Campaign Confidential

Yusef Salaam doesn’t know the City Council. He says that’s a good thing.

A Q&A with the newcomer to local politics, who’s running for a Harlem council seat against two experienced elected officials.

Yusef Salaam

Yusef Salaam Jeff Coltin

This story is from the Campaign Confidential newsletter, relaunched for 2023. Want it in your inbox? Sign up here. And check out the whole email here.

Yusef Salaam doesn’t know how many members are in the New York City Council – even though he’s running to be one of its 51 members. “On the City Council from every single borough – that I do not have the specific number,” the Democratic candidate for District 9 in Harlem said when asked by City & State on Tuesday. He’s never been to a council meeting, though he has “virtually participated in some. And when I say participated, I mean as an outside viewer.” He doesn’t know what ULURP stands for – though he knew the acronym for Uniform Land Use Review Procedure was a land use thing. He wouldn’t say how he would have voted on the budget last year, since “I have not considered all of the moving parts.” And Salaam wouldn’t venture a guess on the rough size of the city’s $106.7 billion operating budget. But he does know “we are not operating from a position of lack. We are operating from a position of abundance,” he said. “So that part, I do know. (Laughs.) The specific numbers?” He shrugged.

Salaam owned his lack of local political experience. “That’s a good thing,” he said. “That’s why I say this is not politics as usual.” A member of the Central Park Five, he was famously wrongly locked up in prison for seven years, and spent the past six years living in Stockbridge, Georgia. He only completed the move back to the city in December. His opponents, Assembly Members Inez Dickens and Al Taylor, are touting their elected experience. “If that’s the argument, you’re telling me that we’re going to use old tried ways to solve the same problems that we’ve had,” Salaam said.

But to Dickens, who served 11 years in the council before winning her Assembly seat, Salaam is the unqualified one. “Good intentions are not enough to solve the issues that face Harlem. Good intentions can only get you so far. After that you need to do the work. I’ve done the work,” she said as part of a longer statement. “I’ve done the homework and the extra credit, unlike the men in this race.”

Dickens’ general consultant, Tyquana Henderson-Rivers, said reporters have been giving Salaam a pass because of “media guilt” for his wrongful conviction, while the reporting on Dickens has been tough. “We got a colonoscopy. He had a physical, where they took his weight, checked his vision and sent him on his way,” she said. “You can’t be ready when you don’t know how many colleagues you’ll have.”

But an experienced political consultant said a candidate not knowing basic facts about the council isn’t as rare as you’d think. “They don’t know any of that shit … they know the buzzwords and all the stuff, but they didn’t know shit,” the consultant said, based on conversations with dozens of candidates over the years. “It’s not a disqualifier.”

Read what else Salaam had to say about why he’s running, how he got paid from the city budget and whether he’s backing Cornel West for president. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You obviously were outside of Harlem politics for a long time, living in Georgia. When did you move back?

I came back late last year. That’s when we finally finished the whole moving process. My whole family – with a smaller team, I have 10 children. So the ones who were not adulting or in college, those ones came back with us and we finished the whole process around December.

The fact that I moved my family almost 1,000 miles back is showing the people – I’m letting the people know how committed I am.

If you lose, are you staying here?

You have to be a person of your word. My word has always been, I am fighting for the people. I’m not a seasoned politician, so this is not politics as usual. But what this has shown me is that the people need change. And what they see in me is the change politician. They see in me the politician who is going to represent a future of what Harlem looks like.

But also, even more importantly, the beauty is understanding that I found my purpose. My purpose isn’t just to be a private citizen, writing books, being on stages, inspiring people to be their best selves. My purpose is being able to utilize my platform in an even more powerful way to show the people, not only can I restore my life, but if I can do it, you can do it.

So why run for the City Council? It almost feels like you would have a smaller stage than your previous international travels.

We have been in abject poverty for a long time. All of that that comes out of abject poverty, the conditions, the fact that people are talking about safe streets, or safety in general, safe subway stations. The fact that we’re talking about safe buildings, and the fact that (the Department of Housing Preservation and Development) has to come in and fix the buildings that need to be fixed. If we can solve for poverty, we can solve for most of the conditions that are plaguing us as a people. Hence, the entry to the political process through the door of City Council. Right?

We’re talking about the individual who is in charge of the budgetary process, as it relates to looking at this moral document. And understanding, hold on, we’re smart. This is really like, where we move the money around to be able to satisfy all of the needs of our people? So therefore, it’s an IQ test as well. Because we can see where we voted in the past. We can see where we’ve spent, where we’ve budgeted all of the money, all of the dollars.

Just stepping outside of the conversation for a second, imagine my surprise when I found out that I was being compensated for an injury that the city did to me from the tax dollars. So for 34 years now, I’ve been fighting for my life. I’ve been fighting for myself. And as a result, I’ve been fighting for us. 

On the budget for a second, do you know how roughly big the city budget is?

