In North Brooklyn, New York, Democratic candidate Julia Salazar is running for state senate. Normally, a local race wouldn’t make national headlines, but the young Latina’s sprint for office has gained unconventional attention — likely because the candidate, herself, is unprecedented.
A 27-year-old Colombian-American Jew, backed by the Democratic Socialists of America, Salazar’s campaign gained a national audience when fellow democratic socialist New York Latina Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted one of the highest-ranking members of Congress. With all their similarities, mainstream media picked up her story, painting Salazar as the next young Latina progressive with the potential to defeat the establishment. But as the spotlight on Salazar widened, so did criticism around her campaign, as well as her uncertain identities.
In the weeks leading up to Salazar’s September 13 primaries, news outlets, family members and former classmates have questioned the contender’s religion, immigration status, socioeconomic background and liberal platform. Here, an effort to make sense of the growing controversies around the first-time Latina candidate.
1. Immigrant or Native
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Salazar was born in South Florida to a Colombian-born father, Luis, and a New Jersey-born Italian-American mother, Christine. While the candidate has noted her birthplace as Miami throughout her campaign, she has sometimes shared accounts that contradict this history. “My family immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia when I was a baby,” she said in an interview with Jacobin magazine. “I immigrated to this country with my family when I was very little,” she also said during a campaign stop. Her choice of words imply that she was born in Colombia and migrated with her parents to the United States as a baby, which both her brother and mother have said is untrue. Salazar has said that her words were “misconstrued,” and that she used “immigrated” as shorthand for her complicated upbringing. She claims that she was born in the U.S. but often flew to Colombia with her parents, spending a lot of time as a toddler and youth in the South American country. “It really shaped my early life, and we spent a lot of time there,” she told Vox. “To me, Colombia … was always my family’s home, when we were kids.” While Salazar’s brother, Alex, has said his sister is exaggerating on how often their family traveled to Colombia during their childhood, her mother corroborated her story, telling the New York Times her children went to Colombia at least a half-dozen times as kids.
2. Working-Class or Middle-Class
— pplswar (@pplswar) August 31, 2018
From her campaign site to interviews, Salazar has claimed she grew up in a working-class home, holding jobs as early as 14 years old “to help make ends meet.” But, in an interview with City and State, Christine said she never relied on her daughter for help. In response, Salazar told the Cut: “I didn’t work those jobs to support my own family. I did it to support myself to an extent. Like if I ever wanted to have a car to be able to drive to school, I would need to pay for the gas, for insurance. A lot of young people have these responsibilities. That’s not to say, woe is me at all. Just to say that I relied on my jobs in order to make up for what my family wouldn’t be able to really provide. It wasn’t like I was working for my lunch money.” While this could reasonably be another example of Salazar misspeaking, rather than explicitly lying, her brother told reporters “we were very much middle class,” adding that their house, pictured above, was in the wealthy Florida town of Jupiter, “Jupiter along the river, it was in a beautiful neighborhood.” In response, Salazar told Vox that with her parents’ divorce as children, “our class status changed up and down — quite a lot” and that her mother, the children’s primary caretaker, had to sometimes work two jobs to make ends meet. She alleges that her brother, a Republican, is challenging her narrative because of his political stance, a claim Alex has denied.
3. Jewish or Christian
On August 23, Tablet magazine ran a story that questioned the validity of Salazar’s Jewish identity, saying it was “largely self-created.” The writer spoke with Salazar’s brother, who said, “there was nobody in our immediate family who was Jewish.” Following the article, Salazar spoke with Jewish Currents on the matter. She claims that after speaking with her late father about their surname, he told her that it was a common name among Sephardic Jews — Jews of Spanish or Middle Eastern descent. This is what sparked the former Christian’s interest in the Jewish religion, with her, according to an interview with the Cut, converting to Reform Judaism in 2013 after being involved in Jewish life at Columbia University. In a letter published in The Forward on Sept. 5, her friends from college corroborated her story, writing “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.” Since the initial Tablet story, other Jews of color have spoken out about how their religious identity is questioned because of their ethnicity, race or late-life conversion.
4. Progressive or Conservative
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On August 20, the Gothamist published an article noting that Salazar was previously registered as a Republican and headed Columbia University’s pro-life organization, questioning the candidate’s progressive views on reproductive rights. Salazar did not deny either claims, telling the Cut that she grew up in a conservative Republican home where “Fox News was always on in this little TV in our kitchen.” Like many young people who leave their home and enter college, she said her politics have since changed. Now, running on a platform that includes reproductive justice, she says she is pro-choice and a member of the NYC DSA socialist feminist working group.
5. Victim or Culprit
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#ICYMI: Our Happy Hour fundraiser with The Jewish Vote was a smashing success. Candidate for Lt. Gov. Jumaane Williams (@jumaane.williams) was in attendance and NYC Council Member Brad Lander (@brad.lander) even dropped by to give his endorsement of our campaign!⠀ ⠀ "As a Latina Jew, I draw strength from the long history of Jewish social justice and Latinx social justice organizing.” — Julia Salazar⠀ ⠀ "When you watch someone like Julia Salazar talk about [Jews for Racial and Economic Justice] and how they invested in her as a leader, you have to feel more hopeful than anxious." — NYC Council Member and Deputy Leader for Policy Brad Lander ⠀ ⠀ #MoreHopefulThanAnxious⠀ ⠀ (????: The Jewish Vote // Jews for Racial and Economic Justice [JFREJ] // @eg.sophie)
In the oddest Salazar controversy yet, the Daily Mail published a story on Sept. 6 stating that Salazar was once accused of having an affair with former Mets player, Keith Hernandez. The two were neighbors and family friends. In 2010, the 64-year-old former baseball player’s ex-wife Kai Hernandez accused Salazar of the affair and of stealing $11,800 in cash, $1,175 in Pottery Barn vouchers and $950 worth of wine. When the then-college student returned to Florida during spring break in 2011, she was arrested for fraudulently trying to access Kai’s bank accounts by imitating her voice in phone calls. Salazar, however, was never charged. Today, everyone involved in the ordeal, including Kai, has said there was no such affair. In an official statement following the story, Salazar said it was “one of the most frightening things that had ever happened to me.” According to the candidate, she was house-sitting for Kai and her new fiancé in the Hernandez’s home while they were in the middle of their divorce when she discovered drugs, syringes and multiple guns. Concerned, she told Keith, who then sent police to the house. In 2013, Salazar sued Kai for defamation of character, ultimately taking a monetary settlement of $20,000. It should also be noted that a voice analyst on the case determined with “99 percent certainty” that the calls to Kai’s bank “were not made by Julia Salazar and were, in fact, made by Kai Hernandez.”
As a 20-something Latina democratic socialist candidate, Salazar’s campaign is monumental, and has the power to move New York politics further to the left. Her recent spotlight, and the controversy it delivered, could either help or hurt her at the polls on Thursday. For some, Salazar is yet another would-be politician who, if not outright lied, sugared up her biography for political advantage. While for others, she’s one more example of the establishment’s attempts to derail a young progressive woman of color’s campaign.