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The Capitol Connection #2016 - New York State Senator Julia Salazar (D, WFP)

(Airs 4/16/20 @ 3 p.m. & 04/18/20 @ 5:30 a.m.) WAMC's Alan Chartock speaks with Brooklyn State Senator Julia Salazar.

So when I was reading this, I read that you were endorsed by the Working Families Party and now I think the Working Families Party is in some real trouble. I think Andrew Cuomo and the Speaker and the Majority Leader in the Senate and the Speaker in the House have made it almost impossible to gain enough votes in each election to get permanent status on the ballot. Am I wrong?

I definitely oppose the codification of the Commission's recommendations in the budget, and even creating the commission in the first place. I know that the WFP is going to be legally fighting the new ballot access provisions. I think that regardless of whether or not that legal battle is successful for them, you know, I think it was an undemocratic move on the part of the State, unfortunately, but knowing the WFP I think they're very resilient in that they'll fight to keep themselves on the ballot.

Well, frankly, I thought it stunk. And it wasn't fair. And it is exactly the kind of thing that Andrew Cuomo of all people shouldn't be doing. Listen, he's got everybody's attention in this country. He's a hero, now. What do you want to start picking on some, you know, minor league party for?

Yeah, I don't know what the governor's motivation was. I think we could probably guess that it was politically motivated, you know, I hope that this guy got it out of his system. And that going forward, you know, we can put 2018 behind us so to speak, and just work together, especially in this moment when New Yorkers so, so desperately need us to put aside pettiness and be cooperative and working together to get through this crisis.

Well, Senator Salazar, you are a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. AOC, of course, is a prominent socialist. I'm gonna ask you this. Do you think that the pandemic has created more interest in folks saying, “OK, it's time to be a socialist?”

I think that the pandemic has really exposed the fact that many, many things about our economy, our society and the way that that things are going under capitalism are failing. And that it’s actually been urgent that we change course for a long time. And it's just that we're in a crisis now that's really exposing that. I think that whether or not people recognize the expansion of social programs and public benefits as socialist policy or not, there's definitely, I think, without a doubt, more of an appetite for the expansion of the social safety net and things that democratic socialists like myself are, are typically advocating for, regardless of whether we're in a in a public health crisis or not.

So is it the young people who are most likely to be Democratic Socialists?

I think that democratic socialism definitely appeals more to my generation, Millennials and then also the Zoomers, but it's certainly not exclusive to young people. Bernie Sanders I think definitely demonstrates that as a longtime democratic socialist. There are a lot of leaders in in our movement and in our organization who defy that stereotype. So I think it's increasingly an intergenerational movement just to create a society in which everyone, regardless of their income, regardless of their immigration status, or their identity has the resources that they need to thrive.

So remind me how did you win? I mean, you were the youngest. You had that same old, same old Democratic for years incumbent. How did you beat him?

I was as surprised as other people probably were. But we did have a strategy from the very beginning. I live in a in a district in a neighborhood that has a history of being civically very civically engaged in Bushwick where organizations like Make the Road New York are based ,grassroots groups that have long been struggling to be heard by their elected officials and targeting the sources of power, including our former state senator. And I saw that there was this appetite for change, and that we could, we could run a campaign that's fueled by that energy in that political engagement, while also, you know, amplifying it and increasing it. And so that's what we did, and what that meant in practice was having as much voter contact and contact with community members as possible. We did a ton of not only door to door canvassing in 2018. I personally knocked on 10s of thousands of doors. We we mobilized more than 1,800 volunteers. Ultimately turnout on average across the senate district across the 18th district, increased by an average of 280%. In some areas where voter turnout had historically been very low, it increased in some of those electoral districts by 500%. So, essentially, we, you know, we brought people into the political process who had been ignored or just despondent and not engaged. And then we also captured this spirit of North Brooklyn of wanting to see change and being willing to act on it. And ultimately, we won with nearly 59% of the vote in the primary.

So the district is very diverse. I mean, you have Hasidic Jews, you have Latinos, Latinas. You have people of African American background. How do you bring all of those diverse groups together?

I think it's really about meeting people where they are acknowledging everyone's differences, communities’ differences, but also mostly importantly, acknowledging what unifies us. In this in this crisis, I've, it's presented a chance to witness people really being in solidarity with each other despite their differences in identity or religion, or even socio-economic status. But it is, in general, it's overwhelmingly a working class district, and majority people of color. It’s a little bit more than half of the district is Latino. And more than, I think about 20% or more, is African American, and so forth. So it's as you mentioned, a really diverse district.

Okay, the pandemic, you mentioned it. This is a crisis. We've never seen anything like it. Has it changed your view of the world? I say that because you know, I'm old now. I'm 78. And my parents had Uncle Dave sleeping on the couch. I often say, and you know, they were both middle class workers, they did well, by contemporary standards, you know, maybe 5,000 bucks a year or 10,000 bucks a year. But when I talked as a college professor all of my life, I talked to my students, most of them had no idea what the suffering of the Great Depression was. Well, now things are gonna change, don't you think?

