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City Council’s First Haitian Member

by Gail Robinson, Feb 26, 2007
 

Waving signs and denouncing then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, thousands of Haitians shut down the Brooklyn Bridge as they marched to City Hall in August 1997. Some carried Haitian flags as they expressed outrage at the police torture of one of their own: Abner Louima.

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That "Day of Outrage Against Police Brutality and Harassment" represented a rallying cry for some members of New York’s emerging Haitian community. Now almost 10 years later many Haitians in Brooklyn united once again, this time for a different cause: the election of the first Haitian-born member of the City Council. Mathieu Eugene, a physician who runs a youth group, captured 34 percent of the vote to fill the seat previously held by U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke on the New York City Council, beating out nine other contenders to represent the 40th district.

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Winning elected office has been a right of passage for ethnic groups in New York City, dating back to the days when the Irish achieved political power. In recent years, City Council has seen the election of its first Jamaican and its first Chinese member. And other groups want in on the action as well. Sikhs have become increasingly involved in Queens politics, winning election to the borough’s Democratic committee, and one of Eugene’s rivals in the 40th district was a Pakistani who, had he won, would have been that group’s first City Council member.

For members of emerging immigrants groups, winning office is a sign that they have become accepted, gives them some degree of power and provides a source of pride. But while there has been celebration in Flatbush, Eugene has not yet assumed his council seat. The swearing in ceremony for him and the other new council member elected on February 20, Vincent Ignizio of Staten Island, has been delayed indefinitely because of charge that Eugene was not a resident of the 40th District on election day, as some experts believe the law requires. Mathieu has reportedly moved into the district, but some argue the change of residence came too late. “What happens if Eugene is disqualified?” mused on the Room Eight blog. “Do they swear in the second place finisher [Jennifer James] or do they have another election?”

Errol Louis, who broke the story of Eugene’s residency, thinks neither is likely to happen. “Officials I contacted at the Board of Elections and the council itself seem more than ready to do the easy thing, which is look the other way and welcome Eugene to the council,” Louis wrote.

When and if that happens, Haitians in New York hope he will represent their concerns in City Council and perhaps pave the way for more political involvement by other Haitians in New York.

AN EMERGING POLITICAL FORCE

Haitians have been coming to New York at least since the 1930s but the number of arrivals sharply increased during and after the 1960s. According to 2000 census figures about 420,000 people born in Haiti live in the United States, with about 125,000 of them in New York State. Other estimates put the number of Haitian immigrants and the children of Haitian immigrants in the city at about 250,000. Many of them live in the Flatbush and East Flatbush sections of Brooklyn, parts of which are in the 40th district. While New York state has the nation’s second largest Haitian population after Florida, Haitians here have not been as successful as those in Florida and Massachusetts in getting Haitians elected to public office.

Many politically active Haitian have focused more on the political turmoil in their country of origin than on city politics even though “there are lots of issues Haitians need to deal with,” said Jocelyn McCalla, former executive director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. The language barrier also impedes political involvement.

But they have shown some clout. In 1990, 50,000 Haitians in New York demonstrated against a federal government policy that banned all Haitians from giving blood. The Food and Drug Administration said that because AIDS was prevalent in Haiti, the blood could be infected with the HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Following the protest, the government reversed the ban.

Often when Haitians did get involved in local politics, it was because of tragedy. The Louima beating was key, Gary Pierre-Pierre, editor of the Haitian Times has said. “They were able to mobilize around this case unlike any other group has been able to do,” he told reporter Marjorie Valbrun. But three years later another Haitian New Yorker, Patrick Dorismond, was killed by police who erroneously suspected him of dealing drugs. Outrage mounted as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defended the police and cast aspersions on Dorismond, whose father is a well-known Haitian singer.

Ironically these events may have led to a great acceptance of Haitians in New York, said Regine LaTortue, a Haitian native and professor at Brooklyn College “Some of the tragic events of the past have demonstrated New Yorkers were concerned about people no matter where they came from,” she said.

But efforts to translate those concern into political clout faltered, often because of divisions within the community.

THE 2007 CAMPAIGN

The 40th district has been likened to a kind mini Caribbean with many residents having ties to nations in the West Indies and Central America. The candidates seeking the council seat this year reflected that. Along with Eugene and Mohammed Razvi, the Pakistani, were candidates from St. Vincent, Jamaica, Trinidad, Costa Rica and Panama.

Faced with such a crowded field, some Haitian residents decided their community would be best served if they could rally around a single candidate. Originally, many endorsed Ferdinand Zizi, a health care administrator. But Zizi withdrew from the race after his nominating petitions were challenged, leaving Eugene, who attended medical school in Belgium and moved to New York in 1978.

“You should see Haitians getting together more and more,” Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., told the Sun. “They will find out when they get together they can have victory.”

Eugene’s support extended beyond Haitian voters. He won endorsements from the politically powerful Clarkes – Una, the first Jamaican to serve on the City Council and her daughter Yvette, the congresswoman — and from the politically powerful Local 1199 of the Service Employees Union as well as from two Jewish newspapers. Many Haitians voted for Yvette Clarke last year in her successful run for Congress, said McCalla, perhaps prompting her and her mother to back a Haitian candidate this time around.

“Dr. Eugene managed to appeal to a broad cross section of the community,” McCalla said. And Eugene was well known for his work in the neighborhood, particularly in the area of health care, according to LaTortue.

But the Haitian support, including the backing of musician Wyclef Jean, who spoke at a campaign party the Saturday before the election, was key.

“I’m proud to be Haitian,” Eugene said last month, “but I’m a strong voice for all the community.”

EUGENE’S IMPACT

Eugene’s victory may give Haitians, whose experience in their homeland provides ample reason for being leery of politics, greater faith in democracy. LaTortue said she still feels pleased when she witnesses how gracefully most failed U.S. political candidates accept defeat. “After seeing that a couple of times, you think perhaps the system will work and that votes will be fairly counted,” she said. “It takes a while to gain trust.”

Beyond being an inspiration, McCalla hopes Eugene will address some issues of concern in the community, particularly in education where the school system “is not flexible enough to respond to immigrants who, through no fault of their own” may be academically behind. LaTortue would like to see Eugene work to improve relations with the police department.

During his campaign, Eugene said he would focus on health care, education and jobs as well as issues of concern to immigrants. He stressed his experience providing health services and help to young people in the community. If he was elected to council, Eugene said, he would "continue to do the same thing but I will have more resources and the power to legislate.”

But if and when he takes his seat, McCalla said, Eugene will not be able to rest on his laurels. He will have to face the voters of the 40th district again in November. As McCalla put it, Eugene “is going to have to quickly learn the ropes at City Council.”

 
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