On a recent sticky Saturday afternoon in Williamsburg, a group of volunteer canvassers for Democratic state senate challenger Julia Salazar discussed door-knocking strategy. With all the publicity around the June congressional primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — like Salazar, a young avowed Democratic Socialist — would it be prudent to warm up potential voters with an anecdote about Ocasio-Cortez’s establishment-quaking defeat of Queens machine incumbent Joe Crowley?
“If you see a New York Times, yeah, go for it,” advised canvass organizer Wess Higgins. “Yesterday I was at this loft in East Williamsburg. I saw a Times and some guitars on the wall. I mentioned her and the couple was like, ‘Oh, you mean AOC?’ and then they invited me in for pineapple juice.”
Salazar’s team understands the significance of the Ocasio-Cortez signal boost. Both candidates are working-class women in working-class districts eschewing corporate donations and demanding Medicare for All and the abolition of ICE. Martin Malavé Dilan, the incumbent in Salazar’s race for the 18th District state senate seat, is, like Crowley, seen as a machine relic, for his longtime alliance with the late Brooklyn political boss Vito Lopez. Both women consider themselves community organizers first and foremost, and have pledged deference to their voters. (During a primary debate, Ocasio-Cortez refused to commit to endorsing Crowley in the general election, saying, “I would be happy to take that question to our movement for a vote.”) Ocasio-Cortez joined the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America when seeking their endorsement; though the Daily News recently found that 27-year-old Salazar was a registered Republican in her teens, she has been rank-and-file DSA for two years, focusing on police reform.
Before Ocasio-Cortez’s win, none of this was the stuff of national headlines. When Salazar endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in June, her field manager Isabel Anreus recalls, it was inside a mostly empty quinceañera hall in the Bronx, before a crowd of “only about a dozen folks.” In the week after Crowley’s loss, though, Salazar received more than $15,000 in individual donations, boosting her war chest by a third in a single week. According to Higgins, the canvass organizer, “A typical Saturday before the AOC victory I’d have about five or six people [canvassing]. Then the Saturday after her victory we had fifty people. It was mostly people who felt like they had missed their shot.”
Anreus says she’s sent out more than 2,000 volunteers, 500 of whom have picked up multiple canvassing shifts. She coaches each volunteer to secure three “yes” votes — if they’re successful, that would be more than the number of votes Dilan collected last election, the second of his two narrow primary victories over Debbie Medina, another socialist and community activist.
“There are these media moments and narratives about who has momentum,” says Michael Kinnucan, Salazar’s deputy campaign manager. “But if you’re running a campaign, there’s nothing but talking to voters. Everything is around talking to voters. You get some more donations? That’s great. You can pour it into talking to more voters.”
Shortly after her primary victory, Ocasio-Cortez broke down her strategy on the Jacobin magazine podcast The Dig. Early on, she explained, she met with small groups of potential supporters at their apartments.
“I would take the train to that person’s living room, and I would talk to people ten at a time for eight months,” she said. Many of these people eventually became committed volunteers for her campaign. While Crowley shelled out for expensive mailers and television spots, Ocasio-Cortez focused on door-knocking and social media, with its cheaper, more precise viewership metrics.
A dozen of Ocasio-Cortez’s paid canvassers, all Latina college students, came directly over to Salazar’s team after the congressional primary win in June. (A 2012 lawsuit compelled New York to move its federal primary to June; New York’s Republican-led senate blocked efforts to move the state primary into alignment.) “I heard about [Ocasio-Cortez] from my college friend and thought her ideas were good for the district,” explained 21-year-old Rael. “It really did inspire me to join Salazar’s campaign.”
Over a few shifts in July, Salazar canvassers swapped strategies for how to get into large apartment buildings: ring multiple buzzers until someone responds, or hang around outside until someone opens the door and then slip through. Once inside, use a trilly, musical knock, “so you don’t sound like a cop”; when someone comes to the door, ask them what issues matter most to them, and listen. Never cross your arms. Spanish speakers should buddy up with non-Spanish speakers.
Salazar is also following the Ocasio-Cortez playbook when it comes to fundraising, refusing to accept corporate donations. Her goal is $150,000, $118,415.43 of which had been raised by mid-July. Kinnucan recently wrote about Ocasio-Cortez’s victory for Jacobin, extolling how much a campaign can do with “your first $100,000.”
