universal rent control, reflects the same organizing that has been going on in the district for years and that affordable housing access is “an issue that affects every inch of the district and every person in the district in a range of ways.”
In addition, Salazar pointed to her local work like speaking out on issues like the proposed construction of a 27-story tower on Wyckoff Avenue, which residents say could cause displacement, and the death of Luz Gonzalez, a four-year-old girl killed by a hit-and-run driver in Bushwick in July, as examples of her connection to the district. Salazar has also picked up endorsements from local organizations and unions like Make the Road Action, New York Communities for Change, the Working Families Party and the Communications Workers of America.
“District 18 isn’t an island;” Salazar says. “Brooklyn voters understand that many of the challenges our community is facing are statewide issues that demand bold, statewide solutions,” on issues like healthcare and affordable housing.
A long record
The issue of affordable housing is one that has dogged Dilan this year and previous years because of his vote as a City Council member in 1994 to permit vacancy decontrol, a process that has helped exacerbate the city’s affordable housing crisis through the loss of rent stabilized apartments and helped spark massive gentrification in Williamsburg, Greenpoint and Bushwick. That vote, and the over $200,000 he’s taken from real estate, insurance and finance-connected donors, have allowed both Medina and Salazar to cast him as a tool of the real-estate industry. “I’m going to accept funds, and if you look at my track record, I have not done anything that goes against my constituents,” Dilan says in response to a question on why he accepted money from donors like the landlord-friendly Rent Stabilization Association. “But if you want to send me a check, I’ll take it also,” Dilan says, laughing.
“He’s emerging now for the election, but for years he was not to be seen,” Marty Needleman, an attorney with Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A and an affordable housing advocate, says of Dilan’s affordable housing impact. “He’s not been out there, he’s not been a significant player at all,” Needleman says, allowing for the fact that it’s been difficult for Democrats to make a huge difference “on substantive lines” due to Republican control of the state Senate.
While he gave Dilan credit for the passage of the 2010 Loft Law, which gave stronger protections to tenants living in non-residential zoned lofts, TenantPAC’s Michael McKee wasn’t totally sold on Dilan’s place as a friend of the renter. “He told me personally in May that he recognizes [the vacancy decontrol vote] was a very bad vote and he regretted it,” McKee says. “Whether this has to do with the fact that he’s sincerely changed his mind or that he’s in a tough re-election fight, I don’t know.”
McKee pointed to Dilan’s slow embrace of the Albany legislation to end vacancy decontrol as an example of the Dilan’s lack of commitment to tenant protections, telling City Limits the senator refused to sign onto until recently. Dilan’s name can’t be found as a sponsor of the 2009-10, 2011-12 or 2013-14 versions of the bill that would reverse the rule that allows vacant rent-controlled or stabilized apartments to be taken out of the program, but he is a co-sponsor for the first time on the 2015-16 version of the bill. Despite this change of heart by Dilan and the fact that he sat down with an interview with the group, Salazar won the TenantPAC endorsement in this race.
“The reason we went with Julia is more to do with the fact that she represents the future,” McKee says. “One of my board members who’s 95 years old said ‘It’s time we let the young people run the world, let them do it.'”
Dilan’s campaign notes that in his first year in the Senate he voted against a law that gave the State Senate broader control over the city’s rent regulations. Beyond his embrace of more recent tenant-friendly legislation, Dilan says he is looking forward to using his seniority in a potential Democratic state Senate to secure more funding for public housing and perhaps another tenant member on the board of NYCHA (to assist the 22 developments in the district). Dilan pointed out he would be the head of the Senate’s Transportation Committee and the Democratic conference’s vote on the MTA Capital Review Board. In the Democratic Party conference pecking order, Dilan would rise to the level of assistant majority leader if the Democrats wound up controlling the Senate, and he says that he would use his new clout “for the benefit of the 18th senatorial district – and to make sure that people who have lived there their entire lives and the new people are welcome.”
Dilan also says he would work to ensure the state’s redistricting process resulted in districts that better reflected the state’s demographics and stopped “the stacking of New York City districts that has kept the Republicans in the majority for over 70 years.” Dilan served on the redistricting panel during the state Senate’s previous efforts and was a loud critic of the way a 63rd seat was added to the body. (Among his accomplishments since taking office, Dilan ranks the passage of Leandra’s Law, which makes it a felony to drive drunk with a child in the car, as his shining moment.)
Dilan disputes the idea that there’s a large ideological gulf between himself and Salazar. Asked by City Limits if he and Salazar had different political viewpoints, Dilan instead points to tangible results for his district, such as the construction of schools and affordable housing like the 100-percent affordable, 24-unit Knickerbocker Commons. “The buildings appear. People are living in them,” he says, contrasting that with what he says was Salazar’s own role in gentrifying the neighborhood by moving in to a market-rate apartment building in the district.
City Council Member Rafael Espinal, a Dilan ally whose district overlaps in part with District 18, described the senator as a champion of the district. “Locally, he has a long history here,” Espinal says. “If you walk around the Cypress Hills and East New York community where I’m from, you see the schools that were built on his watch, you see affordable housing built under his watch. He has a well-rounded background, and I think he’s done a good job for the community.”
An ambitious platform
In contrast to Dilan’s version of Salazar as a gentrifying outsider, her fans in the district maintain that even as a newcomer, she’s recognized the need to engage with the district and not just argue for a generalized progressive vision.
“Julia’s been doing everything you could ever want,” Brandon West, the president of reform club the New Kings Democrats (who endorsed Salazar), tells City Limits. “She’s reaching out to churches, reaching out to the community in a deep, sincere way, showing the example of what you’d want from a community-grown candidate.”
