Photo credit: Jonathan Grieg

By Jonathan Greig

The New York State Assembly began its legislative session earlier this month amid a flurry of excitement over the new crop of elected officials who are riding a large wave of Democratic politicians entering office. Since taking their seats, the Democrat-led assembly has passed a number of groundbreaking laws on issues ranging from abortion to elections.

Among the latest crop of assembly members is Haitian American Mathylde Frontus, who was sworn in by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie on Nov. 15 — before 18 other new assembly-elects — because she was elected to fill a seat that was vacated by disgraced ex-assemblywoman Pamela Harris. Harris resigned from her seat last April after being indicted and eventually pleading guilty to a 11 charges including wire fraud.

Frontus took her seat for the 46th Assembly District after a surprising 51-vote victory over heavily-backed primary opponent Ethan Lustig-Elgrably and a November win against Republican candidate Steve Saperstein.

“Here in southern Brooklyn, it’s up for the taking. This seat at any given time could be a Republican seat. There is no guarantee that this seat is always [going to] be Democratic because the demographics of this community make this a swing district,” she said in an interview with Haitian Times from her office on Coney Island.

She is the second black woman ever in New York City — after her predecessor Harris — to win a seat in a majority white district. Throughout her campaign she was told repeatedly that she would have trouble winning over voters and keeping up with her well-funded opponents.

The 46th Assembly District covers Coney Island, Sea Gate, and parts of Bath Beach, Bay Ridge, Brighton Beach, Dyker Heights, and Gravesend.

“Where we are right now is an apartment inside of a housing development called Luna Park. This is a predominantly Russian community that is conservative leaning. That’s here in Coney. Then in Brighton Beach you have conservatives, as does Bay Ridge. The numbers are there,” she said.

“So many people said there was no way. There’s no way that this majority white district will vote for a black woman again after what happened.”

She attributed her surprise victories to a variety of factors, including an anti-establishment fever through the entire election season and a local willingness to hear her out due to her background in social work and activism.

“I did well in Bay Ridge. I was myself. I started going to community meetings and part of it is my background. People were not so petty and small that they could not see me as a full person. Google me. Community work, fought gun violence, teaches at Columbia and NYU. People gave me a chance,” she said.

“It’s something that is remarkable to me. Racism is a real thing. But I was met with so many open-minded people who treated me with all the respect and clarity of thinking that I could have asked for. Just fairness, for people to give me a chance. What we can’t do and should never do is not take time to realize when people are being allies, when people are working with us. Power comes from being truthful, honest, transparent and humble.”

John Wasserman, president of the Brooklyn Young Democrats, said that from the beginning, there were indications that Frontus had significant grassroots support within her community of Coney Island, where she was raised, and on the other side of the district in Bay Ridge.

“She was really able to unite both parts of the district,” Wasserman said.

“I think Frontus has the skills as a social worker and she has been able to related to everyone. The previous assembly person for the 46th had to resign in disgrace, so [Frontus] needs to bring back moral governance to the seat and work to really fight on behalf of her constituents,” he added. “I’m really excited to see what Assemblywoman Frontus accomplishes.”

Frontus has been an activist and organizer in New York City since her days walking the halls of Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn. She started a number of initiatives while studying at NYU and eventually got her PhD from Columbia University’s School of Social Work before becoming a professor herself at both NYU and Columbia.

“I’m proud to have been raised to Haitian parents. I was raised by a mother and father from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. My father poured so much into me and he passed away 10 years ago. But I was raised with a sense of understanding our history, of who we are,” she told Haitian Times.  

“Since I was in high school, I felt a certain way about the condition of our community. It’s something that affected me on a personal level. I would see how Midwood is different than Coney Island is different than the Upper East Side. I became really fascinated with why our communities look like this. There were also just social problems. I saw homelessness in front of me, prostitution, gun violence. I saw those things with my eyes.”

“Who’s caring for this community?” she added. “Who’s doing something? That’s why I majored in social work as a college student.”

