Julia Salazar is probably the most talked-about candidate for state Senate in recent New York history. But how the 27-year-old, first-time, socialist candidate, whose North Brooklyn district goes to the polls Thursday, became a household name, is a sorry tale of a media frenzy that has completely eclipsed the office she’s seeking.
Some of it is of Salazar’s own making. Early in her candidacy, she misled reporters about some biographical details, including the exact nature of her Jewish heritage and where she was born.
And yet as the reports of these biographical inconsistencies came out over the past three weeks, they had a cascading effect, snowballing out of all proportion to the office she was seeking. Many seemed to come from tips from outside sources with no apparent connection to her opponent, State Senator Martin Malave Dilan.
The hype reached a climax on Tuesday when Salazar was forcibly outed as the person who accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson of sexual assault in 2016.
Ironically, the deluge of information about Salazar has totally eclipsed her platform. None of the exposés since the first have provided the people of New York’s 18th Senate district relevant information that might help them decide who to vote for in Thursday’s Democratic primary.
That’s because the Julia Salazar story was never about Julia Salazar.
Salazar’s campaign used to be a story about a young Jew of Color seeking office who misled voters about some biographical details. Now, she’s a cautionary tale about the huge amount of attention a rapacious news media cycle can bestow on a tiny office — when enough people are pushing it.
Salazar’s campaign to replace Dillan, a long time state senator who identifies as Puerto Rican, didn’t reach its state of constant crisis until earlier this summer. Before that, she had received a significant boost from the surprise win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another young woman of color and socialist, who beat out Joe Crowley after trailing him by over 30 points in a Democratic primary for U.S. House of Representatives in which there is no real Republican opponent.
An article in Tablet Magazine earlier this summer (where, full disclosure, I used to work) revealed that Salazar was not strictly Jewish or an immigrant, but rather, these were identities she had assumed; she had previously identified as Christian, and even pro-life. On the heels of the Tablet piece piece, a City & State article revealed that the Salazar family wasn’t as hard up as Salazar had led people to believe.
These were reasonable things that voters, especially in an immigrant community, might be interested to know about someone seeking to represent them in public office.
But what happened next was shocking.
The digging went deeper. Salazar’s mother and brother, who disputed some of her claims, were called on the phone over and over, each reporter seemingly hoping to uncover yet another misremembered factoid or inconsistency. The Salazars had a maid! The children went to private school!
But the circus was just revving up. A Colombian genealogist (a genealogist!) was consulted in a piece in New York Magazine. A tipster brought the Daily Mail — an international tabloid — a lawsuit Salazar brought against Kai Hernandez, former wife of Keith Hernandez (Keith Hernandez!), in which Salazar sued for defamation after Hernandez accused Salazar of trying to steal from her. (It settled in her favor, to the tune of $20,000.) Another tipster brought Tablet Magazine tape recordings from the lawsuit; Salazar was given little time to respond before publication.
The feeding frenzy finally culminated on Tuesday when the far-right website The Daily Caller published a piece outing Salazar as someone who had accused Netanyahu’s spokesperson, David Keyes, of sexual assault. Before the piece published, Salazar herself preemptively tweeted the allegation.
I’m about to be outed as a survivor of sexual assault. Here is what I have to say about that: pic.twitter.com/WFjNhzBee8— Julia Salazar for State Senate (@SalazarSenate18) September 11, 2018
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment the conversation shifted from legitimate to illegitimate on the historical and qualitative continuum from the original Tablet Magazine article questioning some of Salazar’s claims to the Daily Caller article outing her as an alleged survivor of sexual assault.
And yet, a shift has clearly occurred. It’s an awful, awful thing for someone who claims to be a sexual abuse survivor to be forcibly outed. Salazar had spoken previously to reporters, but never on the record — though a good thing seems to have come of it; as of this writing, the Times of Israel has identified a total of 12 women who have accused Keyes of inappropriate or forceful sexual behavior.
But the outing was the logical conclusion of the intense and outsized scrutiny Salazar has received since the beginning.
While it’s no individual news organization’s job to turn down clicks or tips, it behooves us to ask why these tips and clicks were so forthcoming in the case of Julia Salazar.
Why did someone see fit to supply tapes from an arrest that never culminated in so much as an indictment? Why did someone see fit to out Salazar as Keyes’ accuser? And why have readers been so eager to gobble up these reports?
There are a few reasons that may have contributed to the hysteria. Having campaigned with Ocasio-Cortez, Salazar got both the shine of Ocasio-Cortez’s win as well as a lot of the vitriol. Both Latinx women and both avowed socialists, Salazar became a proxy for Ocasio-Cortez, which certainly put a target on her back.
Others, in these pages and elsewhere, blamed Salazar’s lefty politics when it comes to Israel. A supporter of the campaign to boycott Israel, Salazar has long moved in far-left circles since her change a heart in college, and many see in the campaign to delegitimize her further proof of what will happen to anyone who takes up criticism of Israel in too public a fashion.
Ultimately, the voters of her district will decide on Thursday if Salazar can be trusted enough to hold public office.
For the rest of us, only the awful spectacle will remain.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.