Yeah, this crisis is really going to have a lasting effect on an entire, at least an entire generation of people, certainly of New Yorkers, but of course, it's a global crisis. What surprises me a little bit is how quickly the federal government is able to act when, you know, it's clear that the moment demands it, right. Whereas previously in other contexts when we are when working people when people who are struggling are crying out for relief, the government, the red tape prevents people from getting the relief quickly. And I think one thing we've learned or observed in this in this crisis is that when the political will is there, we actually do have the ability to help people quickly. I think that it's also exposing the need for us to already have an infrastructure and systems in place to prepare for moments like this. Even you know, the wealthiest country, one of the wealthiest states and areas in the world in New York, we're being you know, we're not immune to a crisis, a public health crisis like this, and it's terrible that it's taken, losing. I think we're now at more than 10,000 New Yorkers to this virus in order for us to take action to hopefully, you know, stop the spread as soon as possible and prevent this from happening in the future.

We're talking to the state senator Julia Salazar, the youngest woman ever to be elected to the New York State Senate. How old were you when you did that?

I was 27. When, when I won the primary election,

That’s really unbelievably good. Okay. So let me ask you this. New York State is a mess right now in that the state is way behind the eight ball in terms of the money that is demanded from a balanced budget. And last time I looked its $8, maybe $10 billion and growing exponentially. What do we do about that?

You know, what I wanted to see in this budget that we did not see at all was new revenue proposals. This is not the moment to for you austerity policies and just obstinately refusing to change course, given previous budgets. It's really the time to tax the very wealthy to make sure that the people who are not really feeling the economic impact of this crisis are, are paying their fair share of taxes so that we can make sure that that others are taken care of. And we have such a high unemployment rate right now and such severe needs that we have the resources in, in New York State. Of course, we don't have the resources that the federal government has and so they, the federal government, really needs to step it up in these upcoming stimulus packages and provide for people and help mitigate this. But, in New York State, with our deficit, we really should have been raising revenue and I want to continue pushing forward even though even though the budget…

Higher taxes? You mean in other words, tax the rich?

Yeah I definitely support a multi-millionaires tax for example a pied-à-terre tax on you know non-primary residences in New York. I think there are all, there were and are a lot of very reasonable revenue raising proposals, and then of course additionally there's proposals such as the legalization of marijuana, which it's completely understandable why that wasn't possible or isn't possible right now this year to create a whole new industry. But there are other creative ways that we can raise revenue for our state and i think it's just absolutely critical that we start to do that. We can't continue to balance that state budgets on the backs of working people.

Yes, except that the state has a constitutional obligation to balance the budget, Senator, isn’t that right? Whereas the federal government can just as you suggest, print money, they can go into the basement and print more. The Governor you're saying should have included a pied-à-terre tax, and taxes on the rich and we know, however, that people like Donald Trump of all people say, “Okay, if you're going to tax me, I'm going to go down to Florida where there's no or little tax.” How do you deal with that?

You know, I think that it's not actually true that New Yorkers are leaving the state in droves or disproportionate numbers. A lot of the fear mongering about policies being economic justice policies, raising taxes, it's a myth. It's exaggerated, and it's been that way for a while, for since before my lifetime. For sure, that whenever, whenever new revenue is proposed, new taxes, there's pushback, and then afterward we don't see the flight that that they were threatening. You know, it's absolutely right that we want to have a balanced state budget. But raising revenue is a mechanism for doing that. The 2% spending cap that the governor imposes is not a statutory, you know, it's not mandatory under the law. And so, so that's something that, you know, we can balance the budget by completely changing course, from what the Governor has previously done?

Well, except that we keep losing Congressman. It may not mean that we're losing total population, but compared to other states, they're going from New York to other places and other places are growing. I guess we can’t ignore that. Can we?

We certainly can't ignore that. But one serious issue that has to do with our congressional representation and New York receiving less than the resources that we need from the federal government is the census. And of course, the census is ongoing right now. You know, quick plug, I hope that every, anyone listening who hasn't yet completed the census for their household that they do it immediately, Alan, that you do it, if you haven't already done it.

I’ve done it but let me ask you this. If you're undocumented, Senator, and you're in a household and you're afraid of ICE coming around and throwing you out, are you gonna really open the door?

You probably are not. And then you know, of course right now, I think people are even more wary of human contact, reasonably so. So it's really important that we use the resources that have been allocated for outreach to make this as successful census. If it makes sense for the census to be extended or delayed in order for us to get a full and accurate count, then I would support that. But in the meantime, that hasn't happened. And so we need to be, regardless of you know, we need to be reaching out to every community especially hard to count communities, like those that I represent, especially our undocumented neighbors, making sure that everyone knows is a federal crime for anyone in the Census Bureau to share their information with federal immigration enforcement. So we want to make sure people understand that it is safe and also empowering and necessary for them to fill out the census, because we had such an undercount in 2010.

So do you really believe it safe? I mean, you know, I have certain thoughts about Donald Trump that I think you and I may share, and about ICE that you and I may share, you know, there's a good chance they'll tell you that you're safe, but who would believe them? I wouldn't.

