As her campaign builds momentum with an endorsement from TWU, we profile the woman challenging Brooklyn's political establishment.
BROOKLYN, NY — After next week’s September 13 primary, Brooklyn’s 42nd district may have a new State Assemblywoman: Rodneyse Bichotte. Currently, Bichotte serves as the area’s Assembly District Leader, a seat she won in 2010 by ousting Mary Hobson. While Bichotte was successful in her first political bid against a longtime incumbent, this year’s hard-fought race against the seasoned Rhoda Jacobs will go down to the wire. Jacobs’ formidable support among party establishment and broader community stakeholders is unmatched. Yet, the Bichotte campaign is steadfast in their capacity to reach disenfranchised voters with a ground game that includes almost 200 volunteers. They believe that once again, Bichotte can do the unexpected. It has been the story of her life. They’re working to make that strong pitch to voters.
Some of Bichotte’s critics — mostly her opponent’s supporters — see things differently. They assert that she is running a divisive campaign. But last week, Bichotte won a significant endorsement from Transport Workers Union Local 100.
“We think that she’s a very viable candidate in that district,” Marvin Holland said in a recent interview with Politicker. Holland is the political director for TWU. “We just think she’s a very good candidate in this race, she’s the type of young progressive that we’re looking to try and help them in their careers.”
On the campaign trail, Bichotte frequently delivers a polished stump speech that highlights the skills she’s acquired through her extensive professional background. She is an electrical engineer, with experience in the telecom industry, who has worked as a math teacher and an investment banker. But she touts her roots in East Flatbush as the formative experience of her life.
“As a public school math teacher, I witnessed and experienced [the] lack of resources, the pressure on teachers to pass students and all the challenges of children of low-income and working families… that don’t allow them to excel and compete,” Bichotte said. “I’ve lived that experience.”
In their first years in Brooklyn, Bichotte’s parents worked in a textile factory. Her father would tour and play with a Haitian band on the side. Then her mother started working as a housekeeper, and kept at it for over 30 years. Her father got a job as a health care worker. Both were union jobs that provided modest, steady income to care for their four children.
“I always remember how hard my mom and dad worked,” Bichotte said. “They worked many jobs, long shifts — we didn’t have it easy.”
A fortuitous day changed a 10 year old’s life. After an afternoon of selling chocolates for her sister, Bichotte made her way home. She was excited; she had sold so many that day. But as she approached the corner of Farragut Road and E. 45th Street, she didn’t notice the speeding car. There were no traffic lights. The car hit Bichotte, and the driver sped away. The authorities eventually found the driver.
Bichotte sustained several injuries, including a broken ankle and permanent arthritis. But her family didn’t receive any assistance to help their daughter recuperate. They didn’t know where to go for help. Bichotte was bedridden for months, with no access to physical therapy. She had to learn how to walk again on her own.
“We experienced what it was like to lack resources,” Bichotte said, as a tinge of pain surfaced during her retelling of the incident. “I limped; I could not play, could not dance. But over time I became active again, and was determined to be strong and not let my injuries slow me down, or show signs of weakness… It’s an experience I have to life with every day of my life.”
A few years later, Bichotte was healthy enough to attend Manhattan’s famed performing arts program at LaGuardia High School. She became quite active in school clubs. She ran for her first office: secretary of the student body. She lost. But her first election confirmed one thing, she “thrived on competition.”
Bichotte went on to Buffalo State College and SUNY Buffalo, where she earned Bachelors of Science degrees in Mathematics Secondary Education and Electrical Engineering. Bichotte would go on to complete a Masters of Science in Electrical Engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology. At Buffalo State, her technology class professor noted her grasp of math — she encouraged Bichotte to consider engineering. Dr. Stephanie Goldberg recalls her former student’s potential to enter a field with few women, and even fewer women of color.
