This article is the second in a series about the 2022 federal midterm and state elections, supported by the Center for Community Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. The first installment looked at the current state of the NYS Assembly Haitian-American legislative caucus. This part looks at how the caucus might gain strength as more Haitian-Americans are elected to the legislature.
NEW YORK — For months, David Alexis searched for a proper clinic for his wife, diagnosed with sickle cell disease, and came up empty each time. In between his job as a director of community partnerships for a drivers group and volunteer work with education advocacy groups and helping fathers support their families, the lack of adequate healthcare resources in central Brooklyn preoccupied Alexis.
“These hospitals have not only divested from programs addressing sickle cell disease, but infant mortality in our community is through the roof,” said Alexis, who is running for State Senate District 21 in this month’s upcoming election. “People have to leave our neighborhood because they aren’t equipped with cath labs as well and that showed me that I needed to run.”
Alexis, a self-described Democratic Socialist, joins other second-generation Haitians on the ballot. To several experts and observers, Alexis’ candidacy marks another step forward for the Haitians, estimated at 163,000 in New York State.
“When my generation arrived in the U.S., we were not interested in local politics and I’m really happy to see younger people pushing themselves to change the conversation,” said Jean Jonassaint, a French professor at Syracuse University who immigrated to the U.S. in 1996.
“That was a very positive step for Haitian communities in the U.S. to be part of that conversation,” Jonassaint said. “Now they have to deliver. That’s another issue.”
In order to enact real change, they have to move beyond identity politics and reach out to the entire, multicultural fabric of their communities, composed not just of Haitians, but people from all over the world, experts said.
“The second generation sees themselves with more agency and that there’s the possibility for them to get involved in political affairs shaping our lives for generations to come,” said Louis Herns Marcelin, a professor of social sciences at the University of Miami. “The way for them to be different is to connect with community-based organizations to turn grievances, like lack of access to health care, into policy.”
To create pathways for greater social inclusion within the broader community, he said, politicians must connect with community-based organizations of all types, not just Haitian.
Rise in Haitians’ political representation
Haitian-Americans have been in New York for about 60 years, still a fairly recent group of arrivals compared to others. And even newer still as participants in Big Apple politics.
The Irish arrived in the mid-1800s, followed by the Chinese 30 years later. Italians came in the next century in the early 1900s and the first wave of Jamaican immigration came in the 1930s, during the Great Depression.
Politically, it took the Irish 40 years to begin establishing political representation in the state with the election of Mayor William R. Grace, who was Irish. Italian-Americans also took about 40 years to gain a significant presence in the state’s political system, with 23 Italian-American state legislators, or 6% of the state legislature, by the 1950s.
Chinese representation has been slower, with Yuh-Line Niou becoming the first Taiwanese state assemblymember in 2017 for District 65. Jamaican-American representation started in 2008, when Nick Perry became the state assemblymember for District 58.
For candidates in current leadership roles, it was seeing other, younger candidates in state government that motivated them to run for office.
“There was a wave of younger than average council members who had been elected and it was exciting to see that,” said Mathylde Frontus, State Assembly Member for District 46, in a 2020 interview. “I think many people in New York City share the sentiment that they want to see more people of color and immigrants in office.”
A different governing style for newer pols
Alexis is among those office-seekers of color this state election cycle. So is Pierre Marc Albert, a 31-year-old former program officer for the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery. He is running to represent State Assembly District 43, which encompasses parts of Crown Heights, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Wingate and Flatbush.
Albert said the lack of healthcare resources and affordable housing were among two issues that motivated him to run.
“My biggest value is being community-driven rather than institution- and party-driven,” said Albert. “My approach would be different from the older generation in the fact that we need to pull away from working with certain groups and working with certain organizations that haven’t had our community’s best interests.”
Albert said he would encourage Haitian New Yorkers to attend financial literacy workshops and job training seminars. Alexis pledged to hold town halls and meetings in churches to re-enfranchise Haitians in his district so they might receive much-needed resources.
“If we really want to see change on issues like unemployment and healthcare, we need power to do that, which we can do if we include the community in our decisions,” said Alexis.
“A lot of amazing work has been done in the Haitian community, but they’ve been doing it without any support from the state government and that’s a travesty,” he said.
One example he points to is the recent voting signatures forgery scandal plaguing Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn, Brooklyn Democratic Party boss.
“At a time when we are hurting and we need to build bigger coalitions, hearing about the signatures scandal disincentivizes people to get involved,” said Alexis. “You have to have a line that you’re not willing to cross.”
Albert said, if elected, he would specifically focus on policies like requiring a higher percentage of affordable housing units and investing in after-school programs to help curb gun violence.
Alexis, who has garnered endorsements from federal legislators like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also emphasized housing issues, saying he would work to ensure legislation like the “Good Cause” bill is passed in the state.
More Haitian reps, own caucus no guarantee of effectiveness
As candidates, pledging to be more transparent is easy enough, political scientists said. But it takes more to be effective when in role. That’s where joining forces, such as through a caucus, becomes critical.
“It’s easy to say those things when you are outside of the machine and the network,” said Marcelin.“It’s a combination of what their platforms represent and also the political will to form alliances in order for them to tailor institutional transformation.”
To form this political will, Marcelin said that they would need to maintain transparency through checks and balances, while also valuing input from the community, civil society institutions and the press.
A formal caucus might sound initially like it could bring more help, François Pierre-Louis, a professor of political science at Queens College of CUNY said, but it might prove ineffective compared to continuing to work under larger, official caucuses.
“The downside is that everytime we partition groups, whether it’s Asians, Haitians, or African-Americans, we undermine the collective power,” said Pierre-Louis, who specializes in American and Haitian politics. “If we have a critical mass of at least 10 to 15 more Haitian-Americans in office, then it makes sense.”
Other academics echo Pierre-Louis’ analysis.
“If a caucus has enough members to make a significant impact on the success of some particular measure, they can try to leverage that,” said Dennis Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University who specializes in political theory and constitutional law. “It’s a way of establishing a bargaining position and having the political muscle to back up this position.”
No specific process exists for forming a caucus, but if the six state assembly members wanted to, they should first identify needs specific to Haitian-Americans, like the Del Rio refugee crisis, outside of greater groups, according to former assembly employees.
Frank Mauro, a former secretary for the State Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee, said a nameplate for a Haitian-American caucus would not be enough. Instead, the six assembly members would have to take measures like pooling 1/10 of their individual staffing budgets from the state government to address their districts’ economic and social needs.
“If there are needs which are particular to and worth advancing in the Haitian-American community as a whole, then there’s nothing to stop them from being effective,” Mauro said. “There’s no rule as to how to go about creating a caucus. But whether or not that makes them work harder together is another question.”
Look for the rest of the series in the fall, before the November elections. The series will explore language accessibility in Brooklyn voting districts and housing assistance in New York’s Haitian-American community.