In the 16 years since Martin Malavè Dilan was sworn in as a New York state senator, market-rate rents in the North Brooklyn communities he represents have skyrocketed, transforming parts of working-class neighborhoods, including Williamsburg and Bushwick, into playgrounds for mostly young, affluent gentrifiers. Dilan, a Bushwick native whose parents came from Puerto Rico, describes himself as a “champion” of tenants’ rights and a bulwark against abusive landlords – but he has repeatedly come under fire for accepting donations from real estate developers and landlords’ associations. And this year, his tenure may be ended by Julia Salazar, a community organizer and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, who also happens to be a transplant from Florida.
Salazar, 27, is part of a wave of young, progressive insurgent candidates – many of whom are women – taking on longtime Democratic incumbents in this year’s primaries. Salazar’s political career couldn’t be more distinct from Dilan’s. He came up in Brooklyn’s political machine under longtime county Democratic party boss Vito Lopez, served on the New York City Council for 10 years, and is running for his ninth term in the state Senate. She started her political career as a grassroots organizer and she works with groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Communities United for Police Reform and the DSA. Salazar is running to Dilan’s left, with a platform that includes single-payer health care, tuition-free public universities, expanding protections for undocumented immigrants and establishing universal rent control.
Rent regulation is Salazar’s biggest point of contention with Dilan and it has emerged as one of her key policy planks. Salazar, who pledged not to take donations from the real estate industry, has criticized the incumbent for taking money from developers and organizations like the Neighborhood Preservation Political Action Fund and the Rent Stabilization Association, two pro-landlord lobbying groups that often give to Republicans. At least 15 percent of the nearly $1.35 million Dilan has received in donations over the course of his political career has come from the real estate, insurance or financial industries, according to the National Institute for Money in Politics.
During his time on the City Council, Dilan was one of 28 members who voted in favor of vacancy decontrol – a policy that allows landlords to raise the rents after tenants leave rent-stabilized apartments, creating an incentive to push out rent-stabilized tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods – though he has since changed course. Dilan has repeatedly said he regrets his vote, and he has introduced legislation at the state level that would make it a felony for landlords to drive rent-regulated tenants out of their apartments. His bill never made it out of committee and is unlikely to pass unless Democrats regain control of the state Senate in this fall’s elections.
The failure of Dilan’s bill illustrates the question some Democrats might have for Salazar and her supporters: Why is taking out a mainstream Democrat the best use of activist energy or donor dollars? As of mid-July, Salazar’s campaign has raised nearly $120,000, 95 percent of which was from individual small donors, according to her most recent campaign finance report. Hundreds of young progressives have canvassed and phonebanked on her behalf.
Besides tighter rent regulation, state Senate Republicans have recently blocked Democratic initiatives including stricter gun control, renewing speed cameras in school zones and expanding abortion rights and voting rights. There are Democrats challenging Republican state senators in districts with Democratic registration advantages in southern Brooklyn, on Long Island and just an hour north of New York City. Then there are the Democratic primary challenges to the former members of the Independent Democratic Conference, which shared power with the GOP, and Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the Republicans. Wouldn’t any of these be more useful targets for progressives?
Dilan’s campaign goes even further and argues that a leftier Democrat would harm the party’s state Senate caucus and the district. Graham Parker, a spokesman for Dilan’s campaign, told City & State that Salazar’s DSA-influenced policies would create rifts between Democrats and make passing legislation impossible. He even implied, without providing any evidence, that Salazar wouldn’t be a part of the Democratic caucus. “What we haven’t heard is how the opponent will work to bring people together. Or, who the opponent will conference with,” Parker said in an email to City & State. “It’s sounding like we have a conference of one. This September voters are going to see identical platforms. Their choice is between an ideology, or a Democratic Majority that will deliver."
Salazar is a registered Democrat running in the party’s primary. A political role model, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, caucuses with the Democratic Party.