I don’t know specifically, but we have been doing some research. We are not operating from a position of lack. We are operating from a position of abundance. I do know that we have the money. So that part, I do know. (Laughs.) The specific numbers? (Shrugs.) But the fact that we are operating from a position of abundance, it’s just about who’s going to fight for that pie for Central Harlem, for District 9.

Dickens’ supporters say she’d be a loyal vote for City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams. The current council member, Kristin Richardson Jordan, voted against the budget in 2022. How would you have voted on the budget?

I have to definitely consider all of the moving parts. I have not considered all of the moving parts. But I will tell you that I will be working in a way that represents our people. Because when I think about other people who have said, “Well I would have done this, and I would have done that” – these are people who are seasoned veterans in the political process. Even them saying I want to come back to the city to be the council person, right? If that’s the argument, you’re telling me that we’re going to use old tried ways to solve the same problems that we’ve had. No, we need to use new ideas, new thoughts, new ways to solve the old problems that we’ve had. Because if we do the same thing that we’ve always done, that’s the very definition of insanity. 

Do you know how many members are on the City Council?

On the City Council from every single borough – that I do not have the specific number.

And do you know what ULURP stands for?

We’re talking about land use. I mean, specifically the wording? I know ULURP is land use, right? 

I mean, it’s funny, because a lot of the conversations are talking about my lack of experience in politics. I think that’s a good thing. That’s why I say this is not politics as usual. If we’ve been fighting to get affordable housing to come into our community, and we’ve been fighting for decades? Like who was there before? And are they still there? I’m not mentioning any names, I’m just saying, we have to be so wise about how we fight, how we understand this.

Why now? Why 2023? Was it in response to Kristin Richardson Jordan? Or was it just the right time in your life?

So I’ve been talked to about and really pondering politics for a very, very long time. People told me years ago, you really should run for politics. Your thoughts and your ideas about things could really help our people in the political space. Back then I got to tell you, I was jaded. I was like, politics, that’s not my lane, I’m not going into politics.

But then I realized very, very quickly, think about the school to prison pipeline. The budget has been slashed for public schools, when we need more money put in the public schools. If I was on the City Council, I would have had an opportunity to talk to the mayor and have a conversation as to why we need more money pushed into public schools. Because my why is this: They are already determining how many prisons to build by the time a child (is) in their third and fourth grade.

We’re running into a horrible problem right now with the city jails, where the planned capacity is 3,000 people, and the current population is like 6,000. What do we do there?

Of course, they’re talking about closing Rikers. And they should, by 2027. That’s by law. However, to your point, if we’re talking about the borough-based jails that they’re talking about building, one right now in downtown Manhattan? The capacity will not be able to hold. So we have to look at other things. We have to look at the fact that how many of the people who have been arrested are in prison for lower crimes that can be let out? We don’t want to let out the person who was accused of murder. But Kalief Browder was accused of stealing a backpack.

Have you been to a council meeting?

No, I have not. I shouldn’t say that. I’ve virtually participated in some. And when I say participated, I mean as an outside viewer.

Inez Dickens has said specifically that Manhattan Democratic Party leader Keith Wright went down to Georgia to recruit you. Is that a fair characterization? 

What’s very funny about that is she misquoted Keith Wright terribly. Keith Wright never said “my personal Nelson Mandela.” He never said that. Keith Wright said “Yusef Salaam, you’re like our Nelson Mandela.” You know when he first told me that? While I was living in the city, and I went up to Albany with my mother, when she had an organization called People United for Children. And I used to work at People United for Children. And I have a photograph with me and Keith Wright in his office as an assemblyman. It is a beautiful photo. And he’s looking at me almost like – and I didn’t realize this until later – he’s looking at me like, “Man, if he only realizes that he’s the future.” And every time I see that photo now, I’m like, “Wow, here we are today, in the process of realizing the purpose of all that I have gone through.” And so that’s a beautiful thing to really consider.

Did he come down to speak to me? Oh, absolutely. He came down – and he wasn’t the only one.

My cousin kept saying to me, man, listen, you need to go into politics. You need to be thinking about what’s next. Because this is amazing what you’re doing. He said, “You know Yusef, you can join the political process anywhere, you can literally move anywhere, you can do it anywhere, you would be received well anywhere.” But he said any place besides New York is off-Broadway.

Cornel West endorsed your campaign before he announced his own run for president on the People’s Party line. Would you support him?

So I don’t know if it’s the right space and time to discuss that. You know, we will discuss it at some point in the future. (Laughs.) But I can tell you this, Cornel West is my guy. Listen, that young man is brilliant in his understanding and articulation of the concerns of our people.

We can’t be just waiting by the sidelines saying, look, can you help me? That’s falling on deaf ears. If we were marching and all we did was march, who’s going to take our grievances, our voice, our concerns into the halls of power? We need somebody who’s going to be a leader who serves the people. That’s what leadership is.

You’re going to bother some people by not saying Joe Biden unequivocally. I know you know that.

Well you know we are really concerned, right now, 100% about Harlem. And this office. That’s what we’re concerned about. We’ll get to the other stuff later.