NEW YORK — In an era of embellished and outright invented political biographies, Harlem City Council candidate Yusef Salaam’s personal narrative was remarkably authentic.
One of five teenagers convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, Salaam spent nearly a decade in prison before the judgments were overturned. He became a motivational speaker and Ken Burns made a film about the case.
Then Salaam ran for City Council this spring in a highly competitive three-way Democratic primary race against two longtime lawmakers.
Harlem voters couldn’t resist his comeback tale.
“Here’s a man who Donald Trump condemned to death, who’s now representing his community in the City Council, and is going to be a voice for change and reform. That to me is an amazing story,” said Basil Smikle Jr., former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party.
Salaam’s landslide win against two well-known politicians — one of them backed by Mayor Eric Adams — was due in large part to the strength of his compelling personal narrative. It also represents a shift in a Black political power center away from entrenched elected officials and toward outsider candidates as the district grapples with crime, affordability and racial equity issues.
Many voters here see the issues as existential threats and are looking for fresh leadership to secure their future in the Manhattan neighborhood that gave birth to Harlem legends like poet Langston Hughes and jazz great Louis Armstrong. And while Harlem and Salaam are unique, other historically Black neighborhoods in New York have recently embraced political newcomers, including Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which elected a 23-year-old party promoter and activist in 2021.
“People really want something different, something new,” Salaam said in an interview. “They want someone who, like myself, has been in pain, who’s been close to the pain. I’ve often said on the campaign trail, those who have been close to the pain have to have a seat at the table.”
While Salaam is more moderate than his immediate predecessor, socialist Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan, they share an outsider identity. Jordan also beat an established Harlem politician to represent the district in 2021. She dropped out of the race in May — blaming, among other things, the “behavior of the Harlem machine.”
Salaam is expected to win the November general election in the heavily Democratic district.
The primary was Salaam’s first foray into electoral politics, and while he grew up in Harlem, and had the backing of Manhattan Democratic Party Leader Keith Wright, he was still the outsider in the race. The other candidates vying for the seat were two state assembly members. Inez Dickens, who was backed by Adams, Rep. Adriano Espaillat and former Rep. Charlie Rangel, has been in elected office in the city and state for more than a decade. Her colleague Al Taylor has been in the Legislature since 2017, where he previously served as an assembly staffer.
Smikle, now the director of a Hunter College public policy program, said voters are “tired of the musical chairs…the electeds who have just spent a lot of time running in between city and state government.”
That feeling was stronger than the divergent political views of Salaam, who said he believes in “righteous police,” and Richardson Jordan, who once called the NYPD a “white supremacist institution” and wanted to defund the department.
“It’s not necessarily about ideology, but it is about the present and future of the community and who’s going to represent that, who’s going to be the face of that,” Smikle said.
It’s also about how voters connected to Salaam’s compelling campaign narrative.
Smikle said the local legacy of the Central Park case was “far reaching,” and recalled how it felt, as a young Black man growing up in the Bronx at the time, to watch the public response.
“There was a sense that we were being viewed as animals and to be honest to this day I still do not go into Central Park as a result of that,” he said.
Former President Donald Trump, at the time a New York City real estate developer, took out full-page ads in the four major New York newspapers shortly after the 1989 incident calling for the return of the death penalty. He declared that “these muggers and murderers” should be “forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”
A few days after the former president was indicted earlier this year on charges stemming from hush money payments to a porn star, Salaam released an ad responding to Trump’s 1989 message. “Even though thirty-four years ago you effectively called for my death and the death of four other innocent children, I wish you no harm,” he said.
“Rather, I am putting my faith in the judicial system to seek out the truth. I hope that you exercise your civil liberties to the fullest, and that you get what the Exonerated 5 did not get – a presumption of innocence, and a fair trial,” he continued.
Salaam — who said he identifies as a progressive Democrat — supports the same police department responsible for the forced confessions that led to his conviction. Yet unlike Richardson Jordan, he would not vote to take away NYPD funding.
“Most people would probably think, ‘Oh, Yusef Salaam, yes, he would probably be for that statement.’ But the truth of the matter is that I’m not,” he said in an interview.
“What about the real criminals?” he asked. “When I think about the Central Park jogger case in that context, it was a real crime that happened. It was really a woman that was raped by an individual who was found to be the culprit…And so if we abolished the prisons, if we defunded the police, what does that say about us as a society?”
“We need righteous police,” he concluded.
The predominantly Black central Harlem district that Salaam will likely represent has a higher serious crime rate, a lower median income and more sharply escalating rents compared to citywide averages.
The three candidates shared similar sentiments about those central issues.
Former Gov. David Paterson, who supported Dickens in the race, said he didn’t see Salaam’s win as a rejection of his favored candidate, but more as a response to his story of personal tragedy and triumph.
“I think there was such a reaction to that situation that he became sort of martyred by it,” Paterson said in an interview. “After what happened to him, [voters said] we’re going to give him the chance.”
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