When asked whether he was saying Salazar would refuse to conference with Democrats if elected, Parker evaded the question. “Ask the opponent what no compromise means. Or, on what will the opponent, or the organization, not compromise?” Parker said in an email, referring to the DSA. “Has the organization even agreed not to compromise; maybe on some things. Whether or not to conference with a Democrat, any Democrat, leader or not.”
Aside from casting vague aspersions on Salazar’s loyalty, Parker argued Salazar would be ineffective at legislating in collaboration with mainstream Democrats. “On many occasions the opponent has stated that compromise is not an option,” said Parker, in a subsequent email. “That (means) the opponent will chose party ideology, above all else, including working with the Democrats the opponent loathes so much.”
In a statement through spokesman Michael Kinnucan, Salazar called Parker’s insinuation that she wouldn’t conference with Democrats “absurd.”
“I look forward to caucusing and working closely with (my) fellow Democrats in the Senate and to helping elect Andrea Stewart-Cousins as the first female Senate majority leader in New York history,” Salazar said.
In a phone interview, Salazar told City & State that the ability to make deals with moderates and Republicans isn’t as important as speaking constituents’ language, particularly given Dilan’s track record on tenants’ rights. “In order to pass strong, effective legislation that changes people’s lives – like ending vacancy decontrol certainly would – it requires that legislators have their ear to the ground and that they work to bring constituents into the legislative process,” Salazar said. “A lot of what we do with insurgent and/or grassroots-supported candidates is that we bring these voices in. My platform has been developed by people who are impacted by these issues.”
Salazar’s supporters argue that it is Dilan who poses a threat to the passing of progressive legislation. Susan Kang, an organizer with No IDC NY, told City & State that Parker’s dismissal of Salazar’s ability to compromise was “insulting” to her experience. “Julia is an organizer. That’s what she does for a living,” Kang said. “She knows how to make connections, how to build coalitions. She’s not a newcomer to the political process.”
And, Kang added, Dilan is a “functional equivalent” to the IDC, despite not having belonged to the group. When asked for clarification as to how a mainline Democrat could be the equivalent of a group that caucused with Republicans, Kang said she didn’t “mean to suggest that Dilan was working in a coalition with the IDC members,” but that he “represents the same interests in Albany as the IDC.” She pointed to the donations he has received from the real estate industry and other corporate entities as proof of this, as well as a $5,000 campaign contribution Dilan accepted in 2016 from state Sen. Jeff Klein, who led the IDC at the time. That donation, according to Parker, “paid for the lunches of Democrats who volunteered on Election Day” and had no bearing on Dilan’s loyalty to the Democratic Party.
While many progressives might object to taking donations from Klein or real estate interests, well-informed Albany observers would note that Republican control of the state Senate has been the far more significant obstacle passing progressive legislation than has than any non-IDC Democrats’ behavior, because the GOP won’t bring Democratic measures to a vote – even when a bill commands majority support.
Still, Salazar supporters told City & State that controlling housing costs is among the most important issues for many low- and middle-income New Yorkers and that, when it comes to tenants’ rights, Dilan would do more harm than good. One volunteer with Salazar’s campaign, who agreed to speak on background because he works for an elected official, told City & State that Salazar’s background in tenants’ rights activism encouraged him to help her campaign, particularly since the state’s current rent laws will be expiring during the 2019-20 legislative session. “I think we’re reaching a breaking point on whether we’re going to be a city that allows working-class people to live here or become a playground for the wealthy,” the volunteer added. “Given what we’re going to see in 2019, I really don’t trust Dilan to make the right decisions.”
Parker, meanwhile, told City & State that the senator would vote in favor of pro-tenant legislation. “He’s in support of all of the tenant protections that have been introduced in the Senate on the Democratic conference line and all the reforms. He hopes to be part of a small Democratic majority that will get those through,” Parker said.
Darma Diaz, the female state committee member for the 54th Assembly district, told City & State that the senator’s critics are “dead wrong.”
