By Sam Bojarski
Elected officials of Haitian descent have been making their presence felt in Albany for the better part of a decade ‒ most recently, as strong advocates for the police reform bills passed earlier this month.
“We’re proud to say that we have a Haitain caucus of five of us in the state assembly, and we fought for these changes in the law,” said District 33 Assembly Member Clyde Vanel, a Haitian-American who is running for another term.
At least nine Haitian-Americans are running for office in the New York City metropolitan area this year.
Each of the five current Haitian-American state assembly members are running for another two-year term, while one candidate is seeking an assembly seat for the first time. Two Haitian-Americans are also running for state senate, and one is challenging Congresswoman Yvette Clarke to represent the 9th United States Congressional District. Each candidate is running as a Democrat, the state board of elections office has confirmed.
New York State is holding its Democratic primary on June 23, while the general election is scheduled for Nov. 3.
According to Jean Eddy Saint Paul, a sociology professor at CUNY Brooklyn College, electing politicians of Haitian descent can strengthen New York’s Haitian community.
Given the current historical moment, “we do need Black and Haitian American politicians to hold higher political positions, so they can use these positions to positively influence the policies and to help the members of their ethnic communities to live a decent and dignified life,” Saint Paul told the Haitian Times in an email.
He also called on Haitian-American politicians to “use their positions of power (political capital) to positively reshape the policies to improve, in the Haitian American community, affordable housing, access to healthcare, qualitative education (schooling), and decent jobs. In order to achieve that, they need to make political alliances with their peers from the English-Caribbean and Latinx communities, because these communities, usually, face common threats and issues.”
According to Immanuel Ness, a political science professor at Brooklyn College, while the Haitian diaspora started settling in New York during the 1970s and 1980s, the community has not received electoral representation as quickly as other ethnic communities.
“The growth in Haitian participation in electoral politics will surely provide the Haitian community a greater voice in New York politics. This has been a long time coming,” he also said, in an email.
One of these participants, East Flatbush native and small business owner Lutchi Gayot, is running to represent the 9th Congressional District, which includes neighborhoods in central and south Brooklyn. He has introduced fresh thinking into his campaign, including a massive federal bond to fund affordable housing development and a “World War II-like effort” to invest in teaching new, skilled trades in schools.
In the suburbs of New York City, Eudson Tyson Francois of Spring Valley and Valerie Cartright of Brookhaven are vying to represent District 38 and District 1, respectively, in the state senate. Both candidates currently hold elected posts in local government.
Cartright is running to replace Republican Senator Kenneth LaValle, who has held the seat since 1977 and is not seeking reelection. As Francois and Cartright have both noted, a Haitian-American has never held office in the state senate.
“Now, instead of us from the Haitian community always running for trustee or mayor or council … now we’ve opened up the doors to say, ‘you know what, why don’t we run for this particular office as well?’” Francois told the Haitian Times.
The five incumbent Haitian-American assembly members running for reelection include Kings County Democratic Party Chair Rodneyse Bichotte (D-42), Mathylde Frontus (D-46), Clyde Vanel (D-33), Michaelle Solages (D-22) and Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-11). These candidates have brought a diversity of professional backgrounds including law, social work, engineering, entrepreneurship and economic development, to the assembly.
Frontus was elected during what she called the “new Democratic wave” in 2018, when Democrats flipped the senate and achieved full control of the state legislature. She expressed optimism in the legislature’s direction.
“The last two years in Albany, we’ve been able to revisit and re-tackle a number of things, notwithstanding what we did (this month) in terms of police reform, Frontus said. “That’s just the tone and tenor of how we’re doing things in Albany right now. We’ve been able to dust off a lot of the legislation that’s been sitting around for about 10 years, and we’re able to take some bold moves.”
In addition to the incumbent candidates, nurse and tenant activist Phara Souffrant Forrest is running to represent the 57th Assembly District. A democratic socialist, Forrest plans to bring a working-class perspective to Albany. She has already racked up major endorsements from progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon.
“Working people should feel like someone has their back. Housing is a human right. People will always come in and try to develop, but people who are living in the neighborhood should have a democratic say into how their community is formed,” Forrest said.
Many of New York’s Haitian-American candidates shared their background and policy goals with the Haitian Times. Below is more information about each candidate:
Name: Lutchi Gayot
Office Sought: Representative, New York’s 9th Congressional District
Lutchi Gayot, born and raised in East Flatbush, has spent the past two decades in the construction industry and currently owns his own business. His experience as a small business owner who has employed dozens of people will inform his decisions, if elected.
“For me, doing it for the past 20 years puts me in a position to where I could actually apply the knowledge and experience I have in the field … to actual real-world legislation,” he told the Haitian Times.
Many small businesses struggle to get access to financing, said Gayot, who added that he also wants to make it more affordable for businesses to pay their workers a minimum wage of $15 per hour.
But two of Gayot’s biggest ideas lie in the areas of education and housing. Many schools, for example, are not equipping children with the tools they need to succeed in the future, particularly in the area of technology.
His solution: A massive federal investment, on the scale of World War II, to teach trades in high schools.
“There’s no need to build more trade schools, all we need to do is update our curriculum to include certain types of skills and certain types of programs. I’d like to zoom in on robotics and AI, because robotics and AI is the future industry,” he said.
To provide financing for the maintenance of public housing complexes and the development of more affordable housing, Gayot has proposed a federal housing bond.
As part of the bond, Gayot said he would like to “make funds available so existing homeowners in central Brooklyn can develop properties into this affordable housing.”
Name: Eudson Tyson Francois
Office Sought: State Senate, District 38
Eudson Tyson Francois has served as a Spring Valley village trustee since 2017. Along with his parents, he immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti, during the mid-1980s.
In addition to his role as a local elected official, he serves on the teacher policy committee board of the East Ramapo School District. A Christian minister, Francois is also a motivational speaker and volunteers as a youth track and field coach.
Speaking about the District 38 senate seat, Francois said that “if a black man were to win, he’d be the first one to sit there, from Rockland and Westchester County.”
Education will be among Francois’s top priorities, if elected. “In order for us to have equal opportunities, we have to spend the money where it matters most,” he said about school funding.
In addition to the need for criminal justice reform, Francois has also started noticing climate and housing issues, as his region continues to grow in population. Combating climate change is a priority for Francois, who noted the changing ozone levels in his community. He also said that seniors need more access to affordable housing.
“I want to really effectively work on the minimum wage, making sure that it is at $15,” he added, “because apartment complexes continue to go up, and my people in our community cannot afford to pay.”
Name: Valerie Cartright
Office Sought: State Senate, District 1
Valerie Cartright is currently in her fourth term as a councilmember for the town of Brookhaven, in Long Island’s Suffolk County. A civil rights attorney by training, Cartright also serves as an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, New York, where she teaches business law, leadership and ethics.
Cartright is a member of the National Haitian American Elected Official Network (NHAEON), a coalition of elected officials that seeks to improve relations between the U.S. and Haiti.
Cartright hopes to continue the progress Democrats have made in the areas of voting reform, health care, education, police reform and other issues, since gaining control of the state legislature.
She is a supporter of the New York Health Act, a proposal to provide universal health coverage to every New Yorker. In the area of education, she seeks to amend legislation dictating that schools will receive funding proportional to their standardized test participation. She told the Haitian Times she will make sure “that the education of our kids is not determined by the zip code that they live in.”
For Cartright, having strong leadership at the state level is as important as ever.
“When our elected officials, particularly our highest elected official, is failing us, we need to make sure our states are stepping up. So state elections are extremely important,” she said.
Name: Rodneyse Bichotte
Office Sought: State Assembly, District 42
Bichotte has served in the New York state legislature since 2015. She is the first woman to chair the majority party in Brooklyn and the first Haitian-American woman elected to represent New York City. Prior to entering the field of politics full-time, Bichotte worked as an engineer, investment banker and an educator, teaching mathematics.
“What motivated me to get into politics was an injury I sustained when I was young. I was struck by a car at an intersection with no traffic signal, and was permanently scarred. So, after growing up and returning home I decided to do something about it,” she also told the Haitian Times.
One of Bichotte’s proudest moments was the passage of the Child Victim Act, which lifted the statute of limitations for bringing civil claims over alleged abuse. She also listed her instrumental involvement in creating the Little Haiti Cultural and Business District in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, as well as the naming of Jean Jacques Dessalines Boulevard. In the assembly, she chairs the Subcommittee on the Oversight of Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprise (MWBE).
“I am very pleased to have been able to bring businesses together to take advantage of resources and networking, which is critical for small business owners, at my annual MWBE series. I also passed a host of legislation supporting MWBEs, including the re-authorization of Article 15A and the increase of the Personal Net Worth cap to $15 million,” Bichotte said.
Name: Mathylde Frontus
Office Sought: State Assembly, District 46
Mathylde Frontus is running for a second term in the New York state assembly. A social worker by training, Frontus has founded multiple organizations in Coney Island, including Urban Neighborhood Services (UNS), a social services agency.
“I decided from a young age in high school that I wanted to major in social work, because I thought that that would be a broad umbrella under which I could do mental health, I could do community organizing, I could do policy,” Frontus said.
