New York City

Rodneyse Bichotte: Definitely not the old boss

The machines are waning. Brooklyn Democrats are divided. But if anyone can unite them, it’s her.

New Brooklyn Boss, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte.

New Brooklyn Boss, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte. Guerin Blask

There’s a new queen of Kings County.

As the nation observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 20, Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte was busy making history at Canarsie’s Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club. That evening, the three-term Central Brooklyn lawmaker was overwhelmingly elected chairwoman of the Kings County Democratic Committee, making her the first woman ever to hold the powerful post.

The new party boss’s rise has been swift. In 2014, Bichotte became the first Haitian American woman to hold elected office in New York City. She represents the neighborhoods of Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood and Ditmas Park, while doubling as a Democratic district leader back home – a position she’s held since 2010.

Her ascent represents the culmination of a surge in Haitian American political representation in Brooklyn, and it heralds demographic change in other ways too: Bichotte is the first woman to lead the borough’s Democratic machine and the first black woman to lead the party in any of the five boroughs. There is also a generational shift: Bichotte, 47, is significantly younger than her two immediate predecessors, Frank Seddio and Vito Lopez, who both served into their 70s. 

The county committee has been controversial among reform-minded progressive activists, some of whom believe it favors insiders. Those activists have won some recent victories against the establishment, including the toppling of state Sens. Jesse Hamilton and Martin Dilan in 2018, leaving the party apparatus weakened – a weakness compounded by some financial troubles. As in many diverse and changing urban areas, Brooklyn Democrats have also sometimes been divided along ethnic or racial lines.

Bichotte, however, seems to cross over or float above some of these divisions. She has a progressive voting record, but she has cultivated an alliance with more conservative-leaning Orthodox Jews in and near her district. She was the only elected official in New York City to endorse Mayor Bill de Blasio for president, but she also chaired the campaign of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a de Blasio rival. In light of her age, gender, race and record, she might be the rare party regular who can reach out to reformers and bring them into the fold. But, in an era of waning and factionalizing party machines, can anyone bring the Brooklyn Democrats together? 

The Brooklyn Democratic Party is one of the largest Democratic county organizations in the country. The role of party president isn’t salaried, but its reward is the power to pick candidates for select government posts, such as judges. It is also ultimately up to the chairperson to recruit members and keep house.

Seddio, who endorsed Bichotte as his successor, told City & State that her appointment comes at a pivotal time for the party and the borough’s 1.2 million registered Democrats. “The upcoming two years are going to be the most difficult for the county,” he said, estimating that there will be hundreds of candidates vying to replace the borough’s term-limited members of the New York City Council come 2021. Citywide, 34 of 51 councilmembers are expected to reach the term limits of their office at the end of next year. One term-limited council member from Brooklyn, Rafael Espinal, has already stepped down. The county committee has backed Darma Diaz, a local district leader, to fill his seat, but Diaz currently faces several opponents, including one, Sandy Nurse, who has been endorsed by elected officials such as Rep. Nydia Velázquez and state Sen. Julia Salazar.

That’s on top of hotly contested races for mayor, city comptroller and public advocate and an already crowded field of contenders aiming to succeed City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. In 2018, seven Democratic state senators, six of whom had been part of the Independent Democratic Conference, lost their seats to insurgents, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old Bronx bartender, defeated 10-term incumbent congressman and Queens County Democratic Chairman Joe Crowley. With the door wide open for the next Ocasio-Cortez, even more shake-ups are expected in 2020.Left-wing insurgents are challenging the establishment candidates in several Assembly races in Brooklyn, as well as the competition to replace retiring state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery. 

“It’s going to be an enormously important time for us and the goal, as far as I’m concerned, is that Brooklyn unifies around one candidate in many of these elections,” said Seddio, who served as party chair from 2012 up until his unexpected retirement last month. “That’s a big, ambitious task that requires someone who’s willing to go out there, work the streets and not just talk the talk but walk the walk and get it done.”

Bob Liff, a party spokesperson, told The City that Seddio had sought “generational change” when scouting his successor, but the Brooklyn Democratic powerbroker told City & State that his call to back Bichotte was also rooted in her flair for building bridges. “I did an evaluation of all the leaders – male and female – who had the potential to lead the party and the next generation of Brooklyn Democrats, and Rodneyse fit a lot of that bill,” Seddio told City & State. “She’s energetic, she’s a good fundraiser and she’s someone who represents all of Brooklyn, in everything that she does.”

But if he had to pick one quality that set Bichotte apart, Seddio said simply, “She is an aggressive person – in the best sense of the word – who understands the need to unify the different parties within the party as much as possible.”

