How Did Julia Salazar's State Senate Campaign Become a National News Story?
First-time candidate Julia Salazar's bid to unseat a New York state senator snowballed into a series of national stories about her personal history.
Jose Alvarado for Broadly
Julia Salazar’s bid to unseat New York state Senator Martin Dilan will come to a close with the 27-year-old first-time Latina candidate battling a conservative outlet she says outed her as a victim of sexual assault.
On Tuesday, just two days before her primary, Salazar tried to preempt an impending story from the Daily Caller, exposing her as one of a number of women to accuse Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign media spokesman of sexual assault.
“I’ve been informed that a story is about to run which identifies me as a victim of sexual assault,” Salazar wrote in a tweet. “Before this runs, I want to come forward and confirm that I was a victim of sexual assault by David Keyes—the Prime Minister of Israel’s spokesperson to foreign media. This story appears to be an effort to cast doubt upon my, and other women’s, accusations against Keyes.”
The Daily Caller’s story, which published a few hours after Salazar’s tweet, claimed that when a reporter from the site contacted Salazar’s campaign, a spokesperson confirmed she had been one of Keyes’ alleged victims without asking The Daily Caller to protect her identity.
“We don’t out victims of sexual assault against their will,” Christopher Bedford, the Daily Caller’s editor-in-chief, tells Broadly by phone Wednesday. “If she or her spokesperson had not confirmed that to us then we would have no story. It would not have been published.”
Salazar’s campaign did not immediately respond to Broadly’s request for comment.
“For one, I never wanted to speak about this publicly,” Salazar told Jezebel on Tuesday. “There are reporters who I spoke to at a great length on background about it, but I never wanted to speak publicly about it, never wanted attention on it, so for people to tie it to anything else in my life, or try to conflate me being sexually assaulted with anything else that’s being reported is really, I think, it’s really cynical and really just appalling.”
The Daily Caller’s report is just the latest in a string of local and national news stories investigating the granular details of Salazar's political campaign, which have more recently come to include a miscellany of articles on her personal life.
Following a story last month from Gothamist reporting on Salazar's pro-life activism as a student at Columbia University and record as a former registered Republican, a slew of outlets uncovered inconsistencies in crucial parts of Salazar’s biography and raised questions about her past.
Tablet cast doubt on Salazar’s immigrant story, Jewish roots and progressive credentials; City and State interviewed Salazar’s family members, who contradicted her account of her working class background; The New York Times reported that Salazar hadn’t actually graduated from Columbia; and, in a bizarre twist, last week the Daily Mail published a story about accusations that Salazar had once had an affair with former Mets player Keith Hernandez, and stole thousands of dollars from his and ex-wife Kai Hernandez’s home.
Salazar has responded to each of these claims, releasing public statements and giving interviews clarifying her upbringing, political evolution, religious identity, and involvement with Hernandez, whom she called a “father figure” whose ex-wife had “humiliated” her—and gotten her arrested—for allegations that were ultimately unsubstantiated. (Salazar sued Hernandez for libel and was awarded $20,000 in damages. The charges against her were dropped.)
But a larger question stands: How did a first-time run for a seat in New York’s state senate snowball into a national news story?
“I think Julia benefitted from this intense press excitement and attention immediately after [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez won, and then, with that, came other types of scrutiny,” Emma Whitford, a Brooklyn-based freelance reporter, tells Broadly.
Whitford has been following Salazar’s campaign since the spring, which is when she said she first pitched a straightforward Q&A to the now-shuttered Village Voice on Salazar’s primary challenge to Dilan. When she handed in the piece, Whitford says an editor told her they were no longer interested in the piece and didn’t run it. Around the same time, Dave Colon, another Brooklyn-based freelancer, ran into the same problem: He says at first publications rejected his suggestions for a story on Salazar.