“He’s always worked to keep people in the community. He’s fought for affordability, and ownership. Both are important to community preservation. I’m not hearing that from the other side, the way they talk, it’s obvious they don’t understand this. They seem to think the best we can hope for is an affordable unit, when affordability means a lot of things. For one, affordable for who? For us?” Diaz said in an emailed statement provided to City & State by Parker.
“It is gentrification that’s behind displacement in our communities,” Diaz added. “It’s greedy unscrupulous landlords. Not Martin.”
Salazar is not the first opponent to call Dilan out for taking donations from the real estate industry while claiming to champion tenants. His 2016 primary challenger, Williamsburg community organizer Debbie Medina, similarly questioned his commitment to tenants’ rights. During that election cycle, Dilan told reporters that Medina was “running to take the neighborhood back as a socialist Democrat” with the help of “the new people moving in,” meaning gentrifiers.
That criticism may apply as well to Salazar’s campaign, which relies on a cadre of volunteers – many of whom are members of the DSA, which is sometimes maligned as a group of mostly white, male “brocialists” – to spread her message.
It’s an inconvenient truth about New York’s progressive insurgent candidates that they are typically educated newcomers to the district and their strongest supporters mostly are too. Data from the June congressional primary elections show that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who grew up in Westchester and attended Boston University – did better in her successful challenge to Rep. Joseph Crowley in gentrifying neighborhoods in western Queens than in many of the district’s majority-Latino areas. The surprisingly strong showings of fellow congressional challengers Suraj Patel and Adem Bunkeddeko followed the same pattern.
Progressive activists argue that the important question is whether the candidates are promoting policies that benefit working-class people. “The critique that the DSA benefits from gentrification is obvious from the data,” Sean McElwee, a writer and data analyst who hosts a weekly leftist happy hour, told City & State. “The real question is, what are the policy platforms that they’re going to put out. The incumbent has not done anything to protect affordable housing in this district.”
McElwee argued that with Democrats likely to take the majority in the state Senate this year, “it’s very important” to have young politicians in the Senate “to make sure progressives don’t get steamrolled. … This is something that the left should be doing often: Creating ideological stakes within their own party while in power, while also working to defeat the opposing party.”
But the incumbent and his allies say that ideology matters less than roots in the district. Bob Liff, a spokesman for the Brooklyn Democratic Party, characterized Salazar as an outsider who is trying to represent a district she doesn’t understand. “Marty Dilan’s constituents know the work he has done for them, block by block, for a long time and will be well served by his leadership when Democrats retake the state Senate this fall,” Liff told City & State in an email. “His challenger is apparently trying to parachute into a district where she has not lived for long and where she has no record of involvement or achievement. Democrats will see through that.”
Salazar’s campaign counters that the enthusiastic support she has received shows there is an appetite for new leadership. Isabel Anreus, Salazar’s field manager, told City & State that more than 1,000 people have signed up to volunteer through Salazar’s website, about 500 of whom are active, recurring volunteers. “The majority of them – a solid 80 percent – are millennials. A good quarter of them are women,” Anreus said. And while plenty of volunteers come from the DSA’s ranks, Anreus noted that grassroots organizations like the racial and economic justice group New York Communities for Change and the immigrant rights’ group Make the Road, the latter of which endorsed Salazar earlier this month, have sent volunteers canvassing as well.
Salazar, who moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, is aware of the stereotype many of her campaign volunteers embody. “There’s this narrative of young, white gentrifiers, ‘How dare they move into the district and try to fight gentrification and be in solidarity with their neighbors,’” she said in a phone interview with City & State. “This is actually what we need. We need cross-class solidarity. We need to unite and say that the rent laws – the harmful housing policies – are hurting all of us.”
If Salazar does win with the help of gentrifiers who replaced rent-stabilized tenants, one could say Dilan sowed the seeds of his own destruction.
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