Bichotte’s trajectory was born from tragedy: At just 10 years old, she was struck by a car at the corner of Farragut Road and East 45th Street in East Flatbush. The intersection, not far from an elementary school and about “20 short blocks” from her childhood home, had no traffic light.

Bichotte sustained several injuries, including a broken ankle, and she was left with permanent arthritis. With limited resources, and no access to physical therapy, it was up to Bichotte to teach herself to walk again. “I almost lost my life,” she told City & State, “but that day changed my life, too.”

Bedridden for almost a year, Bichotte had to switch to home schooling. She recalled how a one-on-one education made all the difference for a struggling student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and for whom English was a second language. Although Bichotte was born in Brooklyn, her first language was Haitian Creole, the language her immigrant parents spoke.

“I could no longer be the dancer and gymnast I’d always wanted to be,” she said, “but instead I was able to tap into a different type of academic potential I never knew I had.”

Bichotte first became interested in politics while studying in Chicago, where in 2004, she volunteered for then-U.S. Senate hopeful Barack Obama, phone banking and knocking on doors. “That was my first time helping someone get elected,” she recalled.

Back in Brooklyn, in 2008, her sister organized a fundraiser for state Sen. Kevin Parker, who represents much of the same Flatbush and East Flatbush area encompassed in Bichotte’s current Assembly district. More than 20 years after her accident, there was still no traffic light at the corner of Farragut Road and East 45th Street. Parker, after meeting Bichotte, put the pressure on the New York City Department of Transportation to address the intersection. Less than one year later, the street corner where Bichotte almost lost her life got its first traffic light.

“I didn’t know who he was and I didn’t have a great view of local politics,” Bichotte admitted. “I felt it was dirty and corrupt. But then he started talking about all of these great things that meant a great deal to marginalized communities like mine, and I said ‘Oh my goodness, I have to be involved in this.’”

That Election Day, Bichotte put on her Kevin Parker T-shirt, stood on a street corner in a part of Flatbush known to some as “Little Haiti,” and broke out her Creole to help get Parker reelected. According to the 2007-2011 American Community Survey, 10.8 percent of all Haitian Americans in New York City reside in Little Haiti, making it the most concentrated Haitian population in the city. “I remember how exciting it was,” Bichotte said. “There I was, standing on a corner in a community that’s been marginalized and they don’t even know there’s an election because of language barriers.”

Today, Bichotte is pushing legislation that would require the Board of Elections to deploy more diverse – and demographically reflective – poll site interpreters, and Little Haiti has been recognized by the City Council as an official business district, thanks in part to her advocacy. 

Although she may be the only ambitious Democrat who didn’t run for president this year, Bichotte has a resume and collection of obscure talents that even Pete Buttigieg would struggle to top. She studied music at the prestigious Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan, where she sang. She worked as a math teacher in the New York City public school system, was an engineer at Lucent Technologies, and an investment banker at Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. She holds bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics in secondary education from Buffalo State, a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from the University at Buffalo, a master’s in electrical engineering from Illinois Tech and a Master of Business Administration from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management – and a junior black belt in taekwondo. She plans to add a law degree to the list in the near future.

Bichotte’s work has often been inspired by personal experience. As a survivor of sexual assault, she is especially proud of having supported the Child Victims Act, which passed in January 2019 and extended the statute of limitations for criminal child sex abuse cases. She was one of at least four New York City legislators who told their own stories to raise awareness about the law. “One of the most important [bills] for me is that one,” she said, “because not only was it the best bill with the best outcome, but it also opened my eyes to how many people in my own inner circle who I didn’t know were survivors, too.”

Bichotte is currently working to help ban menthol cigarettes – a vice she says killed her father in a new ad campaign for Flavors Hook Kids NYC – and she was a co-sponsor of the 2019 bill to increase speed cameras in school zones, like the one where she was hit as a child. 

She also currently chairs the Assembly Subcommittee on Oversight of Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises. That role, she said, brings her back to what drew her into local politics in the first place. “Economic development and economic opportunity is something that many of the marginalized, low-income communities of color don’t really get a chance to be a part of,” Bichotte said. “I want to break down those barriers for minority and women business owners so that we’re all participating, because when the people succeed, so does the community.”

The new party head’s love of the game has made her an ally to other political players. “Rodneyse is focused on bringing people together, building strong and diverse coalitions and winning races,” City Councilman Justin Brannan told City & State. “I’ve been in the trenches with Rodneyse on campaigns and she is a total force of nature – full of energy, unstoppable and unforgettable. If you’re down in a foxhole, taking on grenades, Rodneyse is the person you want by your side.”

