Yusef Salaam speaks in metaphor.
In the motivational speaker’s hands, a story about an East Harlem public housing building that had no water on Christmas Eve turned into a warning for the nation: “If there is a hole in the ship, and the ship is America, we’ve got to fill that hole. Because all of us are going to go down,” Salaam said.
When asked about his unflappable optimism in the face of profound injustice, Salaam invokes a lesson from the former Ohio politician Les Brown: You can pull over to the side of the highway and sit in the dark, or you can switch on your hazards and try to get back on the road.
For Salaam, he said discovering his faith in God was like turning on a flashlight. His way with words – he is a published poet – followed him to an insurgent Democratic primary campaign for a Harlem City Council seat this year. And soon after the polls closed on election night in June, Salaam was at a watch party at the corner of West 116th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard celebrating a decisive upset victory over two seasoned lawmakers.
“Harlem is the place that gave me a second chance,” Salaam, standing tall and looking overcome in a pinstriped three-piece suit, told a crowd at Harlem Tavern. “Harlem is the place that made sure, in fact, that I did not fail.”
Salaam is a son of Harlem. But last year, he wasn’t living in Harlem. In June 2022, Manhattan Democratic Party boss Keith Wright and a couple political consultants flew to Stockbridge, Georgia, where Salaam had been living since 2016, to recruit him to run for New York City City Council District 9.
“He was the prodigal son that has returned,” Wright said of Salaam at his election night party.
But unlike in the parable, Salaam, the son, was not the one in need of forgiveness.
In 1989, Salaam was arrested with five other Black and Latino teenagers for the rape of a white woman jogging in Central Park that they didn’t commit, vilified in the media and by Donald Trump, and eventually sentenced to prison. He served seven years in prison before his conviction was vacated, along with the convictions of the other men who are now known collectively as the “Exonerated Five.” In the years since, Salaam has toured the country as a criminal justice reform activist, author and motivational speaker.
Now 49 years old and with no Republican candidate for the seat in November, Salaam will almost certainly be Harlem’s next City Council member.
Salaam’s victory has a lot to do with his part in a historic injustice that resonated deeply with Harlem voters across multiple generations. “His ability to talk to and reflect on the life that he’s lived and the ability to be the face of not just criminal justice reform, but of government reform, pushing back on the abuse of power, and a reimagining of Black people in particular spaces in the city – he’s the face of that,” political strategist Basil Smikle said.
Salaam’s success was also the product of good timing, a more seasoned team behind him and a shake-up of the old guard in Harlem.
Salaam will hardly be the first person to enter elected office lacking what the political establishment considers the necessary prerequisites. But with a truncated two-year term, Salaam faces a short timeline to deliver the kind of change that Harlem is looking for.
The late Gov. Mario Cuomo used to talk about campaigning in poetry and governing in prose. “He’s great at the poetry,” said political consultant Lupe Todd-Medina, who served as the communications consultant for one of Salaam’s opponents, Assembly Member Inez Dickens. “So now he has to learn prose.”
Insurgent with insider help
In June 2022, Wright and Salaam met for dinner at an airport hotel near Atlanta, Georgia, to discuss a prospect both men had been ruminating on for several years: Salaam’s future in New York City politics.
The two had chatted a few years ago about an open state Senate seat in Harlem – now occupied by Cordell Cleare – but Wright had a mandate this time. “I had been hearing from everyone – everyone in the political circles, everyone in the neighborhood – about how we have to get a new council person,” Wright said.
Current City Council Member Kristin Richardson Jordan, a Black socialist and police abolitionist, was elected in 2021 and was presumed to be running for reelection. She later dropped out of the primary, pressured, as one ally told City & State, by negative news stories and a lack of support from the Harlem “machine.”
Along with Kyle Ishmael, executive director of the New York County Democratic Committee, and his political consulting partner Raziq Seabrook, Wright traveled to Georgia to make the case for Salaam to start his political career in Harlem. This meeting was where they would close the deal. “He seemed intrigued, he seemed receptive,” Wright said of Salaam. “I think maybe about a week or two later, he called me and he said he was in.”
