By Vania Andre
Mathieu Eugene, the first Haitian to be elected to New York City Council, will face political operative Brian Cunningham in the general election that will take place on Nov. 7 for the Flatbush seat.
Eugene, who has been a fixture in the Brooklyn Haitian community for his history-making election, has held the 40th District council seat for a decade; however Cunningham, a Flatbush native, believes it’s time for a change. Eugene was not immediately available for comment on this article.
“Everyone had a great sense of pride, dignity and satisfaction when Eugene was elected in 2007. We had great hopes for what his victory meant to the Caribbean Diaspora and to Haitians specifically,” Cunningham said. “However, his success became a footnote in history. I commend that footnote, but there’s more history that can be made and I want to be a part of that continuity.”
For Cunningham, Eugene’s win a decade ago was supposed to have been “built up” like the legendary work of the Haitian fighters that came before him. Eugene’s record should have embodied the “spirit of Dutty Boukman and Toussaint Louverture,” the Haitian forefathers responsible for Haiti’s independence from France.
“You can’t fight his record,” he said. “He may talk about national issues that impact the Haitian community, but it’s one thing to have influence and another to have power.”
During the Democratic primary election Eugene had a narrow win over Cunningham with 41 percent of the vote, while Cunningham received 30 percent. Although Cunningham was not the Democratic pick for the party, he did not let his defeat stop him from forward as a candidate under the Reform Party, thus ensuring his name on the Nov. 7 ballot.
Dr. Jean Eddy Saint Paul, a political sociologist and founding director of CUNY’S Haitian Studies Institute, points out that six out of 10 voters did not vote for Eugene, a telling sign of his political viability and trajectory in the community.
“Mathieu has been faced with a crisis of legitimacy,” Saint Paul said. “If he wants to be more successful, he needs to be more modern and democratize his political style.”
Upon a closer look at their campaign styles, the differences are clear. Eugene is more “traditional” with limited social media and digital use, while Cunningham has made full use of his online platforms to engage voters.
The possible game changer
On Oct. 19, the Working Families Party (WFP) endorsed Cunningham in his bid to unseat Eugene.
“The WFP endorsement of Cunningham hurt Eugene very badly,” Saint Paul said. “You have to look at who WFP has endorsed. They historically endorse “progressive and popular” candidates. In fact, 27 of the 33 candidates they have supported, have gone off to be the victors in their respective races.
WFP was founded in 1998 by a group of labor unions, community organizations and other public interest groups and have described themselves as a “progressive political organization that fights for an economy that works for all of us, and a democracy in which every voice matters.” Some of their main issues are affordable housing, raising the minimum wage and paid family leave.
WFP initially planned to stay out of the race and not endorse a candidate, however after the primary election it had become clear that Cunningham had the backing of grassroots activists.
“It was a combination of factors: Brian really impressed us, many leaders within the WFP, and we saw a real consolidation of support behind Brian in the community,” said Bill Lipton in an interview with Kings County Politics, New York state director for WFP. “The WFP stands with these activists and concerned residents who believe that in the age of Trump, we need the kind of inspiring leadership that Brian brings.”
The WFP endorsement has raised the suspicion of Eugene who says they “lied to many people,” he said to KCP.
“They [WFP] lied to many people. They said to me and others both before and after the primary that they would stay out of the race, and then they suddenly dropped in and supported this guy [Cunningham],” said Eugene. “I’ve dedicated all my life to helping young people. This guy has no experience or knowledge. He says it’s his time, but it’s always the people’s time. He wants to microwave a track record, but I’ve got the experience.”
On Nov. 5 Cunningham and Eugene took part in a debate at St. Paul’s in Flatbush that was moderated by Amy Matthews of LWVNYC and Ben Max of Gotham Gazette. Throughout the contentious debate, Cunningham described Eugene has ineffective and highlighted the affordable housing crisis plaguing the district. Eugene’s legislative record was also highlighted. During his 10 years of office Eugene passed seven bills, a dismal record compared to his neighboring Council colleague Council Member Jumaane D. Williams who passed 41 bills in eight years.
“If we take all of this into account, I would not be very comfortable I was in Mathieu’s shoes. It’s not a good sign for him,” he said. “Cunningham can easily win the election.”
Although not in the running anymore, Pia Raymond, who challenged Eugene and Cunningham for the democratic ticket in September, is being watched to see who she throws her support behind. Raymond came in a close third in the primary with 22 percent of the vote. Political experts do not believe these votes will necessarily go to Eugene, which may in the end be the final lethal blow that takes an incumbent down.
There’s speculation that a deal may have been brokered behind the scenes between Eugene and Raymond. Eugene was seen praising Raymond publicly at an event this weekend – a move that has raised some eyebrows considering Raymond had challenged Eugene only a few weeks earlier.
A Raymond endorsement of Eugene may be the “only thing that would save” him, Saint Paul said. If that doesn’t happen, Cunningham will be in a “better position to win.”
Voters will go to the polls tomorrow to decide who will be their representative in the 40th Council district.