By Max A. Joseph Jr.
On Sept. 9 Brooklynites go to the polls to elect their state representatives. On that very day Haitian Americans, one of the borough’s largest communities, are well poised to make history in the Empire State. Michele Adolphe and Rodneyse Bichotte are running for the open seat in the 42nd Assembly District, who incumbent Rhoda Jacobs is retiring; while Rubain Dorancy is seeking to fill the 20th State Senate District seat vacated by Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president.
If successful, Haitian Americans would for the first time, have a voice in both chambers in Albany and in New York City, the nerve centers of the Empire State.
Having one of their own in the corridors of power is regarded by immigrant communities as a necessary step toward achieving full equality under the Constitution. Many high profile political appointees that straddle key sectors of this society are a clear recognition of Haitian Americans’ growing political strength and achievements.
Patrick Gaspard, former director of the White House Office of Political Affairs from 2009 to 2012, is currently the U.S Ambassador to South Africa. On December 20, 2010, Raymond J. Lohier, nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed unanimously by the U.S Senate, became the first Haitian-American judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit in New York. On Apr. 8 of this year, Jacques Jiha, a former board member of H.A.U.P (Haitian-Americans United for Progress) was appointed Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Finance by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Despite these palpable successes and other unsung accomplishments in various fields, particularly academia and health, the process of harnessing their electoral weight toward political and economic empowerment has been quite a challenge for Haitian Americans in this highly complex system. Fortunately, there have been some encouraging developments with the re-emergence of many savvy and seasoned politicians that may have learned from past electoral defeats or, most importantly, finally mastered the art of building coalitions.
Because the U.S. is among a small number of countries that offers full assimilation to foreigners; ethnicity, race and religion naturally play a significant role in this country’s electoral politic. However, elective politics is about gathering the highest number of votes, hence building coalitions remains the single most important avenue to electoral success in this ethnically-diverse society. In fact sectarianism, despite being a primary component of this country’s political structure, must be avoided at all costs as it is an impediment to electoral success.
For Haitian-Americans politicians their electoral failures in the Empire State have been a rollercoaster of squandered opportunities, above all, their inability at mastering the intricacies of the system and building coalitions. The one exception is Eugene Mathieu who has represented the 40th District in the New York City Council since 2007.
In the 42nd Assembly District, Michele Adolphe and Rodneyse Bichotte, having ran against the retiring incumbent– albeit unsuccessfully, can count on name recognition, which is a definite plus in local races. Whoever among those two manages to get their supporters out and builds a coalition among the District’s diverse communities could be the winner on Sept. 9. Likewise in the race for the vacant 20th State Senate District seat, Rubain Dorancy, an attorney and educator with a proven record of dedicated public service, stands a good chance at becoming the first Haitian American elected to the New York Senate.
Dorancy’s candidacy however has been marred by controversies ranging from not actually living in the 20th district, to unitemized campaign expenses, to losing an expected endorsement of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), of which the candidate and his teacher-wife are active members. When a California superior court judge struck down that state’s teacher tenure system as unconstitutional in Vergara v. California last June, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released a statement on the decision, which Dorancy simply retweeted.
Unfortunately, the UFT, which firmly opposed the decision, equated Dorancy’s action as an explicit endorsement of the ruling. The UFT ultimately threw its support behind Jesse Hamilton, Dorancy’s main opponent in the race. With the endorsements of Mayor Bill de Blasio, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke and the Workers Family Party (WFP), Dorancy has remained the frontrunner in the race nonetheless.
The U.S.’ electoral structure is a fusion of federal, state, county, city, village, district and community boards that no doubt encourages apathy or, some would assert, political illiteracy. It is not unusual for the average voter to confuse the role of a governor to that of a mayor and vice versa, or not knowing the name of the elected official who represents his or her district at federal, state or local levels. Fittingly, the U.S. political system consistently ranks at the bottom in voter participation among the First World nations, despite the enviable depiction of it being the world’s greatest democracy.
Haitian Americans, a sub-group within the larger Black minority because of their distinctive culture and language, have come a long way ever since their arrival in this country, through intermittent immigration waves. With the coming of age of second and third generations of Haitian-Americans, the community may have started to amass the political power commensurate to its achievements in all levels of this society. Yet, a lot remains to be done, particularly in the field of voter education for newly minted citizens whose attachment to old country has been the primary impediment to acculturation and, by extension, political and economic empowerment in the land of opportunities.