“To me, this was an important local story: If Salazar she wins, she knocks off this piece of the establishment machine and the landscape of north Brooklyn totally changes with regards to these other power players,” Colon tells me by phone. “But nationally she’s just one person, who would be a freshman in the New York state senate if she won.”
“I think Julia benefitted from this intense press excitement and attention immediately after Ocasio-Cortez won, and then, with that, came other types of scrutiny."
But things changed after Ocasio-Cortez’s historic upset. Local outlets began to pay more attention to the insurgent candidates running on the state level, and national outlets realized they had missed out on a big story by not covering Ocasio-Cortez’s primary. Suddenly, dozens of reporters like Whitford and Colon could find homes for their profiles on Salazar. (One of these many profiles lives on Broadly’s site.)
Like Ocasio-Cortez, Salazar is Latina; she’s a democratic socialist; she’s a first-time candidate; and she’s trying to unseat an entrenched incumbent. Ocasio-Cortez has also endorsed Salazar as well as canvassed and campaigned for her, thrusting Salazar into the spotlight along with Ocasio-Cortez, who’s been called the Democratic Party’s “rising star.”
“Reporters were grasping after Ocasio-Cortez’s victory,” Whitford says. “Here was someone with obvious surface-level parallels in your backyard—a backyard not just to local news outlets, but to national ones too.”
Some characterize the stories about Salazar’s background as sexist smears, and argue that they have eclipsed far more important ones about her opponent, Dilan, whom, in just the last three days, has been exposed for reportedly failing to report campaign donations since 2016, and taking tens of thousands in real estate money from a “shadowy group called the Northeast Brooklyn Democratic Club.”
“Julia Salazar is a 27-year-old woman who wanted to run for office to protect affordable housing and get corporate money out of politics—and the way she was treated by corporate Democrats and the far right shows the lengths they’ll go to tear down progressive female candidates,” a Democratic source close to Salazar’s campaign tells Broadly.
Members of the Democratic Socialists of America's (DSA) North Brooklyn chapter, many of whom make up Salazar's campaign staff, have also continued to stand by Salazar in the face of unrelenting bad press. In a Medium post last week, DSA member Maia Rosenberg asserted that sending Salazar, an advocate for affordable housing, single-payer health care, and reproductive freedom, to the state senate would be a "feminist act."
But Dilan's campaign believes Salazar has betrayed voters by misrepresenting herself and her candidacy, making it all the more clear to voters that Dilan is the better choice.
“Marty Dilan has been a stable progressive leader for North Brooklyn for a long time, always voting the interests of his constituents no matter who has contributed to his campaign,” a spokesperson for Dilan’s campaign tells Broadly by email. “It’s not a surprise that a challenger who just parachuted into the district last year to register for the first time as a Democrat to run … would not know that.
“I can’t imagine voters would judge her based on whether or not she is an immigrant, or had a $600,000 trust fund while pleading poverty, or any of the other fanciful creations she has come up with to create an identity she thinks will help her campaign,” the spokesperson added. “But voters do care if she lies about all of that.”
With fewer than 24 hours left until New York voters head to the polls, it remains unclear whether the national coverage on Salazar will impact the outcome of a state senate race in District 18, a slice of Brooklyn with roughly 300,000 residents, just one-third of which are registered Democrats.
When Whitford and Colon hit the pavement on Monday to take the temperature in the district for a co-bylined Daily Beast story, they found the media coverage of Salazar had an uneven effect on residents there.
“Oh is she a Democrat?” one resident said when a Salazar canvasser knocked on his door, according to Whitford and Colon's report. “We’ll remember her name when we vote for Cynthia Nixon."
Sean McElwee, the co-founder of progressive research firm Data for Progress, and a close spectator of New York races, says he feels confident Salazar can still pull out a win on Thursday.
“The media circus may have the effect of depressing turnout among some supporters, but her base groups like Make the Road Action and DSA are strong in the district,” McElwee says. “For most of these voters, issues like housing are key voting issues. Salazar is still the favorite to win.”