On January 21, the first black President of the United States will be inaugurated for an historic second term. Here are some of the inluential Haitians who helped him reach this milestone.
WASHINGTON, DC — One week before election day, Donald Trump falsely stated that Chrysler was shipping its Jeep production overseas to China. He did so, on a few different media platforms, including Twitter. Ralph Gilles fired back with a short tweet that garnered him a few days of headlines in the national press: “you are full of s**t!” No one, certainly not Trump, expected Chrysler’s head of product design to jump in the dialogue with such an impassioned response. But that’s exactly what the Haitian-American executive did. Though Gilles followed up with an apology for his language, he maintained “but lies are just that, lies.”
Five months prior, after the Supreme Court upheld President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a leading Democrat tweeted, in Dave Chappelle fashion: “It’s constitutional. Bitches.” Patrick Gaspard, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, caused quite a stir among the president’s opponents and supporters alike.
Gaspard is the highest ranked political figure of Haitian descent in the US, and was also the top New Yorker in the White House when he served as Obama’s political director from 2009 to 2011. During his tenure at the White House, Gaspard was in the national spotlight for many political reasons, most notably as the fall guy for the GOP romp of the Dems in the 2010 mid-term elections. He also came under fire for what some insiders perceived as preoccupation with the 2010 earthquake that shifted his focus from Massachusetts to Haiti. Though Gaspard played an instrumental role in the administration’s swift humanitarian response, which would become one of the largest in modern history, he was one of the people blamed for the Democrats’ loss to Republican Scott Brown in the special election contest to replace late Senator Ted Kennedy.
Now, Gaspard has two successful presidential bids under his belt (he was the political director for Obama’s 2008 campaign). That record sets him apart, and places him in an elite class of leading figures in American politics.
Open in the White House
Another leading national figure of Haitian descent in the Obama camp was Karine Jean-Pierre. Before serving as deputy battleground states director for the 2012 reelection campaign, Jean-Pierre worked at the White House as the regional political director in the political affairs office and as White House liaison to the US Department of Labor.
The Columbia University graduate who hails from Brooklyn, has an extensive political resume. Before joining the Obama for America campaign in 2008 as the southeast regional political director, Jean-Pierre held the same role on John Edwards’ presidential campaign. During her time in New York, Jean-Pierre worked for Congressman Anthony Weiner as his press secretary, as Deputy Chief of Staff for City Council Member James Sanders and Director of Legislative and Budget Affairs for New York City Council Member James Gennano.
Jean-Pierre has also worked on special White House projects that reach out to the LGBT community; most recently, she contributed to a video entitled “It Gets Better” in response to media reports about anti-gay bullying. Outside of the office, she nurtures strong mentoring relationships with other young queer women of color. For her work as an openly gay political official, Jean-Pierre was featured in The Advocate‘s Forty Under 40, in 2011.
During both of Obama’s presidential runs, Jean-Pierre put in long hours helping to develop and implement field operations strategy, woo influential political leaders to her team and analyze poll numbers. In an interview with She Knows, Jean-Pierre said one of the most gratifying moments in her work was when her father (a 71 year old taxi driver) and her mother (a health worker) had the opportunity to meet the President of the United States.
“I give credit to my parents. They are Haitian and immigrated to America… They believe in me, and I wouldn’t be where I am without the sacrifices they made to make sure I went to private school and college and grad school. The American dream has come true for them, they’ve gotten to meet the President and First Lady through my work, and it is great to give that to them.”
Delivering Florida for the President
Florida is one of the most contested battleground states in US politics. And three Haitian leaders were instrumental in delivering the state for Obama in 2012: Karen Andre, Maggie Austin and Jean-Philippe Austin.
Back in 2008, Karen Andre closed her Miami law practice to work as an organizer in Obama’s southern Florida campaign operation. Andre ran field organizing for two offices — one in Liberty City and the other in Little Haiti. The campaign needed someone who spoke Haitian Creole, and could mobilize the vote in the black community. Andre came highly recommended, given her experience in Florida politics and deep ties in the Haitian community, having worked on several local campaigns.
So, in 2012, the reelection campaign brought Andre back on board — this time, as one of two political directors for the whole state, to run a field staff of 700. This election was different. Many of the local leaders were no longer enthused about Obama, so it would take some convincing to bring them back on board. Andre touted the president’s record across the state, as she helped develop a multidimensional get-out-the-vote effort to ensure people of color and low-income voters would be able to vote. The state’s GOP leadership spearheaded a legislative agenda to curb early voting, which would serve to disenfranchise those voting blocks.
“Voter Registration was a major challenge,” Karen Andre said. “They changed it so that you had to send registration within 48 hrs or face a $5000 fine. This impacted the ability of civic groups like the League of Women Voters and the NAACP in their voter registration efforts. So we had to create a very precise process, hire enough staff and recruit volunteers to work on registration. We assembled a voter protection team that worked county by county in all 67 counties. We worked hard for every vote.”
The other major factor in winning Florida — or any state for that matter — was money. Maggie and Jean-Philippe Austin became one the most successful fundraisers for the Obama camp, raking in over $1 million.
The Austins first heard of Obama when they lived in Illinois; he was a state senator at the time. The family lived in a suburb in the greater Chicago area. Maggie was dean of admissions at the University of Illinois. One of their friends who clerked with Obama was one of several people in their personal circle who spoke highly of the state senator. When Obama ran for the US Senate, the Austins were asked to host a fundraiser for his campaign.
“We kept hearing stories of this black guy, this state senator who was impressive,” Jean-Philippe Austin said. Dr. Austin has been a practicing radiation oncologist for 20 years. “One of our friends who taught law at the University said he was always the smartest person in the room. And when we met him, and heard what he had to say, his worldview and vision for government, we knew we had to support him.”
However, the family moved to Florida, so they ended up hosting their first fundraiser for Obama during his first presidential run. Michelle Obama was the guest of honor, and Maggie recalls what it was like to meet the woman who would become the first black First Lady.
“She was and still is one of the most gracious, down to earth people I’ve ever met,” Maggie Austin said. “This was before her husband was elected, so she came down to Florida on a regular commercial flight, accompanied by one staff person. We talked about a lot about family; she has two girls and I have four.”
It was right before the 2008 Iowa primary, and the buzz in political circles was that Obama was well positioned to win. When she asked Mrs. Obama if this was an exciting time for her, the response was a sober one.
“She said she was concerned about her family, and that she didn’t want things to change too much for her daughters. She wanted them to have a normal life.”
And by the time the Austins hosted the president in what would become the first major fundraiser of Florida’s reelection campaign, a team of secret service agents surveyed their Coconut Grove home from top to bottom to ensure his safety.
The Austins became the first Haitian family to host a sitting president in their home. And they’ve been invited to quite a few functions at the White House, including the visit of Haiti’s former president Rene Preval, and a Christmas dinner.
“When he first declared his candidacy, we knew supporting him was the right thing to do,” Maggie Austin said. “And those long hours, working, trying to think of yet another person to call to ask for money was not easy… but having my family, especially my father meet the president — and then being able to celebrate his reelection in Chicago, at Reggie Love’s reception, it’s been surreal.”
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. Follow her on Twitter; she can be reached at email@example.com.