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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Harlem City Council election tests limits of progressive politics

Yusef Salaam, one of three candidates in the Democratic primary for a City Council seat in the historically Black neighborhood of Harlem, during a candidates forum in New York, June 9, 2023. The three moderate Democrats are running to replace Kristin Richardson Jordan, one of the city’s most left-leaning politicians, who dropped out of the race after a turbulent term.

By Jeffery C. Mays

Two years ago, when a democratic socialist narrowly won a crowded Democratic primary for a City Council seat in Harlem, some saw it as a sign that the historically Black neighborhood was becoming more politically progressive.

But roughly a month before this year’s primary, set for June 27, the first-term council member, Kristin Richardson Jordan, unexpectedly dropped out of the race. Her decision has recast the hotly contested Democratic primary, which now consists of three candidates — none particularly progressive.

Two are sitting state Assembly members: Al Taylor, 65, a reverend in his sixth year in the Legislature, and Inez Dickens, 73, who held the Harlem Council seat for 12 years before joining the Assembly. The third candidate is Yusef Salaam, 49, one of five men convicted and later exonerated in the rape and assault of a female jogger in Central Park in 1989.

All are moderate Democrats who, before Jordan’s withdrawal, had tried to distance themselves from Jordan and her political stances, which include redistributing wealth and abolishing police.

But with the incumbent out of the race, the candidates have turned on one another. Salaam questioned Dickens’ behavior as a landlord, asking her during a debate how many people she had evicted in the past two decades. Dickens initially replied one, but The Daily News found that approximately 17 eviction proceedings had been initiated.

Dickens said her family-owned management companies rent units below market rate, and that some of the tenants involved in eviction proceedings were in arrears for four years or more. “I have done more to preserve and protect affordable housing in Harlem than any other candidate in this race,” Dickens said.

Her campaign, in turn, has questioned Salaam’s experience after his campaign appeared to be in deficit and over the $207,000 spending cap, before he filed amended paperwork.

The race then took a bizarre turn this past week at a women’s rally for Dickens when former U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., in recounting how Salaam had called him before entering the race, remarked that Salaam had a “foreign name.” Salaam responded on social media that “we all belong in New York City.” Rangel, through a spokesperson for Dickens, said he intended no offense and meant foreign as being unknown to him.

The two men spoke Friday afternoon and resolved the issue, representatives for both campaigns confirmed.

Ultimately, the race might be decided on issues more germane to the district, including the loss of Black residents, a lack of affordable housing and concerns about an oversaturation of drug-treatment centers.

The three candidates hold stances that underscore how the district will soon be represented by a moderate. Dickens opposed the so-called good-cause eviction measure, which would have limited a landlord’s ability to increase rents and evict tenants, had it passed the state Legislature. Taylor has in the past voted against abortion rights based on religious objections, but he recently voted to support a measure that would let voters add an equal rights amendment to the state constitution. Salaam supported congestion pricing but said he had reservations about how it would affect Harlem.

All three have garnered endorsements from mainstream Democratic groups and leaders: Dickens from the United Federation of Teachers and Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York; Taylor from the New York City District Council of Carpenters; and Salaam was recruited to run for the seat by Keith L.T. Wright, a former Assembly member and chair of the Manhattan Democratic Party.

The Greater Harlem Coalition voted to endorse Dickens before Jordan dropped out of the race. The carpenters union said their sole objective was to defeat Jordan.

Taylor said that not all of Jordan’s supporters necessarily supported her most left-leaning stances, such as defunding the police. “I don’t think that she had cornered the market on this community,” he said in an interview.

Jordan’s victory in 2021 over the incumbent, Bill Perkins, was less a districtwide endorsement of far-left views and more the culmination of “galvanized anti-establishment” sentiment that has been building against Harlem’s once powerful but now fading political machine, said Basil Smikle, director of the Public Policy Program at Hunter College.

“There is an interest in finding an alternative and setting a new course,” Smikle said.

Jordan, whose name will still be on the ballot, may have been her own worst enemy. She was criticized for using City Council funds to promote her campaign. Her far-left stances on policing, housing development and the war in Ukraine drew backlash from colleagues and voters. She missed nearly half of her committee meetings, city records show.

Jordan declined to comment. But Charles Barron, a left-leaning council member who represents East New York and is one of Jordan’s few allies on the City Council, said her leftist positions irritated mainstream Democratic leadership and their financial backers who “prefer establishment-type elected officials as opposed to independent, strong, Black radicals like she was.”

The remaining three candidates did not greatly differentiate themselves during a forum at the National Action Network in Harlem earlier this month and at a debate Tuesday night on NY1.

They are all in favor of the development of housing at 145th Street and Lenox Avenue, a proposal that Jordan initially rejected because it was not affordable enough. The candidates said they were not in favor of the city’s use of stop-and-frisk tactics, which a federal monitor recently said were being used in a discriminatory manner.

When it comes to the influx of migrants seeking asylum, Dickens, Taylor and Salaam said they support New York City’s status as a sanctuary city but questioned whether the billions of dollars being spent to house and feed migrants should also be available to New Yorkers experiencing homelessness.

None want Jordan’s endorsement.

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