The gap between working as an activist, social worker or professor and running as a political candidate is wide, and there are so many things she said she was initially unprepared for. She started out by herself last April, deciding that she would be able to tackle the issues she’s most passionate about through the position.

“I was on my own. I didn’t have a team. It would be some months until I had a campaign manager, a full team, an operations manager. I used to just tell people I was running over drinks. People see you and they say, ‘oh I know Matil.’ It’s not like I’m a stranger,” she said.

But so much of politics revolves around having the money to fund any campaign activity at all. As a somewhat frugal person herself, it was tough to handle the kind of cold, impersonal fundraising that any modern campaign requires. Despite the push for funding, she reportedly ran her whole campaign with less than $50,000.

“I had people in the community come out. We used to meet at Dunkin Donuts before we had the money for a campaign office. Especially during the primary. We just did not have the resources. We were the underdog. We weren’t the machine-backed candidate,” she said of her very tight win over the lavishly-funded primary campaign of Lustig-Elgrably.

“But we just preserved and spoke to people. I don’t think I ever knew I was going to win. I would be lying if I said I knew I was going to win.”

Frontus’ swearing in ceremony.
Frontus’ swearing in ceremony.

Since her win and inauguration, Frontus has co-sponsored a set of crucial voting reform bills that passed both chambers of the state legislature amid a larger wave of progressive legislative packages expected to become law.

The bills address a number of long-time complaints New Yorkers have had about the way the state does elections and they modernize the entire system to bring it on par with other states. One bill will allow for early voting while others will remove restrictions on registration, allow easier transfers of voter registration from other states, make primaries throughout New York state more streamlined, let everyone use absentee ballots without giving a reason and encourage young people to register to vote.

“I’m doing what I was sent here to do. For the first time in ten years we have a real majority in both chambers. There is no better time for all of us to rally around state legislators and to urge us to pass the progressive legislation that New York State deserves,” Frontus told Kings County Politics.

After a quiet official ceremony in Albany, Frontus had a star-studded inauguration on January 6 in the packed auditorium of William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School in Brighton Beach that was attended by some of the biggest names in New York politics.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer administered the oath of office in front of a large audience before speeches from Councilman Mathieu Eugene, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte and other elected officials. The ceremony was blessed by a rabbi, imam, and pastor, before the audience sang the “Star-Spangled Banner,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the Haitian National Anthem.

Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, Congressman Max Rose and even Senator Chuck Schumer made the trip up from Washington DC to attend the event.

“With all this great education, she could have gone and made a whole lot of money working for some big corporation,” Schumer said according to reporters at the event. “But Mathylde cared about the community.”

Since the swearing in ceremony, she has given a speech at the Dyker Heights Civic Association and canvassed the Bensonhurst area along the Chinese-American portion of the district, meeting with members of the Fujian Consolidated Benevolent Association and The Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Her first priority is to help low income residents of her district who are struggling to survive amid rising rent and transportation costs.

“We need to protect people who are low income. New York City is a working class city. People running for office always talk about the middle class. What about the working class? We can’t have the homeless population booming. We need to do better as a society of keeping people with a roof over their heads,” she said, adding that the complicated web of programs designed to help those in need are often rejected by landlords, leaving the legal onus on residents.

“I get really angry when I talk about this, because there are seniors in my district right now who are over 65, widowed and living alone. They are living in buildings where their rent is going up. People are not showing any respect for the elderly and our seniors.”

She has also started work on one of her biggest campaign promises: a Southern Brooklyn Think Tank. The think tank will work toward her goal of helping the average person learn about how they can affect change legislatively through a variety of means. She also wants to give more local residents insight into what it takes to run for office and educate people on the most effective ways to solve the issues they face.

“We all have to do our part. Everyone has to do their part. I’m gonna show people in my neighborhood how to run for office, to empower them. There are so many things I want to do to so that people can learn how to come up with solutions to problems legislatively,” she said.

“This is our seat. It’s the community’s seat. It’s the people’s seat.”

Jonathan Greig

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.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *