Nostrand Ave.
During the early days of the pandemic, Nostrand Ave. in Central Brooklyn was less crowded than usual. Photo by Garry Pierre-Pierre.

By Garry Pierre-Pierre

In June 2018, a political neophyte by the name of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez shocked New York’s political establishment when she defeated the powerful Congressman Joe Crowley, who was then chair of the Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives. 

To achieve that feat, Ocasio-Cortez pounded the pavement and knocked on seemingly every door in the district, which includes the Bronx and Queens. Urban legend has it that she went through a few shoes during her successful run. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s story is a cautionary tale for any powerful incumbent. It is also a story of hope for political newcomers that if they really want the job and are committed to reaching people, they can upend the status quo and go on to legislate the ideas and issues close to voters’ hearts. 

This year, because of term limits, hundreds of candidates are running for more than 30 New York City Council positions now up for grabs. The races across the city have not been this competitive in ages. Gone are the years when incumbents were assured reelection without many worries. 

Social media has also leveled the playing field in that a candidate can get their messages out without needing a boatload of cash. They also don’t need the blessings of party bosses and powerful unions that can unleash their members to the polls to support a favored candidate. 

What challengers and others with no prominent endorsements recognize is that these unions, as powerful as they may be, are playing in every race. And, despite the unions’ seemingly bottomless resources, the institutions can’t really deploy people everywhere. Not anymore. 

Community engagement and votes

The key for this new crop of candidates is to truly believe in the reasons they want to run in the first place. Is it to serve the people of the district and improve their lives or is it to go to Broadway and hobnob with the denizens of high finance, tech, arts and politics?

If your motives are altruistic, then start engaging people on the issues affecting them. For instance, ask residents if they are fine with the trash and litter along Flatbush Avenue in the 40th and 45th districts. 

Talk to them about the poor quality of the schools their children attend and ask if they’re satisfied. What about the health care they receive at their doctors’ offices or area hospitals? Do they have a community or cultural center that provides recreational activities for the youth and the elderly? Where can they go for mental health support, especially in a year when most people need some sort of emotional reprieve?

After having these conversations, you then need to let the people know exactly what you will do to solve their problems and how they can keep you honest if you stray from your promises. You will win more than a few minds and hearts. You will get their votes. 

Send the inept packing

I may sound like Captain Obvious, except that in the Haitian and Caribbean communities, most of us don’t know that this is how politics is supposed to work. Back home, the further you stay away from politicians, the better off you are. Fortunately, it’s not that way in America. 

To do otherwise is to surrender to the party bosses and political hacks who count on low voter turnouts. In most local elections, only a fraction of voters turn out to cast a ballot, hence benefiting the incumbents who have been playing the game loyally. But to counter that, candidates must excite voters and show them what’s at stake if they stay home on Election Day. 

We should bring the same energy and excitement to these local races as we did in the presidential elections last year, sending that guy packing back to Florida and rid of his ineptitude and crookery away from the levers of power. 

In the last 25 years, the Haitian community has had a roller coaster ride. First, it stayed away from politics. Then slowly, it began engaging with elected officials. Now, Haitian-American candidates are running and winning elections.

That’s heady stuff when you consider that we haven’t been here that long, relatively speaking. But I’m not sure that the community has progressed, despite having its sons and daughters sitting in the rooms where decisions are being made.

We need to change that. We need to start voting in large numbers in these local City Council races because they are arguably more important to our day-to-day lives than the presidential and citywide elections. These council members control millions of dollars. 

A study in contrast

The Haitian Times has reported on how horribly outgoing city councilman Mathieu Eugene treated the community. Eugene, who is term limited, is perhaps one of the worst councilmembers in recent history for his open disdain and disgust for his own community.  

Eugene should also be a cautionary tale, but for different reasons than Ocasio-Cortez. His way is not the way to lead your community. You have an obligation to help them. You have to understand that they are not political operatives, they don’t know the inner workings of politics. They are bus drivers, home health aides and professionals who don’t have time and are counting on you to improve their lives. 

Residents should be demanding better services. There are no cultural spaces for artists to showcase their works. There are no affordable spaces for community theater productions. The Community-Based Organizations lack the resources to serve their constituents and elected officials don’t fund them on the merit of need, but on the basis of political loyalty. 

The old Boss Tweed system of corruption was dismantled to give way to a more equitable system in this city. There are some remnants of Tweed that are alive and well, to be sure. However, the outsized influence of the labor unions and political bosses of the day can be blunted by candidates who are visionaries and who share a deep concern for the wellbeing of their communities. 

There may be candidates who are currently ahead in terms of labor union support and money raised, but there are less than 100 days left before the June 22 primaries. 

Candidates, I urge you, start knocking on some doors and upend these races like Ocasio-Cortez did three years ago.

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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