Exonerated 5 Member Yusef Salaam Returns to Harlem to Run for City Council

Issue 280

Salaam is easily the most progressive candidate in a race that also features two veteran state legislators. Plus, 'Who are the Exonerated 5?'

Theodore Hamm Jun 15, 2023

If Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in the 1980s and woke up in June 2023, the price of rent in Central Harlem would shock him. Although the area’s median income is only $48,000, the median one-bedroom apartment currently goes for $2,650 per month. 

A three-way race that features a high-profile newcomer, a close ally of the party machine and a State Assembly member who voted against the Reproductive Health Act in 2019.

The current race for City Council pits two veterans of the Harlem old guard running away from their Albany positions versus a high-profile newcomer backed by Manhattan’s longtime Democratic Party boss. Call it Uptown Shakespeare. 

Harlem’s political elite clearly did not like City Councilwoman Kristin Richardson Jordan, the next-gen socialist who announced in mid-May that she would not run for reelection in Council District 9, although her name will remain on the June 27 primary ballot. Unlike the older leadership, Richardson Jordan was passionate in her commitment to addressing the affordability crisis faced by longtime Harlemites. 

Assemblymember (and former City Councilmember) Inez Dickens, who turns 74 in July, is a protégé of former Congressman Charles Rangel. The same goes for party boss Keith Wright, but he and Dickens are not allies. Congressman Adriano Espaillat, who defeated Wright for Rangel’s seat, is backing Dickens even though he was a Rangel foe. 

Al Taylor, who will be 66 in August, is an Assembly member from Upper Manhattan and similarly no fan of the party leader. 

A poster for City Council candidate Inez Dickens appears in the window of a Harlem storefront. John Tarleton
Al Taylor

The newcomer, of course, is Exonerated 5 member Yusef Salaam, whom Wright recruited to run. Salaam, 49, is easily the most progressive candidate in the race. 

Like Mayor Adams, Dickens has strong ties to COBA, the Rikers corrections officers’ union that has endorsed and donated money to her campaign. Dickens recently told the Jim Owles Democratic Club that rather than close Rikers, “it might make more sense to rehabilitate the existing facilities” there. That is music to the ears of COBA.

Although he was only 15 at the time of his arrest for the Central Park jogger assault, Salaam ended up spending several years at Rikers. He most certainly knows the scars caused by incarceration. Salaam supports the plan to close Rikers by 2027 and is critical of the Adams administration’s failure to move “quickly enough” to meet that timetable. 

Open New York, the YIMBY group founded by real estate investors, backs Salaam. On the trail, Salaam has called attention to the affordability crisis, but his platform lacks specifics. Dickens, meanwhile, makes dubious claims regarding the success of her “negotiating skills” in addressing Harlem’s housing needs. A decade ago, then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio placed Dickens on his “Worst Landlords’ Watch-List” because of violations at the Lenox Avenue apartment building her family owned. 

While in the Assembly, Al Taylor’s position on abortion has come under fire. In 2019, he voted against the Reproductive Health Act, which strengthened abortion rights in New York. The church where he is a pastor also refused to perform same-sex marriages. Such positions may play well with some older Black voters. But there is also a growing number of liberal white voters in the district, which extends from Central Park through Sugar Hill. 

Taylor tells The Indypendent that he is the most “passionate” candidate in the race. “I am a lifelong Harlemite, and I have seen the struggles and triumphs of our people up close — as a troubled teen under arrest, a veteran looking for my next job, a minister and a public servant.” Whether that message will resonate with younger voters or newcomers is unclear. 

Heading into the homestretch, Dickens and Taylor are on solid financial footing. The city’s 8-1 matching funds mean that each candidate will have at least $125,000 on hand. Salaam’s boost from those funds will bring him to roughly $30,000 but his campaign assures The Indy that “he will have more than enough to win.” 

Unlike most first-time City Council candidates, Salaam has significant name recognition. Richardson Jordan’s exit from the race opened up the progressive lane. Barring an unexpected alliance between Dickens and Taylor, ranked-choice voting most likely will benefit Salaam. 

The key, as always, is turnout. Although Harlem is one of the more politically-active parts of the city, there is no citywide race that will generate voter enthusiasm. The prevailing sense among campaign insiders is that low turnout (e.g. less than 10,000) benefits Dickens, who can rely on her base of older people to cast ballots. But if turnout exceeds 10,000, Salaam stands a good chance. 

A Salaam victory, of course, would be a big win for Keith Wright. The degree to which the novice politican would then answer to the party boss is an open question. Only the Bard knows what will happen in the next act.

How the Central Park 5 Became the Exonerated 5

April–November 1989
Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old white investment banker, is victim of brutal sexual assault in Central Park. NYPD detectives coerce five mid-teenagers—four Black, one Latino—into making false confessions regarding the rape. Donald Trump and Mayor Ed Koch call for reinstatement of the death penalty in New York. Divided racial reaction to the case helps build support for David Dinkins, who topples Koch in Democratic primary and defeats Rudy Giuliani in the general election. 

August–December 1990
Manhattan prosecutor Linda Fairstein places defendants Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, and Yusef Salaam on trial together. After 10 days of deliberations, the jury finds all three guilty of 1st-degree rape, despite the lack of physical evidence. In December, Fairstein wins similar convictions of Kevin Richardson; co-defendant Korey Wise is acquitted of rape but found guilty of 1st-degree assault. Each of the Central Park 5 defendants receives a minimum of five years in prison. 

McCray, Salaam, Wise and Richardson unsuccessfully appeal their convictions. All five except Wise are paroled between 1995-1997. Wise remains incarcerated. 

While at Auburn Prison, Wise meets Matias Reyes, who had pleaded guilty to four rapes that occurred in the four months after the attack on Meili. Reyes confesses to the Meili assault, stating that he acted alone. His DNA then matches that of the semen found on Meili. Neither Wise nor the four other defendants had any connection to Reyes. In late 2002, Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau moves to vacate the five convictions. 

The Bloomberg administration and the City Law Department fight the lawsuit seeking civil compensation for the now-Exonerated Five. In 2013, Bill de Blasio makes a campaign pledge to settle the lawsuit. In mid-2014, the de Blasio administration’s Law Department reaches a $40-million settlement with the Five. 

As candidate and president, Trump restates belief in the guilt of the Exonerated Five. 

As candidate, Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg vows to reexamine all of Linda Fairstein’s cases. In July 2022, Bragg’s office exonerates Steven Lopez, who was arrested with the Five and pleaded guilty to an unrelated assault. 

Yusef Salaam runs for City Council.

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