“You need things like campaign lit, and a couple of staff organizers who can make sure that the volunteers are trained and know where to go,” Kinnucan tells the Voice. “So the first $100,000 is absolutely essential, and the second $100,000 is really, really helpful.”
Small, informal house parties have been a major source of funding for Salazar. She attends, gives a brief stump speech, and answers questions. The campaign doesn’t have to pay to rent out a venue. A recent house party in Boerum Hill drew dozens of young New Yorkers in their twenties and thirties, only one of whom lives in the 18th District, which includes parts of Bushwick, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Cypress Hills. The event brought in at least $2,500, according to hosts Matt Karp and Katherine Hill, who met Salazar through DSA.
Karp and Hill said their friends are excited about Salazar as just one of several progressive senate challengers, many of whom are hoping to unseat centrist Democrats who for years caucused with Republicans as part of the recently dissolved Independent Democratic Conference. “I know she’s keen on representing north Brooklyn, but the fact is she’s going to be involved in a chamber that does a lot of statewide stuff,” Karp told the Voice. “I feel very invested in the race.”
Standing by the fruit and cheese platters, Salazar assured the Boerum Hill crowd that “I am very proud to be part of this blue wave of challengers to senators who have betrayed their constituents.”
Introverted by nature, she drew laughs from the guests excited to support an outsider candidate. When friends urged Salazar to run earlier this year, she recalled wryly, “I said no. Hard no. Hard no. But I was sold on the race. We need a community leader who can finally bring the voices of Brooklynites to Albany.”
The Salazar campaign’s door-knocking is currently focused on Bushwick, where the candidate lives, and Williamsburg. Canvassing in Cypress Hills, which has a higher concentration of likely Dilan voters, will ramp up in the early fall. “Our goal is by first week of September we’re talking to pro-Dilan people, and people who don’t know about socialism,” says Anreus.
Salazar’s team has identified roughly 800 DSA members who live in, or directly adjacent to, the district. But canvassers are not coached to talk about socialism explicitly. In Williamsburg last month, lead canvasser Julian Graham, a DSA member, offered a possible talking point. “She’s the only one not taking money from corporations or landlords,” he said. “She’s fighting for affordable housing.” He then ticked off campaign priorities: “We all need access to healthcare. We all need stronger rent laws. We all want to end these insane and evil policies like cash bail.”
Especially in neighborhoods ravaged by gentrification, there seems to be real interest in Salazar’s affordable housing platform, which calls for lease renewal guarantees for all tenants and statewide controls on how much landlords can increase rents. “Whether people want to use the ‘s’ word or not,” Kinnucan tells the Voice, “there seems to be a real movement for decommodifying housing.”
Dilan has in recent years supported pro-tenant legislation, though Salazar often points out that he voted in favor of vacancy decontrol while on the City Council in 1994, helping secure a major tool for tenant displacement. “Every inch of this district is affected by the affordable housing crisis,” Salazar told me this spring. “Dilan has had a lot of time, over fifteen years, to correct his course.”
Graham Parker, a spokesperson for Dilan, tells the Voice that Salazar’s priorities are “identical” to his: “The senator has a clear record on his support for unions, women’s rights, and healthcare access.” And now that the IDC has dissolved, Parker says, Dilan is “looking forward to having a [senate Democratic] majority where he can start delivering on these progressive issues.”
DSA, Parker adds, is an organization with “a national message” swooping into Dilan’s district, and that Salazar’s identification as a Democratic Socialist is an opportunistic effort to capitalize on a trend: “It has to do more with an opportunity than a policy.”
Parker declined to discuss Dilan’s campaign strategy with the Voice, but on July 26 Dilan filed a lawsuit seeking to strike Salazar from the ballot on the grounds that she hasn’t lived in New York for five straight years as required, a move her campaign dismissed as “frivolous” and “aimed at political insiders and the press.” As of this writing, Dilan has raised just over half as much as Salazar in contributions.
Anreus, Salazar’s field manager and herself a DSA veteran, remembers attending a Young Democratic Socialists of America conference in 2010 and being the only Latina. At 28, she’s just a year older than Salazar. Last month she sounded proud, addressing a packed room of north Brooklyn DSA members. “This is about building a real socialist movement that continues after September 13,” Anreus said. “I’ve been a DSA member for a long time. Ten years. But this is the most exciting it’s been.”