In Public Service: Bichotte proud of her Haitian roots

February 26, 2016 By Paula Katinas Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Assemblymember Rodneyse Bichotte says the state needs to do more to assist minority and women business owners. Eagle photo by Paula Katinas
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Rodneyse Bichotte, who is a member of the Black and Latino Women’s Caucus in the New York State Assembly, is a Haitian-American and said she is proud of the fact she was the first Haitian-American woman in New York City to win elective office.

“My district has the largest Haitian population in New York state,” she told the Brooklyn Eagle.

Bichotte was also quick to point out, however, that she is not the only Haitian-American currently serving in state government. “There are three Haitian-American women in the state Assembly,” she said. In addition, four New York City agency commissioners appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, including Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver, are Haitian-Americans, she said.

“I believe that the Haitian people needed representation. We legislators want to uplift the community,” Bichotte said. “For a long time, the Haitian community did not have a voice.”

The Brooklyn Eagle recently sat down with Bichotte at her district office at 1414 Cortelyou Road in Flatbush.

She recalled that her first foray into politics took place when she ran for the post of Democratic district leader of the 42nd Assembly District (AD) and won.

In 2012, she ran in the Democratic primary against Rhoda Jacobs, who was the assemblymember representing the 42nd AD at the time. Bichotte lost. “But it was a good learning experience,” she said, looking back.

When Jacobs retired in 2014, Bichotte ran for the Assembly seat again in the 42nd AD. This time, she won.

The 42nd AD includes parts of Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Kensington and Ditmas Park.

Bichotte said she is constantly striving to be at the forefront of Haitian issues. She is thrilled with a new development — the establishment of a Haitian Studies Institute at the City University of New York (CUNY) to be housed at Brooklyn College.

At times, Bichotte’s advocacy has led to controversy. She sponsored a resolution criticizing the Dominican Republic, after that nation expelled thousands of Haitians in 2015. She corralled a group of fellow lawmakers, like Councilmember Jumaane Williams, to lead protest marches against the Dominican Republic.

Bichotte’s resolution won the Assembly’s approval.

She also spoke out during another controversy. In 2015, a Rockland County newspaper printed a Help Wanted ad for a health care worker. In the ad, it was shockingly specified “No Haitians.”

“It was disgusting,” Bichotte said. “First of all, there are many Haitians in the medical field — doctors, nurses. The ad was an insult to them and to everyone. We were outraged.”

The company that placed the ad issued an apology, as did the newspaper.

But while she is Haitian-American, Bichotte said that as an assemblymember, she works in the best interests of all of her constituents, no matter what race, religion or nationality. “You don’t take any community for granted,” she said.

For a freshman lawmaker, Bichotte’s profile is rising fast.

She serves as chairman of the Assembly’s Sub-Committee on Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises, a subcommittee of the Governmental Services Committee.

She is working hard to establish a network of business owners, she said. “I am very aggressive. I go to an event, I spend time talking to people and I exchange information with people. I’m not a lawmaker who comes in, makes a speech and leaves,” she said.

Her network of small businesses continues to grow, she said. “It’s really a grassroots effort,” she added.

Bichotte is very interested in helping minority and women business owners overcome their struggles, particularly when it comes to winning government contracts. “We have some economic opportunity gaps,” she told the Eagle.

While New York state does strive for fairness in awarding contracts, even setting aside a certain percentage to be awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses, “some barriers remain,” Bichotte said.

For example, many of the contracts handed out to minority-owned businesses are not going to blacks or Hispanics, she said.

As far as women-owned businesses are concerned, more can be done to level the playing field, according to Bichotte, who said male business owners have sometimes been known to put the names of their wives as the heads of the companies to make it appear as if the firms are owned by females. “They say their wives own the businesses so they can get the contracts,” she said.

There is help available for minority- and women-owned companies. The New York City School Construction Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority both have programs in place to give business owners a leg up, she said.

Bichotte is also working to improve community outreach so that business owners can become aware of government agencies that can help them. “Outreach is a problem. I have a large immigrant community in my district. We need to do a better job of reaching them,” she said.

One way to improve the situation would be to get the state or city to set up information centers in storefronts in all neighborhoods, Bichotte said.

The issue is important to her, she said, because Brooklyn has a large number of minority- and woman-owned businesses.

On the day she sat down with the Eagle, Bichotte also met with representatives from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce to discuss ideas for promoting small businesses. “We also discussed legislation that would help move things forward,” she said.

One bill, which Bichotte introduced at the request of de Blasio, would raise the cap on contracts awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses. Under current law, contracts for small projects up to $100,000 can be awarded by the city or state to a minority- or female-owned business, even if the business is not the lowest bidder. Bichotte’s bill would raise that figure to $200,000.

“Most minority- and women-owned businesses are small businesses,” she said.

But the lack of opportunity isn’t entirely the fault of government, according to Bichotte. “Small business also has a lot of work to do. They have to hustle,” she said.

Bichotte has worked with agencies like the Empire State Development Corporation to plan workshops for small businesses on procurement and gaining access to capital.

Her subcommittee chairmanship would seem like a natural fit. She has experience in the financial sector: she served as a consultant to the Small Business Administration and has worked at Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and American Express.

“I was very interested in the chairmanship. This is a very active subcommittee,” she said.

Bichotte is also a member of the Housing, Social Services, Small Business, Economic Development, and Banking Committees.

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