Samy Nemir Olivares’s political journey echoes that of many of his peers in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). He came of age with broadly progressive ideals, but the world of formal politics seemed distant and unappealing. His shock at the Democratic Party establishment’s failure to stop Donald Trump from winning the 2016 presidencial election propelled Nemir Olivares into community organizing in his heavily immigrant community of Bushwick, Brooklyn and later to the DSA.
Bushwick has shifted dramatically to the left in recent years. DSA-backed Julia Salazar trounced longtime state senator Martin Dilan in 2018. Last year, community organizer and Black Lives Matter protest leader Sandy Nurse defeated a machine-backed incumbent by 30 points to win a city council seat. And now Nemir-Olivares, 31, is looking to oust Martin Dilan’s son Erik who has represented Assembly District 54 since 2015 after serving 12 years in city council.
I’m fighting for policies that would improve the living conditions of everyone, even those that don’t know or don’t agree with our policy.
The race offers a stark contrast between two styles of politics. Erik Dilan is a traditional machine politician who relies on the backing of fellow political insiders, corporate special interests and incumbent-friendly labor unions. To date, Dilan has received 75% of his campaign donations in quantities of $1,000 or larger and only .04% in amounts of less than $100.
Nemir Olivares is one of 13 candidates collectively running as a part of the DSA For The Many slate on the promise to continue shaking up “business as usual” in Albany. He is counting on an enthusiastic volunteer base plus lots of small-dollar donations to carry him to victory in a district that encompasses parts of Bushwick, Cypress Hills and East New York.
THE INDYPENDENT: Tell us more about yourself and why you think your background prepares you to serve in the state legislature?
SAMY NEMIR OLIVARES: I was born in Puerto Rico. My mother was one of 18 siblings, and the first to go to college. She became a social worker, and I grew up hearing about her work in communities, particularly around criminal justice and rehabilitation. My father’s parents were Dominican migrants to Puerto Rico. My grandfather worked in a restaurant, and my father was a construction worker. I was exposed very early to xenophobia and discrimination. Both had a lot of issues in the workplace. My mother was fired by the government while on medical leave, and when my father had an accident, his employer didn’t provide any healthcare. This all made me think about workers’ justice, and the rights and dignity that workers deserve. I became a journalist because I didn’t see myself in politics, and I wanted to amplify stories of vulnerable communities. I worked for two years in journalism until the 2016 election, which was a catalyst for me.
I realized that the Democratic Party completely failed at engaging voters, particularly young people, people of color and low-income communities. I discovered how marginalized communities were at the local level and how powerful community organizing work was. I joined the Center for Popular Democracy, where we were at the forefront of fighting for DACA for undocumented Dreamers and Medicare-for-All. I co-founded Bushwick Ayuda Mutua (Brooklyn Mutual Aid). Our community was a place where Julia Salazar was elected as a socialist state senator advocating for housing justice, rent control and immigrant rights.
Where did you grow up in Puerto Rico?
Yauco, it’s a rural town. We call it the “Town of Coffee.” I grew up there after my mother was laid off, and we had to start from scratch. My mother went through bankruptcy and had to take on so much credit card debt, struggling to raise my sister and I. It was a very formative experience for me, and showed me how unequal society could be and how circumstances for people can change in a moment, particularly with the power the government has. Every single one of these circumstances was shaped by policy. And though politics has been corrupt, mediocre and apathetic to the needs of the people, it is still the system that we have to push for change.
Talk about the incident that drove you to leave journalism and immerse in politics and activism.
The day that Jorge Ramos of Univision was kicked out of a news conference with Trump, I was fearful. This was a grave attack on freedom of the press and freedom of speech. As a person of color, I didn’t want to imagine how the presidency would be. I knew very deeply that this was a racist, xenophobic, elitist campaign. I left everything immediately to work in politics and against the Trump campaign. I couldn’t stay quiet or objective as a journalist. The media did not start calling Trump’s campaign racist or xenophobic until about a year later.
How did you come to identify as a socialist?
During the 2016 election. I think many people have a reckoning moment when they believe something went very wrong. In 2016, I had only been in New York City for two years, so for me, this was a moment of finding which political movement more closely aligns with what I believe. Through my experience working at the Center for Popular Democracy and working with grassroots groups, I learned the power of community organizing and fighting for an agenda that prioritizes people over profits.
The race between Erik Dilan and Samy Nemir Olivares offers a stark contrast between two styles of politics.
Now that you’re running for office, what are the most important issues for your district that you’re emphasizing?
I’m talking to people, and I’m listening. I want to hear what our community thinks about finding these solutions. We are fighting for housing justice and affordability and joining with Senator Julia Salazar for universal rent control. We also want to rethink all of the tax credits the real-estate lobby is getting, like the 421-a [tax cut] that is not providing the affordable housing our community needs. We are also supporting Salazar’s Community Protection Act, which would allow small homes to stay in the ownership of families, not speculators flipping them for profit.
Education is another priority of mine. I was in the Community Education Council District 32 in Bushwick, where I learned through my research that working-class parents, principals and school staff have a major need for after-school programs and childcare. This accelerates displacement and gentrification, so it’s a housing justice issue as well. I also want to make sure that CUNY has free tuition, fairly compensates its professors and has mental health counselors. Healthcare is a priority as well. Particularly after COVID, our mental health crisis has made it unconscionable that we don’t have a free, universal healthcare system that everyone can access regardless of their class, income or immigration status.
What about climate?
Climate justice is another issue that we need to care about. We were drowning in Bushwick after Hurricane Ida. It is a slap in the face that the state legislature has not passed any climate legislation in the past three years when we are facing one of the worst humanitarian crises we’ve seen.
Transportation is another issue: We need to make bus fares free and invest in our subway system.
Lastly, we have a significant undocumented and immigrant community, and we do not have enough immigrant voices in Albany. Immigrants kept the city running during the pandemic, working in sanitation, food and hospitals, yet were excluded from federal checks and unemployment benefits. We need legislators that believe in food justice and changing SNAP eligibility and unemployment to include undocumented families. Our assemblymember was completely absent. I never saw him distributing a single bag of groceries during the pandemic. I’m fighting for policies that would improve the living conditions of everyone, even those that don’t know or don’t agree with our policy.
What does your experience as a genderqueer person mean for your candidacy? How is that relevant to how you would serve in Albany?
I would be the first genderqueer assemblymember in history. It is significant because our communities have a long way to go to have representation in government. But it’s not relevant for my voters. What people care about is representatives who are active in their communities. I barely encounter discrimination from voters. The community has embraced me because of the work that we have been doing. I’ve been an activist since I was 12 years old. I came to New York to push for Albany to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to include gender identity, class and civil rights protection for transgender community, which are one of the most vulnerable, marginalized communities in the state. I joined the hunger strikes, and I joined the strike for taxi drivers. Whatever we need to do, we will do it.
Molly Morrow contributed to this report.
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