Political observers and consultants credited Wright and the rest of Salaam’s campaign team – a mix of more seasoned operatives and new blood that included Keith Wright’s son Jordan Wright as campaign manager – with making sure the political novice made the right stops and met the right people on the road to victory. That included gaining an endorsement from C. Virginia Fields, the former Manhattan borough president who pounded pavement for the campaign. “I don’t think that Yusef Salaam is a City Council member without Keith Wright,” said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University.
Salaam faced two incumbents, after all. Assembly Member Al Taylor represents a northern chunk of the City Council district, and Dickens’ district overlaps with most of the council seat – which she held from 2006 through 2016.
Dickens solidified a front-runner status in the race with endorsements from Rep. Adriano Espaillat, former Rep. Charlie Rangel, labor unions and several other elected officials in and around Harlem. New York City Mayor Eric Adams (who doesn’t have the best endorsement track record lately) backed Dickens too.
In the end, none of that – nor Dickens’ decades of experience – mattered. Turnout in the Democratic primary was double most other City Council districts, and Salaam walked away on election night with roughly half of the 11,000 votes cast.
“I took a shellacking,” Taylor told City & State several weeks after the primary. Dickens did better, but not by much, amassing about a quarter of the vote. The results showed that Harlem wanted change. “It said to me, ‘Listen, we like you two exactly where you’re at. But we want to see something different,’” Taylor said.
After Richardson Jordan dropped out in May, the race was left with three moderate Democrats who were all fairly close on policy. And Salaam was hitting on a lot of the issues that were top of mind for Harlem residents – affordable housing, public safety, substance use. That ideological alignment made the campaign not one based on issues but on experience and message. “The old guard just kind of comes out and says the same thing and makes the same promises, and they haven’t delivered,” said Eva Chan, a manager at the Harlem East Block Association. “To me, it’s a function of how unhappy Harlem is with the status quo.”
“Like a myth”
Salaam was the campaign’s best weapon in the field. “We knew that having a strong field program, running it early, using the strength of Yusef Salaam was going to be the key to winning,” said Ishmael, one of Salaam’s lead campaign consultants.
The campaign spent early and aggressively (perhaps more than allowed) not just on consultants but on voter outreach: posters, palm cards and social media ads. Everyone knows the story of the Exonerated Five, but not everyone could identify Salaam as one of those men.
“Early on, it was like a myth,” Salaam recalled. As he began walking around and meeting voters, people were taken (pleasantly) aback, asking, “You’re really here? You’re really running?”
Salaam likely also benefited from a consequence of the primaries being moved from September to June. While his opponents were traveling back and forth to Albany during part of the campaign voting on a late state budget, Salaam could be shaking hands at subway stops.
Media attention helped too. “Yusef is on MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times, everywhere. People are talking about Harlem,” Jordan Wright said. “By virtue of that, we got a lot of volunteers. People want to be a part of this movement. We have volunteers from all across the country.”
Two weeks before Election Day, the Salaam and Taylor campaigns made a strategic move to endorse the other as a second-ranked pick while Dickens maintained her front-runner status. (Taylor rejected the suggestion that the cross-endorsement was done to box out Dickens.)
Like in any race against a political novice, Salaam didn’t have a record that his opponents could pick apart. And as much as the Dickens campaign tried to stress her experience and decades of service in the community, that message was overshadowed by what Salaam represented to voters. Salaam resonated with those older voters who saw their son in him, middle-aged voters who saw themselves in him and younger voters who saw him as a part of a new generation of political leadership. He dipped in not just to Dickens’ base, but likely picked up votes from newer gentrifiers and younger voters who helped elect Richardson Jordan in 2021.
“There are times when races are more than just the policy,” said Todd-Medina, the Dickens campaign communications consultant. “It’s emotional. And I think this one for Harlem, it was about righting a wrong.”
Better, not bitter
“I had the most amazing time today – I went back to prison.”
Salaam laughed as he made an off-the-cuff joke at a TEDx event for people incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. It was 2014, and his first time back at prison, he said. A guest speaker at the event, Salaam opened his talk with a poem called “I Stand Accused,” a poem he said that he first read at his sentencing hearing in 1990. Its opening lines: “I’m not going to sit here at your table and watch you eat, and call myself dinner.”
