It has been a year since the first Haitian-American woman was elected in New York state, and in that time, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte has learned the sometimes delicate balancing act that’s needed to represent a diverse constituency.
Bichotte represents Brooklyn’s District 42, home to the city’s most populous Haitian community. She replaced Rhoda Jacobs, who retired last year after representing the district for over three decades.
The political transition reflected District 42’s changing demographics. Once predominantly home to Jewish, Irish and Italian communities, the area became an enclave for immigrants from the Caribbean starting in the 1980s. Many who settled there were fleeing political repression.
“Haitian people feel a little bit more at ease that they can trust someone like them,” Bichotte said in a recent interview, speaking of her election last year. “Because for so long they have been excluded, they have been barred, they’ve been discriminated against, they’ve been spat at, they’ve always been the ones left with the short end of the stick.”
But the community’s Jewish population is still sizable, and Bichotte got a sharp reminder of that after an interview on the weekly New York radio show “Community matters” in May. In referring to the Jewish community as “you guys,” and to Jacobs as her “Jewish predecessor,” Bichotte showed “an insensitivity that’s hard to imagine and is thoroughly inappropriate,” her fellow Assemblyman Dov Hikind told the website Matzav.com.
For her part, Bichotte points to her work in the assembly as evidence that she has effectively represented all constituents. She sponsored 23 bills and co-sponsored another 90 or so in the past year, compared with her predecessor’s record of sponsoring 10 and co-sponsoring 19 bills during her last term in office.
“I probably already sponsored more legislation than she did in the past 20 years,” said Bichotte, who suggested that her predecessor was “in the office for so long, that after a while you just stay the same. “
Bichotte also spoke at local events in Creole, the native language of many Haitians. “I just so happen to be Haitian,” she said, but added that her legislative work focused on issues well beyond those of greatest interest to the Haitian community.
Inside the Haitian community, Bichotte appears to have won respect after her first year in office. “Bichotte has been at the forefront of many of the main issues that affect Haitians here and abroad — most notably the denationalization issue taking place in the Dominican Republic,” said Vania Andre, editor-in-chief at The Haitian Times, an online site that serves New York City’s diaspora community. “When there’s an injustice, she’s one of the first public voices to speak,” said Andre.
Andre referred to a resolution Bichotte proposed: a bill to stand in support of people of Haitian descent born in the Dominican Republic after 1929, who currently face possible deportation under a Dominican law passed in 2013. The resolution passed after Bichotte said she conducted a four-day hunger strike.
Most of the bills Bichotte has sponsored dealt with education and governmental operations. She opposed an education tax credit bill pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, saying it was not in the interest of “poor Black and Latino kids.” Her predecessor Jacobs also opposed the bill, which sought to increase funding for private schools attended by students whose families make less than $60,000 a year.
But the proposal was strongly supported by Bichotte constituents whose children attend Christian and Jewish private schools. In the May radio interview, where she explained her opposition to it, Bichotte repeatedly referred to Jewish constituents as “you guys” and hinted that they did not vote for her in the first place. After Assemblyman Hikind’s remarks and criticism in several press outlets, Bichotte later apologized “to anyone who was offended by my tone and the poor choice of words I used” in the interview. She also met with members of the New York Anti-Defamation League, who described their conversation with her as “thoughtful” and focused, among other things, “on building bridges between diverse communities.”
Despite the apology, a political action committee, “Defeat Bichotte PAC,” was formed by a group whose members did not identify themselves publicly. The committee criticized Bichotte’s opposition to the Cuomo education bill, charging that she “does not care about educating New York’s future. Let’s #DefeatBichotte.” While the group’s website is still online, no new posts have been made since the week after Bichotte’s apology. The education bill ultimately was defeated in the state assembly.
Bichotte is a pioneer in Haitian politics in New York. Although the Haitian community has been growing for more than 30 years, it only began to gain a voice in New York politics in the 2000s, when Patrick Gaspard became chief of staff to the New York City Council and Mathieu Eugene was elected to a council seat. Gaspard is now the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa.
In 1990 there were 225,000 Haitian immigrants in the U.S. a number that has since tripled. Sixteen percent of that population lives in New York state. Many Haitian immigrants were professors, doctors or business owners at home; hardly any had been in public office.
Régine Roumain, executive director of the Haitian Cultural Exchange, said Haitians in the diaspora took a long time to enter politics because many believed their stay in the U.S. would be temporary. When they focused on politics, it was the politics back home — not in the U.S.
But younger immigrants and Haitian-Americans are more involved than earlier arrivals, said Roumain, who called it “refreshing” to see Haitians holding political office here. “It is a sign of the community maturing,” said Roumain. “People are not just temporarily staying here now.”
The political involvement may help change perceptions of the Haitian community, which has faced prejudice and violence in the past. In 1983, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named “being Haitian” as a major risk factor for HIV, and Haitians were barred from making blood donations in the U.S. until 1990.