Bichotte has certainly proven herself pivotal to the campaigns she backs. The new party boss served as chairwoman of Jumaane Williams’ successful 2019 public advocate campaign, from the special election in February through the subsequent September primary and general election in November. “From soup to nuts, I helped any way I could,” she told City & State, “I petitioned, I helped fundraise and I changed people’s minds. I was able to bring people on board from each of the five boroughs, because I really believed in him and from there, we were able to keep that momentum going.”

Then she helped lead Farah Louis, who is also of Haitian descent, to victory in the race for Williams’ old council seat. That race opened up another potential factional struggle, as it pitted the Haitian-Orthodox alliance against African Americans, including Parker, and Caribbean Americans from Anglophone countries of origin, including Williams. Williams backed a rival candidate, Monique Chandler-Waterman. 

Even though this was a rare instance of Bichotte splitting with former allies, it did demonstrate that Bichotte was now a kingmaker in Kings County. “You’d be surprised how many (candidates) sought her direct support before she became county leader,” Bichotte’s Democratic district male co-leader Josue Pierre told City & State.

Bichotte’s friends, at least, think she will be a unifier. “She’ll be able to strengthen our ability to be transparent, to be strategic and to learn how to all work together,” Louis said. “I think our party has been pulled in so many different directions where people are more prone to competing with each other than respecting each other’s values and differences, and I think she’s going to remind us that diversity is a part of what makes this party beautiful.”

Bichotte has nurtured a strong political alliance with Orthodox Jewish leaders in Central Brooklyn in recent years, even though in 2015 she received backlash after referring to members of the Jewish community as “you guys” in a radio interview with host Leon Goldenberg. During the interview, in which Bichotte was defending her decision not to back Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed tax credits for some private schools, she also accused the Jewish community of unfairly attacking her stance because she is a black woman. She apologized shortly after. “What I try to do is make sure that I address the needs of all the different communities so that all of us can find a way of working together,” Bichotte said. 

Many have echoed Seddio in hoping – and believing – she can do the same for the disparate factions of the Brooklyn Democrats. City Councilman Kalman Yeger, whose Brooklyn district includes heavily Orthodox Jewish areas like Midwood and Borough Park, said Bichotte has made his constituents feel heard, and helped bring diverse communities together. “She’s done it against all odds,” Yeger said. “Neighborhoods change but we all continue to live in the same place,” Yeger said. “There are places we’re going to disagree and there are places we’re going to agree, but we’ve got to work very hard to keep focus on those common goals, and that’s what Rodneyse is good at.”

Her workhorse approach can trickle down to her team: one former Bichotte staffer, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about a former boss, described receiving emails at all hours of the day and night. “Whenever I interview people and anyone I hire, I tell them it’s a 24/7 job. If there’s a crisis, you have to be ready and willing to respond. We are public servants,” Bichotte told City & State in response, noting that she wishes the state had a budget big enough to hire more Assembly staffers. “But most times, if I’m emailing in the middle of the night, it’s because I’m in the car, or I’m just getting home. I’m never expecting a response right away, (the job) just doesn’t stop for me.”

The staffer said some of Bichotte’s employees felt like she was a “micromanager” who often gave workers assignments outside of their job descriptions. “[In] every elected office – no matter what they say – underlying everything is the idea that you're promoting your boss. That's to be expected. But this was to a degree that we weren't able to do anything else but promote,” they said.

When asked if she felt she was a “demanding” boss, the new party head said it’s all relative: “I’m detail-oriented, and sometimes that means I come off as the mean, aggressive person in the room. Meanwhile, if it’s a man, they’re looked at as getting work done. I have that same work ethic.”

Every party chairperson’s primary responsibility is fundraising, and observers say Bichotte has a knack for it. The City reported in January that Bichotte raised more money than all but one Brooklyn Assembly Democrat in the first half of 2019 – outraising 17 other lawmakers, many of them senior to her, with a haul of $112,095 in an off-election year. Her big bucks have been largely fueled by groups her bills have aided, such minority- and women-owned businesses, and labor organizations including the Transport Workers Union of America Local 100, Voice of Teachers For Education, which is a political action committee for the New York State Teachers Union, and even the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

The county committee has just under $33,000 in the bank, according to recent state filings. The party also owes more than $226,000 in debt, according to the New York Post.

Last summer, borough lawmakers called on the party to open its books, citing declining cash reserves during Seddio’s reign. The party reportedly had over $500,000 when Seddio was elected county leader in September 2012. At a county committee meeting months before Bichotte’s appointment, Seddio blamed the shortfall on a progressive push to turn down money from the real estate industry. At the same meeting, more than 300 members voted unanimously to pass a resolution aimed at increasing fiscal transparency.