But peppered in brief moments throughout the talk, as it often seems to be with Salaam, was a comedic timing most politicians would envy.
“You have a choice to respond to what happens inside of you,” Salaam said recently, reflecting on the “better, not bitter” mindset that he champions in his memoir. “You can turn into whatever it is that they’re trying to make you. Or you could refuse.”
Salaam is the father of 10 children with his wife Sanovia, including three stepchildren. One of his top questions about signing up to run for City Council was what it would mean for his family. Since 2016, they’d been living in Stockbridge, the home of Martin Luther King Sr. and a kind of restorative home base for Salaam as he traveled the country on speaking engagements. Salaam said he always planned to come back to Harlem, but doing so also brought back painful memories. “New York was the scene of the crime,” he said.
“So many people, when they have a bad experience, what do they do? They want nothing to do with it, they want to leave. People talked about him leaving – I would leave too,” said Ny Whitaker, a former county committee member from Harlem. “But (he is) choosing to come back, to heal, to serve and to be a part of the community in this almost Renaissance time.”
Governing in prose
Salaam was an incredibly successful candidate. Being a successful lawmaker is a different kind of challenge. In an interview with City & State during the campaign, the then-candidate didn’t know the size of the city’s budget, what ULURP stood for or how many members were in the City Council. “I found out already,” Salaam said a few weeks after the election. “It’s 51.”
Before running for the council, Salaam’s advocacy largely focused on criminal justice reform, but some of the policies that he mentions supporting – like the Clean Slate Act – are state bills and out of the council’s hands. Salaam is confident that he can use his platform to advocate for those kinds of reforms with other levels of government.
And the City Council does have (arguably limited) oversight of the New York City Police Department. A majority of its members have also called for banning solitary confinement – something Salaam has long supported.
Salaam has said that he wants to “right-size” the scope of the NYPD, including by steering police away from being primary responders to people in mental health crises, though he doesn’t support defunding the police. He said he’d push for legislation that would require new NYPD recruits to live in the five boroughs.
On Rikers Island, Salaam wants to see more people who are arrested for drug offenses diverted to treatment programs instead of jail. There needs to be accountability for the crisis conditions at Rikers and one option might be a federal receiver, he said, though he didn’t explicitly call for that.
These positions – and Harlem’s more moderate politics – make Salaam somewhat difficult to place along the ideological spectrum of the council’s Democratic members. A smaller Progressive Caucus narrowed its ranks earlier this year with a statement of principles that its members had to sign, including a commitment to reduce the size and scope of the NYPD. Though Salaam doesn’t support defunding the NYPD, he said he won’t make a decision about joining the caucus until he’s in the council. City Council Member Lincoln Restler, a co-chair of the caucus, said he hopes Salaam will consider joining.
Harlem will be looking to Salaam to confront a suite of other local concerns – including a dearth of affordable housing – when he takes office. “The art of negotiation and art of getting to a place of ‘yes’ is going to be huge,” said one Democratic strategist, who was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly. “There are huge land use issues that Kristin Richardson Jordan just kind of left on the table, and he’s going to have to really figure out what’s best for the community and what’s best for the future of Harlem.”
Salaam said he would go back to the negotiating table with the developer behind One45, a mixed-use housing development that Richardson Jordan blocked for not including enough affordable housing. Salaam didn’t say what ratio of affordable units or level of affordability he would support in that or other new developments proposed in the district.
Part of the work that lies ahead, Salaam said, is “me boning up on things, understanding processes.” The other part will be learning on the job. Installing an experienced staff behind him would also go a long way to shortening that learning curve, some politicos said.
Even though his mentor Keith Wright entered elected office in the early ’90s with more experience working in government, Wright called himself “green” at the time. “You have to live this to learn it. It doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “When I tell you he’s a quick study, he’s a quick study.”
Correction: Due to an error in a Getty Images caption in a photo from 1990, Antron McCray was incorrectly identified as Yusef Salaam in a photo that was previously used in this article.
NEXT STORY: This week’s biggest Winners & Losers