Sure. I mean, I do you know share your perspective on that I loathe the President's policies and that of ICE but I do have faith in the Census Bureau and also in the many people who are working on behalf of the census and the community organizations whose number one priority is to protect our most vulnerable neighbors. And it just really underscores the need for trusted community leaders to be doing this outreach and to be helping people complete the census. I have full confidence that that no one's safety will be compromised in any way by completing the census.

Senator, what do you think about voting by mail as a universal right in America, particularly in New York?

I fully support the right to vote by mail, you know, no excuse absentee voting. In this moment, it is irresponsible for us to pretend that you know, just continue business as usual and to conduct elections as we normally would.  I definitely support the action that's already been taken in rescheduling some of the earlier elections locally in New York. And also considering perhaps moving additional election dates, if it looks like localities and local boards of elections will be unable to handle a full transition to voting by mail. I think we should really be prioritizing both public health and the need to have truly democratic elections and that election results actually have integrity. And I really don't think we'll be able to do that if we don't make voting more accessible by empowering people to vote by mail.

Senator Julia Salazar, how do you feel about the way in which Andrew Cuomo, who I get a chance to talk to on a fairly regular basis these days? How do you feel that he is handling himself now?

Well, for one, I actually deeply appreciate how accessible the governor is being right now and has been throughout this crisis to, to the press to the public. And I think that, and I think he's been rewarded for that, in how people have responded. That is, you know, a departure from the policy differences and difference in political opinion and even get a worldview that I have with the governor. But aside from you know, the, the actual policies and you know, my qualms with, for example, the failure to suspend rent for people who have been who have lost income, I think, in some cases, the both the governor and the mayor here in New York didn't act as quickly as this crisis demanded. But it's, it's easy for me as a state legislator to be sort of a Monday morning quarterback. And that's not my intent. I think that this moment really demands that we try to put aside political differences and make sure that leaders like, like our Governor, have what he needs in order to, to really help us get through this and then, you know, we can, at the same time continue to have rigorous debates about policy but overall I think it's good that we have an executive who's so assertive and has made himself very available to the public.

Senator, we're hearing now that the COVID-19 pandemic, is this proportionately affecting the poor, minorities, especially African Americans. What are you seeing?

I mean, I'm absolutely seeing that in the parts of in my own district throughout my district, but certainly in the areas with a higher black and brown population, we are seeing a higher number of cases despite a consistent amount of testing. We are seeing people dying at home, which is absolutely tragic and preventable, and that is happening more in communities of color than then in more affluent communities in the city. And I am glad that now we are finally at least getting some data that demonstrates what we already knew and feared. But it really goes to show the institutions that we're all relying on right now and safety net hospitals, and Medicaid, that they have been under resourced. And, you know, that's what's causing the strain on the social safety net, and also a really disproportionately high impact on black and brown New Yorkers.

And how do we get around it?

We really need to be dedicating the resources. It needed to be done yesterday, last year, whatever, but what we can do now is, is make sure that resources are actually allocated based on need. One thing that we fought and thankfully successfully fought in this budget process was direct cuts. Medicaid cuts to hospitals that would have actually in my district, for example, it would have cut, you know, millions of dollars from Woodhull, which is really on the front on the front lines as our public safety net hospital on the front lines of battling COVID-19. And thankfully that wasn't ultimately what happened. But not only do we need to be protecting them pro cuts, we really need to prioritize getting PPE to care workers right now. There's clearly a discrepancy between what the state has seen as adequate PPE, and what workers are telling us and what we're witnessing, so it needs to be increased at the federal level. I think that the President needs to nationalize the production of medical equipment and medical supplies in order to get this done as well. You know, I do think that the burden and responsibility should be more on the federal government. But in New York, we need to use all of the resources that we do have to be fighting this right now and protecting the people who are going out every day and risking their health and their lives in order to protect the rest of us and for the sake of public health.

I'm running out of time, but I want to ask you this. Do you think President Trump is a racist?

I absolutely think President Trump is a racist, and a bigot and a homophobe and a sexist and I don't think that he ever deserved to be in office, and that we all need to do everything we can to replace him with a Democrat and someone who will actually be accountable to the American people.

So I know that progressives in New York legislature and around the legislature, really were disappointed when the legislature revisited bail reform and made it frankly easier to keep people in jail. What are your thoughts?

I agree with them. I was disappointed that ultimately, the very good reforms that were passed in 2019 were modified in a way that is going to lead to more people being incarcerated. And furthermore, it's an expansion of wealth based detention which is something we really should be getting rid of. Because it's not right there's no justification for holding someone, a legally innocent person Presumed Innocent before their trial based on whether or not they can pay. You know, it was one of the main reasons that I actually voted no on the budget this year, which wasn't an easy decision to make. But I felt it was the right one because I so strongly opposed any harmful modifications to bail reform.

It's unfortunate, we're gonna have to have you back again cause it’s always fun when you're here, we are out of time. Our guest has been State Senator Julia Salazar, a Democrat Working families Senator from New York's 18th Senate District. Senator Salazar, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you all and always a pleasure. Please stay safe and healthy.

You too. Senator. We need you.

David Guistina is the host of Capital Connection, Legislative Gazette, and Morning Edition and the producer of the Media Project on WAMC.
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