A spokesperson for the Brooklyn Democrats, who asked to remain anonymous to speak frankly about financial matters, told City & State that Seddio worked hard to keep the county committee afloat, often loaning money himself to do so. “The party has never been a big money operation,” the rep said, “and there’s expenses to consider.” Among them: petitioning fees, legal representation and the cost of events. Every full committee meeting costs close to $10,000, the spokesperson estimated, stressing expenses like mailers and hall rentals. 

Bichotte, who has already hosted her first major event as county chairwoman – a Feb. 20 fundraiser in Williamsburg – backed that claim. “My goal is definitely to get out of debt and really build a very healthy treasury,” Bichotte told City & State, noting that, since starting as county leader, she has raised over $400,000 worth of commitments and collected on close to $200,000. On top of the county committee’s annual dinner this April, Bichotte plans to organize a fundraising campaign for small donors, and encouraging the party’s 42 district leaders and 20 Democratic clubs to help lead the charge.

Yet money is still very much on the minds of some clubs across the borough, and at least one faction has raised concerns since Bichotte’s induction. Caitlin Kawaguchi, a spokeswoman for New Kings Democrats, a progressive, grassroots club looking to bring transparency to the party, said that one of two rule changes made on the eve of Bichotte’s appointment reduced the number of yearly meetings from two to one, effectively canceling a February meeting at which a plan to address the party’s finances was supposed to be presented by a newly revived finance committee.

“A month after her appointment, we have not received any updates on the dismal state of the party finances, or the two alarming party rules changes made the same night as her appointment, which limit the ability of everyday Brooklynites to engage with the party,” Kawaguchi wrote in an emailed statement to City & State. “Given the lack of updates, we are especially concerned about the rules change that removed the expected February 2020 County Committee meeting, where County Committee members were looking forward to an update on party leadership and hearing Bichotte’s vision for the party.”

New Kings Democrats also criticized Bichotte’s appointment itself, calling the “behind closed doors” vote “rushed.” Looking forward, they hope the new party boss can turn things around, while keeping all of the party’s members in mind. “Fundamentally, the party leadership structure remains disengaged from everyday Brooklynites and county committee members at large,” the group said. “We believe that the party has a responsibility to serve Brooklyn Democrats – to support organizing around voter turnout, voter registration, and building a solid bench of candidates,” they said. “We hope that Bichotte will use her power to overturn these rules changes and encourage increased participation from all Brooklyn Democrats.”

Both Seddio and Bichotte disputed the group’s claims about her selection. “There was nothing closed-door about it,” Bichotte said, referring to her appointment process. “The reality is that this type of process exists in so many levels of government when somebody is stepping down. (In the past,) the decision to elect a new county leader was made within 24 hours. This time around, people had at least a week to deliberate.”

Brooklyn Paper first reported that Seddio would be stepping down on Jan. 12. Bichotte was appointed eight days later, by a vote of 39-0. Just one person, former Assemblywoman Joan Millman, abstained, while City Councilwoman Inez Barron and her husband Assemblyman Charles Barron were absent for the vote. The pair had previously told Politico that they wouldn’t vote because they didn’t want a leader “selected by the white power.”

Bichotte also addressed the alleged lack of transparency concerning party finances, something she said she’s also done on a club-to-club “listening tour.” “I have been extremely vocal about our plan for more transparency and accountability in our financials during my listening tour. I have been to a few clubs including Independent Neighborhood Democrats that have a number of (New Kings Democrats) members and have shared high-level plans,” she told City & State. “While I respect the activism in our Democratic clubs, such as NKD, it would be unfair and inequitable to literally only address one voice while ignoring all the other voices that are part of the makeup of this great borough.”

Seddio contended that the party is more open to its members “than any other county committee in the city.” The implementation of a once yearly meeting was meant to be a temporary money-saver, the prior party boss added, which he hopes the group can soon reverse. “We have taken steps nobody else has. We give county committee members a voice at our meetings, regardless of whether or not they’re a district leader, and we open the door for them afterwards,” Seddio told City & State. “I’ve always said, ‘If you have a gripe, if you have something you want to say, you don’t have to wait for a meeting to do that.’ My door is always open, and I know Rodneyse will do the same.”

Assemblyman Walter Mosley, who reportedly considered mounting a challenge for county committee chair ahead of Bichotte’s selection, told City & State that “only time will tell” if she can truly unify the party. “It’s one thing to say stuff, but it’s another thing to translate words into action,” he said.

Just over one month in, Bichotte said she has already met with hundreds of Brooklyn Democrats. “We’re going to continue to be the biggest and the baddest (county committee) around,” she said. In an effort to emphasize its political importance, Bichotte reached for a well-intentioned metaphor that might strike some Brooklynites as selling New York City’s most populous borough short: “Anyone who’s looking to win an election, whether it's for Congress or even president, they know they have to come through Brooklyn – the Iowa of New York state.”