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Democratic Socialist Julia Salazar wins NY Senate primary

Democratic New York state Senate candidate Julia Salazar

Democratic New York state Senate candidate Julia Salazar before a rally in McCarren Park in the Brooklyn on Aug. 15. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

Julia Salazar, a democratic socialist, overcame intense scrutiny of her personal life and questions about her truthfulness Thursday to win the Democratic primary for a state Senate seat in Brooklyn.

The 27-year-old, first-time candidate defeated Sen. Martin Dilan in New York's 18th Senate District, joining the ranks of leftist insurgents nationwide who have knocked out mainstream Democrats.

There is no Republican candidate running in the district in the general election, virtually guaranteeing her win.

Dilan, 67, was a 16-year incumbent representing a district that has gone through major changes, with longtime residents being pushed out by rising rents and an influx of mostly white, wealthier newcomers.

Salazar built a grass roots campaign to unseat Dilan on the grounds that he hadn't done enough to help the poor or stop gentrification. She assailed him for taking campaign contributions from real estate interests.

Her campaign began attracting wide attention after fellow democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored a surprise win in June's congressional primary over U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley.

But in recent weeks, the race became a soap opera as reporters dug into her background.

Salazar faced criticism for saying she was an immigrant from Colombia who struggled financially growing up when she was actually born in Florida and had hundreds of thousands of dollars in a trust fund. She was scrutinized too over a political and religious conversion during her years at Columbia University, where she transformed from a Republican, anti-abortion Christian to a hard-left, Jewish Democrat.

One group revoked its endorsement after learning Salazar hadn't graduated from Columbia, as she said on its survey.

Salazar said she "inadvertently misrepresented" her family's history and chalked up some biographical discrepancies to mistakes by her staff.

Then, reporters revealed that in 2011, when she was in college, Salazar was accused of attempted bank fraud by the estranged wife of a famous neighbor in Florida, former New York Met Keith Hernandez.

Salazar was arrested but not prosecuted. She later filed a lawsuit accusing Hernandez's wife, Kai Hernandez, of trying to frame her because she erroneously believed she was having an affair with her husband. Kai Hernandez settled the lawsuit for $20,000.

 Two days before the election, a conservative news site, The Daily Caller, told the Salazar campaign it was about to publish a story identifying her as a woman who had anonymously accused a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of sexual assault.

Saying she didn't want to be "outed" against her will, Salazar tweeted about the incident, saying the Netanyahu aide, David Keyes, had bullied her into an unwanted sex act.

Keyes called it a false allegation "made by someone who has proven to be repeatedly dishonest about her own life," but after additional women came forward with accusations, including a Wall Street Journal reporter, he took a leave of absence. At least four female Israeli lawmakers called upon Netanyahu to suspend Keyes. 

 Dilan was first elected in 2002 and was a member of the state Senate Democratic Conference's leadership. He spent 10 years on New York's City Council before being elected to the Senate. 

Thursday's primary also demonstrated there would be at least some political repercussions for Democratic state senators who broke with their party to join a group that supported Republican control of the chamber.

The schism was little noticed outside Albany until President Donald Trump's election galvanized liberals.

All eight members of the so-called Independent Democratic Conference faced primary challenges, even after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo brokered a deal to reunify Senate Democrats.

Bronx Sen. Jeff Klein, the former IDC leader, lost to Alessandra Biaggi, an attorney who has worked for Cuomo's and Hillary Clinton's campaigns.

Queens Sen. Jose Peralta was trying to beat back opponent Jessica Ramos, a community organizer and former city hall aide.

But voters also decided to support another breakaway Democrat, Brooklyn Sen. Simcha Felder. Although Felder was not an IDC member, he also voted with the Republicans, letting them remain in control even though Democrats outnumber them in the Senate by one seat.

Felder beat challenger Blake Morris in the Democratic primary.

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