Salazar described her platform as “fighting for a society in which people will care for each other and working toward a society where people’s needs are cared for,” in an April interview. And to that end, she’s focused on access to affordable housing as a cornerstone of the campaign. She’s been critical of north Brooklyn’s upzonings, which she feels introduced too much unaffordable housing in the area, and says she’ll advocate for universal rent stabilization, a package of bills that repeal the vacancy decontrol law, limit major capital improvement rent hikes and expand the rent-stabilization system outside of New York City.
“When we’re presented with this political reality like we are at the federal level, progressives should be making more maximal demands and pushing much harder instead of being complacent, to protect the most vulnerable members of our communities,” Salazar explained as a governing policy that would see her push for things like universal single-payer healthcare.
Salazar’s demands are similar to those of fellow left-leaning candidates making headway in challenging members of the IDC, as well as the Cynthia Nixon/Jumaane Williams ticket, so she isn’t alone in calling for a robust left-wing vision of government. And Needleman, who’s been organizing in the district for 30 years, agreed with West’s assessment that Salazar isn’t advocating these ideas into the void.
“[Julia] reached out to me and to other people I know,” Needleman says. “She’s been at community events,” Needleman says. “And her supporters are many young people who have been involved, for example, at Community Board 1 meetings. There are a bunch of people that come and though they’re not members of the board yet, but they’re really challenging a revived vision of how things should be as opposed to letting bad things continue.”
Salazar’s campaign finance disclosures indicate that just under 15 percent, or 107 out of 722, of her individual donations have come from zip codes located in the district. About 83 percent of the donations were from elsewhere within New York State.
Salazar also originally filed $68,000 in “unitemized donations,” between her two financial disclosure reports, which campaign spokesman Michael Kinnucan chalked up to a misunderstanding on the part of campaign leadership, which thought it was standard practice not to list individual donations under $99. Kinnucan tells City Limits that the campaign has refiled the disclosure reports to include each individual donation, which he says averaged about $30.
Kinnucan says he was “bewildered” by Dilan seeking to make an issue of the unitemized donations, when he says the senator “raises over 90 percent of his money not from individual supporters but from lobbyists, business interests and PACs.”
Ghosts of the machine?
It wouldn’t be an election involving Dilan if the question of the old Vito Lopez machine didn’t come up. Dilan disputes the idea that he’s a machine politician or a piece of the formerly powerful Lopez organization. Dilan chalks that reputation up to the decision he made when he was first elected to the City Council in the early 1990s–a race in which he says he was opposed by the Democratic organization–that “I figured I had to work with the elected officials to benefit my community. So, that’s my only relationship is working with colleagues to make sure were not fighting each other,” he says.
Espinal, who says he shares the same East New York political club as Dilan, dismissed the idea of the incumbent as a machine man. “If the machine means a campaign club in East New York that’s run by volunteers, then I don’t know what a non-machine candidate would look like. The thing about Martin that people should know is that he’s a very independent person. He doesn’t try to control people under his own watch either. We’re in the same political club, but I went out my way to endorse Bernie Sanders while he supported Hillary Clinton, but at no point was there any tension between us.I think Martin is focused on what he feels is best for the people he’s serving.”
Dilan’s relationship with the machine is a complicated one. On the one hand, he and his son Erik (an Assemblyman) have steered millions of city and state dollars towards the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council, a Lopez-founded non-profit that’s active in the district. Erik, currently a member of the state Assembly, also had Lopez’s support in a primary challenge against Representative Nydia Velazquez in 2012 , which she responded to by supporting the primary opponent of the elder Dilan later that year.
On the other hand, Dilan supported a challenger to Lopez’s preferred candidate to take over his seat in the Assembly in 2013, and the eventual winner of that race, former Lopez ally Maritza Davila, threw her support behind Medina in 2016 when she took on Dilan.
Signs of something new
Whether it’s a legacy of Lopez or not, Salazar’s campaign has run up against a kind of smashmouth, old-school politics more reminiscent of the machine days. Protesters showed up to heckle her and Cynthia Nixon earlier this summer during a joint appearance in Bushwick, and Dilan has pushed Salazar on her connection to the district to the point of trying to sue her off the ballot for not meeting the state’s residency requirements to run for state Senate. It’s a kind of electoral style that’s rankled the New Kings Democrats and West, who called the move anti-democratic.
“It’s such a cynical way of looking at politics, it’s disgusting,” West says. “He’s just doing it to get her away from doing the campaign, and I think it tells you everything about what someone does when they get challenged. Do you speak to what you do well and try to let democracy do its thing or do you try to hurt democracy?”
The New Kings Democrats are emblematic of the political changes reshaping Bushwick, having formed in direct opposition to the way Lopez did politics. In their ten-year history, the group has seen one former board member elected to the City Council (Antonio Reynoso), currently has around 100 seats on the 3000-person Kings County Democratic Committee and is running “just under” 600 candidates for the committee this cycle according to West.
According to Reynoso, Salazar represents a newer wave of politicians who are built more from the ground up through years of activism as opposed to waiting around to be told it’s their turn, which he says makes for a more responsive government. “We need folks that are out there on the front lines, that are clearly visible in the work that they’re doing related to the issues that we care about. Julia is definitely gonna do that, she understands grassroots organizing,” he says.
Needleman also says that the younger crop of activists in the district are “less interested in the transactional stuff and more into a better world, a more democratic world. It’s less for me personally and more in support of my principles.”
The focus on principles and core values before they go into the legislative sausage machine in Albany is ultimately what West says the newer crop of activists say they’re looking for, especially with the possibility of a Democratic trifecta (control of the Assembly, state Senate and governor’s mansion) after November. A state Senate in Democratic hands has to have goals that go beyond incremental changes according to West, and Salazar represents a grander vision than incrementalism.
“If we get a Democratic Senate, we need to go in guns blazing, we need to have a really strong vision for that,” West says.