A son of Harlem is now an outsider looking in

Yusef Salaam stood near the free popcorn and refreshments at the back of a muggy room where hundreds had gathered for a housing town hall in Harlem. He’s rarely a missable presence. But he was, from the vantage point of onlookers that night, indistinguishable, another face in a packed audience there to question city officials who lined the stage.

The auditorium inside the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Community Center sits a couple dozen blocks above the North Woods of Central Park, where his highly publicized childhood trauma unfolded in 1989.

Salaam’s persona on the sidelines starkly contrasts with his persona on the campaign trail — where the 49-year-old jockeys to fill a now open City Council seat with the ease of the career politician he is not, handing out fliers to longtime residents and newcomers who say they remember when he was sent to prison at 15.

“I’ve been very close to the pain,” Salaam said, sipping a breakfast of turmeric tea from Silvana on 116th Street. “Now I want a seat at the table.”

Salaam’s exoneration for the rape and assault of a white female jogger in 1989 would take over a decade. He and the four other Black and Latino teenagers with whom he was wrongfully convicted were known as the Central Park Five.

As he vies to represent the City Council’s 9th District, Salaam, often dressed in crisply pressed clothes, a watch and a jacket, is easy with his admission that he lacks experience in elected office.

Salaam and the other teens captivated a city in the grips of anxiety around public safety. He has leaned into his past, through activism and speeches prior to his run for the Council, and now as a candidate trying to build momentum ahead of the June 27 Democratic primary, challenging Harlem’s storied political machine.

“For the folks that do recognize me, it’s more like, you know, thank you for doing what you’re doing,” Salaam said in April, outside a subway stop along 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. “But then they’re like, you know, you’re a celebrity … and I’m like, I’m not a celebrity, I’m a regular guy.”

Salaam, who’s lived out of state in Georgia for much of the last decade, is facing two more experienced competitors — Inez Dickens and Al Taylor, sitting representatives for Harlem in the state Legislature — in a race local observers view as another in a long history of challenges to Harlem’s storied political machine by newcomers.

“In the few times that I’ve seen Yusef Salaam, he seems to naturally connect with people,” said David Paterson, who served as the state’s first Black governor from 2008 to 2010. “He’s got a story of victory over a horrible injustice years ago, and that’s compelling. However, he hasn’t lived here in a long period of time. And I haven’t heard a plan that he has to address the same issues that perhaps Taylor and Dickens have been addressing over the past few years.”

While there is no independent polling in the race thus far, Dickens seems to have the momentum. She’s raised almost $177,000 so far, compared to Salaam’s $76,000 and Taylor’s $125,000. She’s also won endorsements from big names like Charles Rangel, Hazel Dukes and Rep. Adriano Espaillat, though Salaam has the backing of Keith L. T. Wright, whose son is his campaign manager.

Dickens previously represented the area in the City Council.

“Historically, Harlem does not support challengers,” said Basil Smikle, a longtime Democratic strategist who lost his state Senate race to the late Harlem political veteran Bill Perkins in 2010. “They support incumbents.”

Salaam is not a socialist, unlike the incumbent, Kristin Richardson Jordan, who will not be seeking re-election. But he’s making his case for progressive voters despite avoiding more divisive issues on the campaign trail, including criminal justice policy and reform.

Harlem, the nucleus

On the evening of the town hall, as people lined up behind the microphone, Salaam looked ahead toward the officials on the stage.

“They’ve been intentionally keeping my building empty, and now they want my unit,” Esquivel Zapata, a renter on Convent Avenue, told officials with the city’s affordable housing preservation agency. After the death of her father, Miguel, from COVID-19, she now faces eviction from the building where she grew up.

Zapata is among a group of low to middle-income renters under the 1978 tenant interim lease program who are still waiting on the city’s unfulfilled promise to sell them their apartments for $250, as long as they met certain rules with fellow building residents.

But the rent-to-own pathway was mired in bureaucratic malaise for decades. Despite the program’s pledge of an “interim lease,” an audit from 2014 showed it took an average of 13 years for renters to become homeowners.

After decades of struggling to find funding for the original program, the city introduced a new approach in 2012 with developers overseeing repairs, raising the price of homeownership to $2,500.

“You feel sad and you feel angry at the same time,” said Zapata, who has sued the city in an effort to keep herself and her son in their home.

It is a different Harlem from the one of Salaam’s youth.

“One of the first things that I saw many years ago that let me know the neighborhood has changed is a homeless white man on 111th Street and Fifth Avenue,” said Sharonne Salaam, Yusef’s mother. “That was something we never had up here.”

The Harlem of the 1980s was home to giants — Percy Sutton, David Dinkins, Charles Rangel and Basil Paterson, David Paterson’s father. The so-called Gang of Four carved out a bastion of Black political power spanning generations.

“Everything came through the roads of Harlem,” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “You think about the leadership of David Dinkins — Harlem. Charlie Rangel, the lion of Congress — Harlem. David Paterson, the lieutenant governor turned governor — Harlem.”

