40th City Council District Election, Dr. Mathieu Eugene, First Haitian elected to New York City Council
By Tequila Minsky
The February 22 swearing-in has been postponed until after the Board of Elections certifies the count which will be March 6. While state law does not require residency to run for a council seat, and in fact, 6 of the recent candidates were not district residents, it does require residency to “hold a seat.” It is undisputed that Dr. Eugene, prior to the election, resided in Canarsie. Supporter Gerard Cadet explained that Eugene signed a lease on a three-bedroom apartment off Flatbush Ave. in the district on February 1 and has been sleeping there.
Much of the family household items were moved on February 19. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the council have asked the attorney general to weigh in on the residency issue. There are no state laws regarding length of residency for city council seats, no actual precedent. It is expected that the ultimate decision will pass back to the city council and the Eugene camp is confident that all legal requirements have been met and that his swearing-in will take place without further conflict next week.
With the backing of Una and Yvette Clarke, the former holders of the 40th City Council District seat, and the influential health care workers union 1199 along with the numbers in the Haitian community who came out to vote, a landslide victory on February 20 was enjoyed by Dr. Mathieu Eugene in his bid for a seat on the New York City Council.
Support came from other sectors, too. Musicians Wyclef Jean, King Kino and others performed for his campaign at a gathering over the weekend before the election. Congressman Anthony D. Weiner, from the 9th Congressional District (parts of Brooklyn and Queens), endorsed him.
And so Dr. Mathieu Eugene became the first Haitian to be elected in New York City politics, the first Haitian in the NYC Council, filling the seat vacated by Yvette D. Clarke, who was just elected to Congress.
Other members of the Haitian community had supported and picked another candidate, scientist and health professional Ferdinand Zizi, who withdrew to narrow the field while his petitions were being challenged (in fact, he didn’t have enough valid signatures).
This left Eugene, who runs a youth center in the district, to compete with 9 other candidates-7 with Caribbean heritage. This particular central Brooklyn district has a very high Caribbean population.
In recent days, the streets of the district saw a flurry of political placards attached to poles and on Election Day, cars plastered with candidates’ posters cruised polling sites. Some candidates were spotted handing out leaflets. (One was challenged after he gave out a leaflet on the steps of a polling site. Electioneering cannot take place within 100 feet of the entrance to the polls.)
As the day progressed, candidates were seen checking the numbers who voted at polling sites. Luck held for the weather that February day.
With 65,000 registered voters, 5% were expected to vote, more with good weather. By day’s end, 5900, 9% of those registered, voted, a high turnout for a winter special election; fortuitously, it was mild and dry.
Eugene received 34% (2,013) of the vote, more than double of second place contender Jennifer James, fundraiser for Clarke’s congressional bid, who received 15% (890) of the vote. In third place was Wellington Sharpe, who has unsuccessfully run for a number of offices including State Senate; he received 12%, 704 votes.
As for the other candidates: Harry Schiffman- 445, Jesse Hamilton-438, Moe Razvi-421, Zenobia McNally-363, Joel Toney-254, Ricky Tulloch-286, Karlene Gordon-65.
The 40th City Council District in central Brooklyn covers parts of Flatbush, Crown Heights and historical home district of Ditmas Park. This district elected the first Jamaican, Una Clarke, to city council in 1991; her daughter Yvette succeeded her in 2001.
The Clarke camp endorsed Eugene amidst much fanfare at City Hall in mid-January demonstrating their strong continuing involvement in local politics.
At the victory party of nearly 200 people at Caf‚ Alta, Una Clarke functioned as the Mistress of Ceremonies making sure the minions were thanked and everything was in order.
“This is extraordinary because we’re seeing history being made right before our eyes,” Representative Clarke said on victory night. “The city council district has an extraordinary new member who will fight for the concerns of all the people of this district.”
Eugene, who stated as he does time and again, that he represents all the people in the district reiterated this sentiment. A Muslim constituent and a religious Jewish constituent were among those who spoke at his victory gathering. There was a seemingly endless but sincere list of thank-you’s enumerated including those to his wife and two teenage children.
The victory gathering-with a majority of Haitians-enjoyed all the ceremonials, but eventually the crowd started bristling a bit in anticipation for other celebratory activities like dancing.
The bubbly came out; Haitian food including the tradition rice dish, djon-djon, was served and the packed room of celebrants danced unto the wee hours to a variety of DJ rhythms. The American, Jamaican and Haitian flag were displayed.
The following day, Eugene walked the streets of Flatbush shaking hands and thanking his new constituency. On an interview on NY1 he said, “We are a Haitian.” then he corrected himself, “We are an emigrant community. Those with green cards, I will encourage to become citizens. Those who are citizens, I will encourage to register to vote.”
It’s now up to the attorney general.
This special election temporarily fills the city council seat until the next general election. On September 11, a Democratic primary for this seat will take place followed by the November General Election. Clarke’s council seat will then be filled for the two years remaining on her term.
The number of New Yorkers of Haitian descent in the metro area could be as high as 200,000. In the recent election that sent Jamaican-descent Yvette Clarke to Congress, many Haitians donated money and worked very hard on her campaign. It was said sometimes you only heard Creole spoken at her headquarters.
The 40th City Council District has about an equal number of potential Jamaican and Haitian voters, 8-10,000. There are 5,000 unregistered Haitian voters in the district. This is untapped electoral territory.
This district is within the 11th Congressional District. Democratic winner for Congress Yvette Clarke did not receive a majority (she garnered 31.2% of the vote) in the primary election.
One political observer noted, “If supporting a Haitian was tactical, it was a smart thing to do.” By joining Haitians with their Jamaican base, the Clarke’s are solidifying their support in the community. Creating a voting block of Haitians and Jamaicans would go unmatched. Congressional elections take place every two years.
The 11th Congressional District was designed to empower its minority residents; its most famous officeholder was Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman member of Congress, succeeded by progressive Major Owens.