When she found out an assembly seat would become available, “I thought that I could use all of the work that I had done in the community already and take it to the next level,” Frontus also told the Haitian Times.
Frontus has sponsored multiple bills, including one that would require mandatory lead, water and air testing for New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents, and a separate bill requiring video recording of interviews conducted with juveniles in family court. In an effort to improve transparency in Albany, Frontus has also introduced legislation to create a user-friendly database, through which state residents can track government spending.
Frontus is proud of her Haitian heritage and regularly attends community events throughout New York City.
“Whether it’s Haitian Independence Day every January 1st or whether it’s every Haitian flag day in May, I always make sure that I set time aside to participate in celebrating those holidays and going to functions in the Haitian community,” she said.
Name: Clyde Vanel
Office Sought: State Assembly, District 33
Clyde Vanel was first elected to the state assembly in November 2016. An attorney and a business owner, Vanel owns and operates a trademark service website, Trademarkready.com. In the assembly, he chairs the Subcommittee on Internet and New Technology.
As a legislator, his biggest focus is attracting businesses and good quality jobs to the state.
“That’s my crown jewel, that’s what I’ve been fighting for, for all of New York and my district,” he told the Haitian Times.
Many people in Vanel’s district work at the John F. Kennedy International Airport, which is undergoing redevelopment.
“I’ve been fighting to make sure that people have not only job opportunities but business opportunities at the JFK airport redevelopment, which is a $13 billion project,” Vanel said.
Vanel is also seeking to ensure that the Belmont Park redevelopment project, which will contain a new arena for the New York Islanders ‒ also contains economic opportunities for constituents.
“Many of my constituents are Haitians, are Haitian Americans. I have many Haitian institutions in my district, in restaurants and businesses and churches,” Vanel said.
He added that as a legislator, he is tasked with ensuring that “the people, the institutions, the companies, the restaurants, the churches are also connected and engaged to the opportunity, the politics and the resources.”
Name: Michaelle Solages
Office Sought: State Assembly, District 22
A lifelong resident of Long Island, Michaelle Solages was first elected to represent the 22nd Assembly District in November of 2012, becoming the first person of Haitian descent elected to the New York state legislature. She serves as chair-elect to the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
Solages told the Haitian Times that she is in favor of lower property taxes, a higher minimum wage and an increase in public transportation on Long Island, to support Nassau County’s middle class, small businesses and working families.
“My main priorities are to ensure our children have the necessary resources needed to succeed in the modern globalized economy and expanding access to health care for all New Yorkers. I also aim to continue my advocacy on initiatives such as instituting universal pre-kindergarten for Long Island and increasing protections for immigrant communities in New York,” she said.
During the past year, Solages joined colleagues in the state legislature in a visit to Congress, to advocate for the extension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitians displaced by the 2010 earthquake.
“Additionally, I have secured state funding for community based organizations such as Haitian Americans United for Progress, Inc. (HAUP), and Haitian American Family of Long Island, Inc. (HAFALI),” she said, in an email.
Name: Kimberly Jean-Pierre
Office Sought: State Assembly, District 11
Kimberly Jean-Pierre was first elected to the state assembly in 2014. Previously, Jean-Pierre worked as a legislative aide for the Suffolk County Legislature and as a community outreach coordinator for former New York Congressman Steve Israel.
She has also served as vice president of properties for the Industrial Development Agency (IDA) in the town of Babylon, New York. More recently, she served as director of Babylon’s Wyandanch Resource Center, where she helped local residents continue their education and start new careers, according to her website.
Name: Phara Souffrant Forrest
Office Sought: State Assembly, District 57
Phara Souffrant Forrest is a working nurse and tenant activist. Forrest’s parents are from Jacmel, Haiti, and she was raised in Crown Heights. Prior to nursing, she spent time mentoring public school students.
Her work sits at the intersection of two facets of life that have been immeasurably disrupted by the current coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic calamity.
“There has been a struggle in terms of housing and health, because we’ve been hit so hard by COVID-19,” Forrest told the Haitian Times.
“If we’re not talking about cancelling rent, and if we’re not talking about providing real assistance to tenants in my neighborhood, then you are grossly neglecting the people in my neighborhood. Again, 44 percent of our district is rent-burdened and they need help. Even the people that can pay the rent today probably can’t pay the rent tomorrow,” she added.
If elected to office, Forrest would push for the New York Health Act to be passed, so that people in her district could get free healthcare, free coronavirus testing and more help for any other chronic illnesses.
“I don’t take real estate dollars and I don’t take corporate dollars, because I really want to make sure I’m focused on the constituents and not the will of business. If we really want to do something for our community, we need to vote right on June 23,” she also said.