Two decades ago, when Hillary Clinton was running for the U.S. senate seat to represent New York, a wealthy Haitian American physician held a private fundraiser for her in Long Island. When someone asked Clinton how she might help Haitians, she replied that for her to engage meaningfully with the community, it must have strong institutions and a robust private sector.
In short, politics alone doesn’t cut it. But instead of taking up Clinton on that sage advice, the community pursued the political route, only to regress by ignoring economic development. Since that fundraiser, I’ve watched as one Haitian-owned business after another has shuttered. I blame the vagaries of gentrification and lack of investing in the community.
The Haitian-owned enterprises we have now consist mostly of take-out restaurants, barber shops and bakeries. Even the once ubiquitous “multi-services” shops have closed with the advent of the internet. Files and documents that once were difficult to access are now widely available — and free of charge.
But it wasn’t always this way. Haitians used to own furniture stores, gas stations and nightclubs. When Haitian entrepreneur Wilner Boucicault was shot dead at his furniture store in 1993, I wrote a profile of him in The New York Times because of his prominence.
Politically, meanwhile, we’ve been a force. First as influencers to, now, as operators with nearly 10 Haitian American elected officials representing New York City and Long Island. Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn, the assemblywoman who represents Brooklyn’s 42nd District, is also the Brooklyn County party chair.
Bichotte Hermelyn’s elevation to that post was widely celebrated by the community as a sign of our political ascension. But politics is not for the faint of heart. Some have called it rougher than contact sports, though I disagree. The territory comes with character assassination and accusations of wrongdoing, real or imagined. Some of the tactics can be odious.
So far, three streets in Brooklyn are co-named after Haitian heroes of independence. Bichotte Hermelyn was able to get the intersection where she grew up to be co-named after her late mother, Marie Andrée Bichotte, a community advocate. There’s the Little Haiti designation for parts of central Brooklyn and the Newkirk Avenue subway stop also known now as Little Haiti.
Last year, a community leader told me they received more funding from non-Haitian elected officials before we elected our own. So clearly, Haitian elected officials have work to do there.
To some extent, elected officials have been able to appropriate some money to help improve businesses capacity in the community. A grant of $1 million was awarded ostensibly to lay the foundation of a Haitian American cultural center. Just last week, Mayor Eric Adams earmarked $1.6 million to help newly arrived Haitian migrants settling in New York.
However, this political rise has placed the community at large and Bichotte Hermelyn in particular, as a target for what ails the county and how resources are distributed. Bichotte Hermelyn, a pugnacious person, has amassed a long list of enemies who have made embarrassing and dethroning her from her perch their top priority.
Some cynics say Bichotte Hermelyn was handed a party beset by financial strain and a leadership that was out of sync with the emerging demographics of the borough. So the ambitious Bichotte Hermelyn, with close ties to Wall Street, was seen as a fundraising juggernaut who can restore the shine on the county political machine.
In the past, few party bosses have gotten so much negative press without a major scandal driving it. Others like Clarence Norman, who was convicted of accepting illegal contributions during his 2000 and 2002 campaigns, went to prison.
In its story about Norman’s conviction, The New York Times made this reference:
Mr. Norman is the latest in a line of party chiefs, going back to William M. Tweed in the 19th century, to face allegations of official corruption. In Brooklyn, Democrats are so dominant that for a candidate, winning the Democratic nomination is tantamount to winning election.
Recently, over lunch, a high-level city official and friend told me he wishes Bichotte Hermelyn would vacate the party chair role because of this trend. If prosecutors put a bright light under the hood of a party boss, they can find something to charge you with if that’s their goal.
Bichotte Hermelyn likes to brag about driving an early model vehicle and not being interested in gaining wealth for herself. I have no reasons to doubt her sincerity. I worry about her opponents’ motive to knock her down no matter the cost.
We were so afraid of politics in the 1980s and 1990s, I thought for sure we would have taken the economic route, like the Chinese, Indian and other communities that shored up their businesses, amassing some communal wealth before turning their attention to politics.
Bichotte Hermelyn and the other Haitian elected officials should turn their attention to the private sector. For one, they can increase funding for the Haitian American Business Network, or HABNET, so that organization can move out of the back room of the YMCA and find a proper office representing its stature.
The chamber should be living up to its expectation as a destination for budding entrepreneurs to find training in business workshops that are either free or low cost. This partnership, as Clinton said more than 20 years ago, remains the productive way to prosperity for a community.