Voter waiting to cast his ballot at a Brooklyn NYC voting site in 2016. Photo Credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre.

By Jonathan Greig

Election day is tomorrow and Haitian Americans are heading to the polls with a lot of pressing issues on their minds. Across the country, a number of Haitian-American candidates won primaries earlier this year and are looking to secure city, state and national seats.

Mathylde Frontus, the child of Haitian immigrants, secured a surprise win in a heavily-contested Democratic nomination for the 46th Assembly District seat in Coney Island by a razor-thin margin. The previous assemblywoman, Pamela Harris, was forced to resign in disgrace this year after she plead guilty to charges of fraud in June for stealing $25,000 designated for survivors of Superstorm Sandy.

Frontus has spent decades working as a community organizer in the district — which covers Coney Island, Sea Gate, parts of Bay Ridge, Brighton Beach, Dyker Heights and Gravesend — and is now a professor of social work at Columbia and New York University.

“I hope to bring fresh thinking to the 46th AD [Assembly District] and a focus on community inclusion and engagement,” she told The Haitian Times. “I’d like to invite my constituents to have a seat at the table and inform the the decisions I make as their legislator.”

“Since I was a teenager, I’ve been involved in various community projects such as volunteering at my local soup kitchen and helping the homeless connect to services. I founded a multi-service non-profit organizations that offered a range of services to the community such as job and housing search assistance, legal referral and final literacy, in addition to founding 2 anti-violence coalitions which brought various stakeholders together to combat gun violence,” she added.

Frontus said she managed to beat her heavily-backed primary opponent, Ethan Lustig-Elgrably, through grassroots organizing and on-the-ground campaigning. Despite her win, Lustig-Elgrably is still running on the Working Families Party line and may siphon votes from her as she battles the Republican candidate, Steve Saperstein.

Mathylde Frontus. Photo Credit: Mathylde Frontus Facebook

“I have a history of meeting the needs of district and coming up with innovative programming like the first veterans outreach program in Coney Island, youth leadership programs, workshops for aspiring small business owners,” she said. “I’ve been more hands on and understand the needs of the various corners of the district from the west end of Coney Island to Bay Ridge and Dyker Heights.”

While Frontus works to win her seat, other Haitian Americans that secured early primary wins, like Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, are likely headed toward easy victories thanks to heavily Democratic districts in New York. Francois Pierre-Louis, a political science professor at Queens College, said Haitian-American visibility through politics in New York and other cities has created a politically-active base of voters that can get candidates into office.

He cited Haitian-American officials in the administration of New York Mayor David Dinkins as well as others in subsequent city administrations that helped provide a starting point for Haitian-American political activity in New York.

“There has been an evolution of the politics of Haitian Americans, since the Haitian community really started to form in the 1960s. At one time, Haitians had no political power at all, but by the beginning of 2006, we began to have elected officials in New York City, and Florida had them much sooner,” he said.

“We began to have a critical mass of Haitians engaging in local politics and club politics,” Pierre-Louis added, mentioning that Democratic Party political leader and campaign strategist Patrick Gaspard had been able to elevate Haitians beyond local communities and into national politics. Now that officials like Gaspard, who was appointed ambassador to South Africa during Barack Obama’s presidency, have been able to expand upward, politicians like Frontus were able to win in districts without large Haitian populations.

Pierre-Louis told The Haitian Times that while politics in New York and Florida are vastly different, Haitians have been able to make their way into the political system in both states by promoting issues pertinent to the community and striving to be advocates for those who have traditionally been marginalized.

“New York City is not as competitive as other parts of the country because it is heavily Democratic, so once you win the primary you are likely to win the whole election. While Haitians in Florida have been involved in politics for longer, they have more issues to face because they are in a Republican state and have to jockey for power with other groups,” he told The Haitian Times.

“It is going to be interesting to see how elected officials behave, because as you know immigration is a major issue for the Haitian community. The Trump administration has created a negative atmosphere for immigrants. I think this election is crucial because there needs to be a balance of power, so that one party does not dominate government.”

Andrew Gillum Kicking off La Perle de Miami: Little Haiti Tour at the Little Haiti Cultural Complex! – at Little Haiti Cultural Center. Photo Credit: Andrew Gillum Twitter

Florida is in the midst of a heavily contested gubernatorial race between former Jacksonville Mayor Andrew Gillum and Republican U.S. Representative Ron DeSantis. Haitian-American Angie Jean-Marie is the director of #VoteTogether, a national initiative aimed at increasing voter participation in the 2018 elections. She has been working to promote voting everywhere but plans to hold a number of large events in Miami’s Little Haiti area.

“Our research shows that when communities come together in celebration of the act of voting, voter participation can increase between one and four percentage points. That’s why we’re engaging voters through events designed to bring together families, friends, students and neighbors in celebration of civic engagement and the act of voting,” she said.

“Our goal is to celebrate Election Day the same way we celebrate the 4th of July.”

The group is working with more than 180 state and local partner organizations to hold events on election day and popularize the day with young people and marginalized communities, and it seems to be having an effect. Across the country, states are seeing record early voting numbers and both parties are campaigning until the final seconds to get their ideas directly to voters.

President Donald Trump has focused heavily on immigration during his rallies across the country ahead of Nov. 6, using inflammatory rhetoric to drum up support for struggling Republican candidates.

One Republican even mentioned Haitians specifically last week when asked about Trump’s stated desire to end birthright citizenship — which is explained and protected by the 14th amendment. South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford claimed the amendment was only meant for former slaves and that he was “not a fan of it.”

“The idea that you just happen to come in from Haiti or anywhere else, and just because you get your boat to shore, all of a sudden you’re open to the same rights and privileges as anybody else is—I think that’s at odds with the intent,” Sanford explained. “I think it was ultimately about slavery at the time, and rights that should come to former slaves.”

Trump and his supporters continue to use harsh stance against immigration from Haiti and other predominantly black and Latino countries as a talking point to gain voter support. Since Trump became president, he has repeatedly mentioned Haitians specifically as examples of people he does not want in the United States, going so far as to tell Senators in December that “all Haitians have AIDS.”

Under Trump, immigration, always a key issue to Haitians has become even more important as he has vowed to end TPS for Haitians by next July.  While the issue has dominated headlines, the Haitian community is also focused on a wide variety of issues related to life in New York. Frontus said that her campaign has focused on local issues like education and housing; problems that every community in New York is dealing with in one way or another.

“My district doesn’t have that many Haitians, compared to other parts of NYC such as Flatbush, Brooklyn or parts of the Upper West Side of Manhattan or Cambria Heights, Queens,” Frontus said.

“For the few that do live in my Assembly District, they care about the same issues as everyone else: affordable housing, public safety, and ensuring that their children have access to a good quality education.”

Jonathan Greig is a journalist based in New York City working as a contributing writer for CBS Interactive. He recently returned to the United States after reporting from South Africa, Jordan, and Cambodia since 2013.

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