“She was the first [female] student I knew of, to major in math and engineering,” Golberg said. “She was an exceptional student. And being a woman in technology and engineering is very challenging. Rodneyse worked very hard, and her willingness to do a double major is inspiring for other students. That’s why I’ve invited her back to speak [to my class].”
Bichotte began her career as a technical engineer at Lucent Technologies (now known as Alcatel-Lucent). She tested software on cell phones and wireless based stations. She worked in China and Japan for three years, before returning to the U.S. to advance her graduate studies at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, where she earned an MBA in Finance and Marketing.
“Moving to Chicago… I experienced what it was like to be an adult,” Bichotte said. “I bought my first house; learned how to save money from my mom. She would say: ‘How come I save more money than you and I make less than you, and have more expenses than you? Fò w fè ekonomi! (You have to save money).”
In Chicago, Bichotte was active in the Urban League, became president of the local graduate Black MBA chapter and pledged with the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Through her undergrad involvement with Habitat for Humanity, she helped Delta develop a partnership for the two organizations to work on a national low-income housing initiative.
When Bichotte graduated in 2003 the job market was in a slump. She went back to work for Lucent — this time, in marketing and management, introducing their new voice over IP technology to new customers. Bichotte moved back to New York, after she landed a finance position at JPMorgan Chase.
When Bichotte returned to Brooklyn, she became active in political circles. She got her first taste of electoral politics back in Chicago, working on Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign. Consequently, her move back home brought a focus to the role of politics in her community — there were still no traffic lights at the corner of Farragut Road and E. 45th Street.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Bichotte said. “After 20 years, nothing had changed. I knew I had to do something about it.”
She met State Senator Kevin Parker at a political fundraiser and asked him what he could do about the traffic lights. Though it wasn’t in his district, he made some calls and eight months later, there was a traffic light, says Bichotte.
“I didn’t understand the significance of local political involvement until then. I thought ‘Wow, stuff happens when you get involved’… But the next question was: Why did it take so long? Low-income communities deserve elected leaders that look out for them, for their families.”
That’s why Bichotte decided to run for office. And in the process, passed up an opportunity to be on The Apprentice.
“She chose to run for District Leader instead of being on one of the most popular shows on TV,” Josue Pierre said. Pierre was her campaign manager at the time. Now, he’s her running mate for Male District Leader. “She chose the people, her community.”
Though she was elected to the unpaid District Leader seat, she continued to work in Corporate Development Mergers and Acquisitions at American Express. This time around, Bichotte is a full-time candidate.
She handled the transition from corporate america into politics with finesse, says Natasha Fievre, an attending physician in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the Brooklyn Hospital Center.
“I met Rodneyse in the fall of 2006 at a Delta Sigma Theta Sorority meeting,” Fievre said. “I found Rodneyse to be very poised and inviting. She was very active in our social action committee and actually received distinction within our region for her hard work. Personally she has turned any hardship into an opportunity to grow and flourish… She is dependable, committed, sincere, hardworking and an advocate for all people.”
Voter education (this year’s primary falls on a Thursday) and fundraising are main challenges going into the final stretch — though by the end of summer, they appeared to be neck and neck with Jacobs, raising almost $50,000. But the campaign exhausted funds on legal expenses to knock both her opponents off the ballot. They succeeded with Zachary Lareche, but failed to unseat Rhoda Jacobs, after a state appellate court ruled that the incumbent’s petitions were valid.
Though Bichotte has made significant inroads with immigrants across the district from her previous run, many Haitians still doubt her chances to unseat Jacobs. Some tell her “Ou paka bat Rhoda non!” (You can’t beat Rhoda). But Bichotte insists they said the same thing about Hobson; she proved them wrong.
Rodneyse Bichotte is looking to do the unexpected, one more time.
Manolia Charlotin is the executive editor of The Haitian Times. She is the former editor and business manager of the Boston Haitian Reporter, and a news commentator on the African diaspora, women’s affairs, media diversity and politics.