Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte (center), Frank Seddio (left) Photo Credit: Jonathan Greig.

By Jonathan Greig

Powerful Haitian-American politician Rodneyse Bichotte made history on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, becoming the first woman to be chosen as leader of the Kings County Democratic Party.

Bichotte, who currently serves as New York State Assembly Member and Democratic State Committeewoman for the 42nd District, was officially elected by district leaders Monday night at the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club.
During a stirring speech after the vote that detailed her lengthy political career, Bichotte described her goals for the position and thanked outgoing leader Frank Seddio for his work over the past eight years. She joked that Brooklynites should expect future headlines saying the party’s official dish would now be griot and diri djon djon, which are two signature Haitian dishes.

“Brooklyn’s Democratic party is made up of people of all backgrounds and all walks of life. It is more important than ever that our leadership reflects the diverse communities that have kept Brooklyn and our Democratic party going for decades. More women of color and descendants of immigrants, like myself, are running for public office to amplify the voices of their local communities and add to the public discourse. Moreover, community and grassroots engagement are necessary to increase civic engagement across the borough,” Bichotte said.

“Given the importance of this year’s presidential election and next year’s municipal elections, I am honored to have been elected as the first female Democratic County Leader in New York City at such a pivotal time. I want to thank the Kings County Democratic District Leaders for their confidence and partnership as we move forward into a new decade of opportunities to truly transform New York City’s political landscape.”

Bichotte takes over a political organization that is currently in disarray and debt, with the party facing massive financial shortfalls that the prolific Haitian-American fundraiser was elected to address. Seddio has faced widespread criticism from Brooklyn Democrats, even from Bichotte herself at one point, for his political and financial mismanagement of the Kings County Democratic Party.

When Seddio took over for disgraced Brooklyn Democratic chairman Vito J. Lopez in 2012, he inherited an organization with $638,650 in cash on hand. In the party’s latest filing on January 15, it reported just $40,327 in its coffers and more than $225,000 in debts, some of which are owed to Seddio after he loaned the group money to cover expenses. The 74-year-old decided to retire last Wednesday and backed Bichotte as his replacement.

“I felt we needed someone who was young and somebody who was very willing to do the work that’s involved. I saw in her the new generation. After evaluating the other 40 leaders, I felt that it was time,” Seddio said in an interview with The Haitian Times. 

“I think that we needed someone to meet the challenges that will come before us in the next few years. I’d like to think that I built the foundation and she’ll now build the palace on it. Because of her age and ambition and her politics, she might have a better relationship with the younger generation and progressives that we have in the county.”

As leader of one of the largest branches of the Democratic Party in the United States, Bichotte will have wide-ranging control over judicial candidate endorsements, nominee choices during primary elections and new party rules.  

Bichotte pledged to bring diversity to the party and more openness in how the organization runs — one of the biggest complaints critics had against Seddio’s iron-grip over the party’s levers of power.

At the event on Monday, other Haitian-American politicians hailed the moment as a significant step forward for Haitians in politics, calling Bichotte a trailblazer.

“We’re definitely breaking the glass ceiling with an opportunity for the first African-American woman and Haitian woman to be a leader for the Democrratic Party,” said City Councilwoman Farah Louis, a protege of Bichotte. 

“I think this changes a lot of dynamics, for Brooklyn and for our culture, so I’m really excited about the direction that we’re going in and I believe that she’ll bring a whole lot of others with her, whether they’re Haitian, Dominican, Jamaican or whoever. It’s really about us unifying Brooklyn and she’s the right person to do that.”

Monalisa Ferrari, a professional development coordinator at the NYC Department of Education, said Bichotte is “a source of inspiration for many of us women” and added that she has groomed dozens of women who are now in politics.  

In a statement, New York Attorney General Letitia James congratulated Bichotte and commended her for her commitment to public service in Brooklyn.

“As the first woman to be elected to this post, we are sending an important message to all of our communities and encouraging them to become engaged in our civic process and have a voice in the issues that impact us every day,” James said.

Bichotte has been able to amass significant political clout since winning her seat and becoming the first Haitian-American to be elected to the State Legislature from New York City in 2014. 

The Brooklyn-native has had a hand in helping Mayor Bill de Blasio, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams secure their positions while also assisting James, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke; State Senator Roxanne Persaud and Louis secure their seats.

During her ten years as a district leader, she’s spearheaded dozens of initiatives around voter registration and civic engagement, energizing communities that had long been left out of the political process in Brooklyn.

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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