A litany of younger challengers have picked electoral fights with members of the old guard, like Rangel and Perkins, and lost.

Now, Rangel has retired, and the other three pillars of Harlem politics are dead. The area’s demographics have skewed higher income and less Black, with more white, Asian and Latino residents moving in.

In today’s Harlem, shoppers float along 125th Street, which is known popularly as the neighborhood’s Main Street, where a glistening Whole Foods sits a block away from a Shake Shack.

“We’re being squeezed out of where we live like we’re toothpaste in a tube,” said June Moses, president of the West 135th Street Apartments Tenant Association, where residents of several decades rely on a mix of subsidies for housing.

Rent in Central Harlem jumped 90% between 2002 and 2014, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Community Service Society of New York, which looked at data from recent movers in rent-regulated and market rate apartments. By 2017, that widened to a 145% increase from 2002.

Another analysis of Census data by NYU’s Furman Center showed that a quarter of Central Harlem’s residents paid more than half of their incomes toward rent in 2021. The share of affordable rental units in the neighborhood shrank, with the biggest decline between 2010 and 2021 among renters earning 80% of the area median income. Homeownership lagged compared to the rest of the city.

What was once known as Central Harlem lost more than 5,000 non-Hispanic Black residents between 2010 and 2020, according to the Department of City Planning’s analysis of Census data. It lost nearly 10,000 Black residents the decade prior. More than 4,000 were lost between then and the 1990 Census, the year of Salaam’s wrongful conviction.

Salaam is betting his candidacy on the notion that some problems from his youth have not only remained but have festered over time, and he alone can understand their experiences on a level that the other candidates can’t.

“None of us are safe,” Salaam said on the night of the town hall. “That’s what this signifies. None of us are safe.”

But some voters are demanding more of the candidate than his history.

“NOT every damn thing relates to Salaam’s prison sentence,” wrote one user at an online candidate forum hosted by the Greater Harlem Coalition, an alliance of block associations, businesses and nonprofits, as Salaam spoke. “What’s new and possible now? And how?”

Undone by a truck depot

Kristin Richardson Jordan, the councilmember representing the 9th District, announced the end of her re-election campaign in an Instagram post.

“Merely running around talking about things is different from having to govern and manage this city,” said Mayor Eric Adams the day after her announcement, referring to the councilmember.

The most glaring of the incumbent’s missteps was the ill-fated One45 mixed-use development, which would have reserved a share of its units for affordable housing. The unwritten tradition of the City Council is to defer to the local member on most land-use issues. Due to Richardson Jordan’s opposition — based on her push for more affordable units — the project was scuttled and the site is now a truck depot.

“I wouldn’t leave the negotiating table with nothing,” Salaam said, weeks before the incumbent abandoned the race. He did not say how many units would need to be affordable, or how that should be determined, in order for him to support it.

Salaam’s supporters are pitching him as the progressive alternative to Harlem’s weary old guard, and he has racked up endorsements from left-wing favorites like the intellectual and activist Cornel West.

A spokesperson for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose political action committee endorsed Richardson Jordan in 2021, declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Working Families Party said it has decided not to endorse at this point in the Harlem race. The New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America said none of the candidates had applied for an endorsement, which the organization requests before backing someone.

Political observers in Harlem have attributed Richardson Jordan’s 2021 win as a democratic socialist to a confluence of factors at play during the 2021 election: There were 12 other candidates splitting allegiances, including loyalties to a vulnerable incumbent; it was the first citywide election with ranked choice voting; and there was grassroots enthusiasm from those who shared her perspective.

She won in 2021 over Perkins, who died in May, by a margin of 114 votes. When news of Perkins’ death came out, Salaam thanked him for publicly supporting the Central Park Five when few elected officials, at the time of their conviction, did: “He is a big reason why we were eventually exonerated.”

Salaam, along with Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Jr. and Korey Wise were wrongfully convicted in two separate trials in the early 1990s. Salaam was imprisoned for nearly seven years before being released in 1997.

“Anywhere we went, anywhere we showed our faces, it could be the train station, it could be even in our own neighborhoods where people knew us, it was, you know, a hard thing to be Yusef Salaam or any of the others,” he said in a 2013 deposition in the Central Park Five’s civil lawsuit against the city.

They were exonerated in 2002 after Matias Reyes confessed to the crime, with DNA evidence connecting him to the crime scene.

“I’ve never gone into Central Park after that incident,” said Smikle, who was a young Black man growing up in the city when Salaam was wrongfully convicted. “Prior to. But certainly not afterwards.”

Money troubles

As of Thursday morning, Salaam’s campaign had a negative balance of about $140,000, according to campaign finance disclosures. He has spent almost $216,000 since the beginning of the race, the highest amount of the three candidates.

His campaign may get a significant boost if he qualifies for matching funds by the next payment date on Friday, but few people living in his district pledged their financial support in earlier disclosure periods.

Most of his cash flow is coming from donors outside New York City, according to the Campaign Finance Board’s analysis of contributions. Salaam got a late surge in donors who appear to live inside the district based on their ZIP codes. Before then, he had been slow to meet the threshold of 75 donors from the district to qualify for matching funds. Other candidates in the race — Dickens and Taylor — met the requirement months ago.

Aside from getting a significant boost to their respective campaign coffers, it opened Salaam up to a line of attack earlier on in the race that he’s an outsider, something opponents and others said after he spent six years in Georgia, returning in 2022 and almost immediately running for office.

“I think being part of the Exonerated Five means something,” said Michael Walrond Jr., senior pastor of First Corinthian Baptist Church and a former candidate for Congress. “Does that translate into people donating to a campaign? I don’t know if that translates.”

“Historically we’ve seen names win, but a lot of those names that win are able to do what? Raise a lot of money,” Walrond said. “And we’ve seen names not win, because raising money was difficult.”

Salaam said he wasn’t worried. “The good thing about it is we have strategies to increase the donations from the community itself,” he said a month before the June 27 primary.

Cash is especially important for first-time candidates, ever more so in the waning days of a campaign. But Smikle, who now heads the public policy program at Hunter College, was a potent force behind the scenes in state and national politics when he raised a substantial sum during his 2010 run for state Senate — more than $200,000 — and he was still no match for Perkins.

“When you’re a new candidate, no matter who you are, you have no idea how many people are gonna come out for you,” said Smikle, who is not affiliated with any of the 9th District campaigns.

Yusef v. the Machine

“While I’m a neophyte in the political space, I’m not new to struggle.”

That was Salaam’s pitch to voters on a recent Saturday.

He entertained the idea of a run for the state legislature in 2021 when then-state Sen. Brian Benjamin was appointed lieutenant governor by Gov. Kathy Hochul, only to beg off because of residency requirements.

Benjamin resigned in scandal shortly after being appointed, and was briefly the top-ranking Harlemite in office and a heartbeat away from the governor’s office. Today, the most prominent Harlemite in office is Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who has dominated headlines over his office’s prosecution of former President Donald Trump and his handling of the killing of Jordan Neely, a Black homeless man who was put in a fatal chokehold by a white subway passenger.

Harlem’s role on the national stage has since been ceded to Brooklyn, the home base of Mayor Eric Adams and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries. For years, electoral wonks have blamed that on the Harlem elite’s decadeslong grip on power blocking a younger generation.

Political observers ranging from professional consultants to armchair wonks view the District 9 race as a litmus test for Harlem’s horizon — and to what degree the old political machine is a mainstay in a changed landscape.

At a tenant-organized candidate forum on 135th Street, Salaam gestured to Taylor. “If he prevails, what happens to his seat?” Salaam said, pitching a similar argument that younger challengers have made against Harlem’s old guard. “If Inez prevails, what happens to her seat? I’m old enough to do something about the conditions in Harlem, and I’m young enough to take counsel.”

Dickens spoke after Salaam.

“It’s important that we recognize that we cannot afford for a neophyte,” she said. “We’ve all been impacted and affected by having family members that have been falsely accused and incarcerated and put to jail, and no one helped them get out,” she said. “And they’re still in jail.”

“We cannot continue to just sit back and say it’s racist,” she continued. “We already know that.”

But despite leaning on the narrative of his wrongful conviction and imprisonment, Salaam has mostly distanced himself from debate around criminal justice issues as a candidate. Prior to running for office he wrote op-eds and gave interviews talking about false confessions, stop and frisk, and solitary confinement. But on the campaign trail, he’s refrained from talking in depth about bail reform or other hotly debated criminal justice policies.

“There’s people who haven’t held elected office, and then people who haven’t been political. And I would argue that someone like Yusef has definitely been political,” Greer said of Salaam’s position in public life prior to his candidacy.

He has, however, talked about policing. When asked about the increased role of police in many parts of public life under Adams, Salaam said he did not want fewer cops around, but would want more mental health workers responding to crises.

“The fix is to solve poverty,” Salaam said.

Paterson said it might be a deliberate pitch to voters, referencing Salaam’s other comments on the campaign trail. “He’s trying to say — look, I still care about affordable housing. I still care about crime. I still care about substance abuse,” he said. “That’s quite commendable.”

Salaam recently visited Walrond’s church on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, where a funeral service for Perkins was held on a different cool spring morning in May.

The pastor has not expressed a personal preference for any of the candidates. But he knows the challenges involved in going up against the machine. Despite leading a congregation of more than 10,000, he lost a primary against Rangel in 2014.

“It takes a serious effort from a candidate to get people to go into the booth and choose a name that is not necessarily one of the usual suspects for office,” he said.

Source : https://gothamist.com/news/a-son-of-harlem-is-now-an-outsider-looking-in

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