Julia Salazar’s political rise is the subject of a new graphic memoir

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Sofia Warren’s belief in government was plummeting toward rock-bottom. Demoralized and disillusioned, she tried making political donations, but nothing was “changing the landscape of my life all that much.”

From such a low view, though, sometimes you stop to appreciate what’s growing at the grass roots. And in her community four years ago, a movement was gaining traction.

Warren, a cartoonist who contributes to the New Yorker, began to notice a new candidate who piqued her creative interest. This energetic woman from Brooklyn was nicknamed “La Esperanza (the Hope) de Bushwick.” She was Julia Salazar, and she was running for New York State Senate, buoyed by tenant-rights activists. In a moment of inspiration, Warren fired off an email to the campaign: “I’m interested in making a graphic novel about government,” it read. And it could be powerful to focus on Salazar’s initial stage as a state senator.

From the seed of that first message sprouted a sprawling project. Last month, Warren published a graphic memoir titled “Radical: My Year With a Socialist Senator.” It spotlights a then-freshman politician and her staff while providing a window into how local activism can help spark state-level change.

“Radical” is part civics primer for young-adult readers, yet its layered on-the-ground narrative can resonate with anyone interested in the convergence of money and power, the will of organized voters and the wheels of closed-door compromise.

The book also intertwines two budding careers. Salazar, who had not previously planned on holding office, would take readily to legislative life. And Warren, who had never created a graphic novel before, would embrace the fieldwork that sparked her own political awakening.

Yet as Warren began toting her art tools from snowy Brooklyn tenant marches to the vaulted offices of Albany, just what was she searching for — and what did she discover?

The candidate and the cartoonist first met up at a Brooklyn coffee shop in the fall of 2018. The two women were the same age — 27 — but their paths to this casual Sunday sit-down were starkly different.

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Salazar had just won her Democratic primary in a Brooklyn district, making her a shoo-in to take office the following January as the youngest woman ever elected to the New York State Senate. Running on rent-law issues, the community organizer had unseated a Democratic incumbent — not unlike how another young Latina New Yorker and Democratic Socialist outsider, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, had done several months earlier, on the way to winning a seat in Congress.

On the other side of the coffee-shop table, Warren was no activist — and she didn’t grow up in a particularly political family — yet she saw narrative potential in Salazar’s ascent. Her plan: Embed with the senator’s team so she could observe, question and sketch.

Salazar was not a reader of comics. Yet her intuition told her to trust Warren.

“I just took a leap and agreed to it,” the state senator says by Zoom from her Brooklyn home. The candidate already felt so exposed by her campaign trial by fire that she thought: “Well, nothing can hurt me now — sure, follow me around for a few months.” Months turned into nearly a year as Warren earned the confidence and insights of Salazar staffers.

Warren was also taking a leap of trust in herself: “I hadn’t done anything longer than 10 pages before this book,” Warren says by phone from Bed-Stuy. “This was quite a departure.”

Warren was savvy enough, though, to bring along a graphic novel that inspired her: the first volume from the “March” trilogy, the late Rep. John Lewis’s civil rights memoir that had recently received a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. “When she gave me a copy,” Salazar says, “it allowed me to get a stronger sense of what she envisioned.”

John Lewis finished this graphic memoir as he died. He wanted to leave a civil rights ‘road map’ for generations to come.

“I was never interested in writing a hagiography of Julia Salazar,” Warren says. Nor would this be a reporting assignment — “I’m not a journalist,” the author notes. Instead, this was a cartoonist’s personal journey into the belly of the beast. Through full access to Salazar, the author sought to illuminate the tensions and political tools at play when an outsider movement fights for a cause like affordable housing.

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Warren asked herself: “How does it work when a Democratic Socialist insurgent [is] actually asked to complete the task of governing?” And how does a “compelling, young, scrappy” team of outsiders effect change in a district of high gentrification and entrenched real estate forces?

In some “Radical” chapters, the narrative aperture widens to explore the mechanics of street-level activism. The book draws the contours of the battle lines: “With market-rate rents skyrocketing and public housing wait-lists in the hundreds of thousands, tenants pushed out of rent-regulated homes often had nowhere to go.”

On the state level, “Radical” tracks how the Democrats gained power in the Senate in 2019 and depicts the looming presence of then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), with whom a statewide tenant-group coalition called Housing Justice for All is much dissatisfied. He might pose as a friend to the cause, Warren writes, but “talk is cheap.”

Warren, 31, believes in the power of graphic storytelling.

As the daughter of visual artists who met at the Rhode Island School of Design, she was raised in that state reading such syndicated strips as “Calvin and Hobbes” and “The Far Side,” and she warmly remembers her father reading the funny pages aloud to her brother and her when they were small — “to make sure we understood the jokes.”

Warren calls herself “somewhat of an introvert,” so taking on an artistic role helps her expand her horizons. “One of the things I love most about the medium of comics is that it gives me a kind of excuse to learn things and go into spaces I would otherwise not feel comfortable — or not feel like I had a purpose in,” Warren says. “That certainly was the case with this project.”

Warren also made clear that this would be a subjective memoir. The author, for instance, refers to “conflicting claims” over Salazar’s character during the campaign, as some media questioned her background and identity. (Salazar says she was born and raised in Florida to an immigrant Colombian father and an American mother, and that she identifies as Jewish).

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Warren ultimately chose not to plumb those 2018 controversies for resolution. “It didn’t feel important on a personal level. I felt like I couldn’t not have it be a part of the story, nor would I want to exclude it entirely, because this is a part of her narrative” — yet the author chalks up much of the criticism to the mudslinging of a grueling campaign. “By the end, it just did not matter to me very much.”

Warren also insisted upon creative freedom. She says Salazar and her team believed in transparency in conveying day-to-day life of state politics. Says Salazar: “There weren’t any stipulations — I just thought that Sofia was so respectful in the way she went about it.”

Salazar flips through her copy of “Radical” during a Zoom call — what does she think of it? “I feel very fortunate to have this documentation of my first year in office,” the senator says, noting: “It came out even better than I could have imagined.” And because the entire book is set before the pandemic, “it makes me pretty nostalgic.”

Salazar was struck by one surprise: While seeing the book’s depictions of her own mannerisms and speaking style, she thought: “Wow, I feel like I’m reading scenes about my mom!” She also says “Radical” prompted her to “really reflect on how much I’ve grown” as a more confident person.

The book was a growth project for Warren, too. “At the beginning I felt reluctant around the term ‘democratic socialist’ — in part for lack of information,” she says.

Politically, “I would not have identified that way, and I would identify that way now.”

So what does she hope young readers might take from “Radical”?

She is no “cheerleader for our governmental system because it’s pretty messed-up,” Warren says, noting a Supreme Court ruling on concealed guns delivered just hours earlier. “It’s not a system that’s working for me.”

Still, “There’s possibility for it to work better.”

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