Julia Salazar Explains What It Means to Be a Democratic Socialist Lawmaker

Originally published in Teen Vogue

Photo and Design: LIZ COULBOURN

In 2018, a group of grassroots candidates won elections to the New York State Senate in order to transform politics in our state. At the age of 27, I was among this group of new lawmakers whose elections helped to shift the formerly Republican-dominated state senate to a new Democratic majority. Being propelled into Albany’s historically white and patriarchal environment as a young woman of color has been difficult, but it also has deepened my understanding of socialist feminism.

My path to becoming a state legislator was an unconventional one. A formative experience in my political development was organizing a rent strike in the building where I lived. Concerned that what we saw as urgent repairs on our building weren't being made, my roommates and some of our neighbors organized a coordinated campaign to stop paying rent for several months. We ended up in court and, to my surprise, managed to obtain some of the relief we sought.

The experience taught me about the power of organizing, but it also brought me face to face with the realities of organizing under capitalism. As long as the law of our society fundamentally favors the owners over the workers, the masculine over the feminine, and profits over people, we don’t have a chance of ever seeing the transformative change that we need. The experiences that I had — as a tenant, as a worker, as a young woman, as a first-generation Colombian American — all exposed the need for democratic socialism.

Democratic socialism presents a framework for how we can achieve that change, and socialist feminism is the lens.

Capitalism will always empower the wealthy over the worker. It maintains the infinite gap between billionaires and low-income people by design. Capitalism assigns values to people in society and puts a price on our labor based on socially constructed categories like race and gender. It will always minimize reproductive labor (work that is either unpaid or undervalued in our society and traditionally assigned to women) in favor of productive labor.

This is where socialist feminism comes in. Working-class women in particular are often expected to perform untold hours of unpaid labor to keep society going.

As a legislator, my commitment to socialist feminism translates to a genuine commitment to fighting for the people. I support grassroots movements with foundations in organizing and building power in our communities and hold policy positions in favor of universal single-payer health care, expanding the rent-stabilization system statewide, enacting universal rent control, and ending the ongoing human rights crisis of mass incarceration in our state. The Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act, which I was proud to help pass in 2019, made a huge difference in leveling the playing field between landlords and tenants in New York, strengthening and expanding rent stabilization after decades of landlord-funded attacks on our affordable-housing system.

Our housing is even more important now during a once-in-a-generation deadly pandemic. Millions of New Yorkers are wondering where their next paycheck will come from and how they are going to pay the rent. I’m supporting legislation that would cancel (not freeze) rent for three months. While the current eviction moratorium is a good start, without further action we will face a huge wave of evictions after the moratorium is finished. This will lead to deaths and a possible second wave of infections. Already we have seen the horrifying toll COVID-19 has taken on New Yorkers experiencing homelessness. We desperately need to be housing more of our people in safe, livable homes, not going in the other direction. This is only one example of how the interests of capitalists are diametrically opposed to not only justice and equity, but even to public health. Capitalism is the system allowing the massive pressure the virus imposes on our society to kill our family members and community members.

Working-class women of color — whether impaired or disabled, transgender, or nonbinary — have a right to pursue liberation from oppression. To be a democratic socialist legislator means to push for policy changes that will have meaningful impacts in people’s lives while also bringing us closer to economic justice. Democratic socialism recognizes that our current state of affairs is inherently oppressive and only works for the powerful and wealthy. With democratic socialism, we can recognize all of our community members — regardless of one’s ability to partake in the workforce, immigration status, gender, race, age, or religion — and make their vote count over corporate interests. My goal and the goal of democratic socialism is to make policy that is actively working to dismantle capitalist rule and to empower the working class and the marginalized in our society.