Yusef Salaam’s Victory Points to Power Shift in Harlem and Beyond

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Walking down 125th Street the day after taking a commanding lead in the race for a City Council seat in Central Harlem, Yusef Salaam couldn’t make it half a block without someone congratulating him on his likely victory.

Voter after voter who greeted Mr. Salaam on Wednesday said they recognized him as one of the five Black and Latino men exonerated in 2002 in the rape of a female jogger in Central Park in 1989. They were eager to touch him, shake his hand, take pictures and imagine what his journey — from convicted rapist to exonerated young man to advocate for criminal justice reform to elected official — could also mean for the future of Harlem.

“I think this election is largely about change,” Mr. Salaam, 49, said.

Mr. Salaam won twice the number of votes as his nearest competitor, Inez Dickens, 73, a sitting assemblywoman who formerly held the Council seat for 12 years and was endorsed by the United Federation of Teachers and Mayor Eric Adams. The other candidate in the race was Al Taylor, 65, also an assemblyman serving his sixth year in the State Legislature.

Mr. Salaam’s probable victory and the likely defeat in Brooklyn of Charles Barron, 72, a self-described Black radical socialist who, with his wife Inez Barron, has held city or state elected office in East New York for much of the past two decades, appeared to signal a shift in Black generational political leadership. In both Harlem and East New York, voters went from supporting self-described socialists to backing moderate Democrats.

This was an opportunity for voters to say, look, we’ve got to move forward,” said Basil Smikle, director of the Public Policy Program at Hunter College. “We can’t keep playing musical chairs.”

With 99 percent of the vote counted, the Harlem race is still too close to call, though Ms. Dickens has conceded. Under the city’s ranked-choice voting system, because there were more than two candidates in the contest, there will be a tabulation process on July 5 before official winners are declared, according to the Board of Elections.

In Brooklyn, Christopher Banks, 39, the founder of an anti-poverty nonprofit, was leading Mr. Barron by just over 400 votes. Mr. Barron has also conceded, but the winner will not be declared until after the ranked-choice tabulation.

East New York faces many of the same problems as Harlem, Mr. Banks said in an interview. The saturation of social services providers, access to affordable housing and balance between protecting public safety while preserving people’s civil rights were issues in both Council races.

Kristin Richardson Jordan, the incumbent in the Harlem seat who decided not to seek re-election, considered herself, like Mr. Barron, a radical socialist. She wanted to abolish the police and redistribute wealth. The three candidates running to replace her were all Black moderates who distanced themselves from her politics.

In Brooklyn, Mr. Banks described Mr. Barron as out of touch with the district. “The sentiment we got from voters was that they wanted change,” he said. “They were frustrated with the state of the district.”

On Wednesday, relishing the good wishes from voters, Mr. Salaam said the residents of Harlem see his story as their story. Standing on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, T’Pring Scott yelled her support for him, saying she backed him because she wanted someone with a new perspective.

“Inez has been here long enough. Just because her name was familiar, I wasn’t voting for her,” said Ms. Scott, a government worker. “I knew his story because I was in high school when that happened to him, and I felt that if anybody deserves a chance, he did.”

She asked Mr. Salaam not to support an affordable housing development on West 145th Street that became an issue in the election. Ms. Scott said she thought the building would be too tall. If it had to be built, she wanted its height capped. Mr. Salaam, who said he supports development of housing on the site, promised that she and other members of the community would have a voice in the process.

I hate whenever I come to a meeting and they’ve already decided what’s going on,” Mr. Salaam said.

At Marcus Garvey Park a few blocks away, Mr. Salaam ran into a group of men who were upset about the park bathrooms being closed. Stephen McKoy, 35, a mover, said it was unhygienic and that he had already seen adults and children who were forced to relieve themselves in the shrubbery.

“We need that fixed. There’s people peeing on trees,” Mr. McKoy said. “You go to Westchester and you never see anything like this.”

Mr. Salaam agreed: “Only in our community do we see that,” he said.

Michael A. Walrond Jr., the senior pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, said Mr. Salaam’s apparent victory was a sign that the community was open to new leadership.

“Inez was endorsed by the institutions, the names, and it didn’t help,” Mr. Walrond said. “It is definitely a signal that in Harlem, at least right now, the politics is a little bit more open than it may have been 10 or 15 years ago.”

Mr. Salaam was recruited as a candidate by the Manhattan Democratic leader, Keith L.T. Wright. But he ran without the support of most of city’s political establishment, including Mayor Adams. He did draw endorsements from national progressives such as the professor and presidential candidate Cornel West and Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison.

Mr. Salaam made at least seven appearance on national television, unusual in a local race. The filmmaker Ken Burns, who directed a documentary called “The Central Park Five,” sent a statement Wednesday with his co-directors congratulating Mr. Salaam, who was headed to Houston to promote the young adult novel he co-wrote about a 16-year-old who is wrongly convicted of a crime.

He’s the only one that no one had ever voted for before,” said Mr. Wright. “His authenticity came through.”

In Brooklyn, Mr. Banks had strong support from Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the leader of House Democrats. He appeared on a flier with Mr. Banks and said in a church appearance that Mr. Banks had a “head for the job and a heart for the people.”

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