Exonerated ‘Central Park Five’ member Yusef Salaam wins New York City Council seat

Salaam, a Democrat, will represent a central Harlem district on the City Council, having run unopposed for the seat.

Yusef Salaam gestures as he speaks

File photo: New York City Council candidate Yusef Salaam speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, Wednesday, May 24, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Exonerated “Central Park Five” member Yusef Salaam won a seat Tuesday on the New York City Council, completing a stunning reversal of fortune decades after he was wrongly imprisoned in an infamous rape case.

Salaam, a Democrat, will represent a central Harlem district on the City Council, having run unopposed for the seat in one of many local elections held across New York state Tuesday. He won his primary election in a landslide.

The victory comes more than two decades after DNA evidence was used to overturn the convictions of Salaam and four other Black and Latino men in the 1989 rape and beating of a white jogger in Central Park. Salaam was arrested at age 15 and imprisoned for almost seven years.

“For me, this means that we can really become our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” Salaam said in an interview before the election.

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Elsewhere in New York City, voters were deciding whether to reelect the Queens district attorney and cast ballots in other City Council races. The council, which passes legislation and has some oversight powers over city agencies, has long been dominated by Democrats and the party was certain to retain firm control after the election.

Local elections on Long Island could offer clues about how the city’s suburbs could vote in next year’s congressional elections, though low turnout was expected because there weren’t federal or statewide candidates on the ballot this election.

One of the more prominent races was in Suffolk County, where Republican Ed Romaine defeated Democrat David Calone to become county executive, giving the GOP control of an office that had long been controlled by a Democrat.

Democrats lost in all four of Long Island’s congressional districts last year and have dedicated significant resources to the region for 2024. Republicans, bolstering campaigns with a focus on local issues such as crime and migrants, are aiming to hold onto the seats next year.

“Keeping an eye on Long Island, which has been a little counterintuitive in its election outcomes the last few years with a mix of national and local issues, gives you a chance to see what’s playing in a typical suburb that’s not unlike the ones in Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina, Virginia, Arizona, Nevada and other places that both parties believe are at play,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University on Long Island.

In the city meanwhile, Salaam’s candidacy was a reminder of what the war on crime can look like when it goes too far.

Salaam was arrested along with Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise and accused of attacking a woman running in Central Park.

The crime dominated headlines in the city, inflaming racial tensions as police rounded up Black and Latino men and boys for interrogation. Former President Donald Trump, then just a brash real estate executive in the city, took out large ads in newspapers that implored New York to bring back the death penalty.

The teens convicted in the attack served between five and 12 years in prison before the case was reexamined.

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A serial rapist and murderer was eventually linked to the crime through DNA evidence and a confession. The convictions of the Central Park Five were vacated in 2002 and they received a combined $41 million settlement from the city.

Salaam campaigned on easing poverty and combatting gentrification in Harlem. He often mentioned his conviction and imprisonment on the trail — his place as a symbol of injustice helping to animate the overwhelmingly Black district and propel him to victory.

“I am really the ambassador for everyone’s pain,” he said. “In many ways, I went through that for our people so I can now lead them.”

In a more competitive City Council race, Democrat Justin Brannan defeated Republican Ari Kagan in an ethnically diverse south Brooklyn district. The race became heated as Election Day approached, with the candidates sparring over the Israel-Hamas war and New York’s migrant crisis.

In a slight that symbolized the tension between the men, Brannan recently tweeted a photo of a ribbon cutting ceremony that he and Kagan attended, but the image had Kagan’s face blurred out.

Also in Brooklyn, City Council member Inna Vernikov, a vocal supporter of Israel, won reelection weeks after she was arrested for bringing a gun to a pro-Palestinian demonstration.

Vernikov was seen in photos and videos with the butt of a pistol poking out of her waistband while she was counterprotesting at the pro-Palestinian rally at Brooklyn College in October. She was arraigned last week on a charge of possessing a gun at a sensitive location.

Vernikov has a concealed carry license, but New York law forbids gun owners from bringing firearms to sensitive locations such as protests and school grounds, and requires people with licenses to keep their handguns concealed.

She has surrendered her gun and she’s next due in court Jan. 24.

Statewide, New Yorkers approved two ballot measures — one to remove the debt limit placed on small city school districts and the other to extend an exclusion from the debt limit for sewage projects.

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