Councilman Mathieu Eugene is a nice guy. Really nice guy. Winning smile; firm handshake. As he walks the streets of Flatbush and PLG, people stop him to say hi, for a hug, or just sort of a walking "way to go, bro" kinda thing. You see, Eugene is the first Haiti-born American elected to...I dunno...anything. It's not a long list - a few state reps in Illinois and Florida mostly. Seriously, what other Haitians besides Wyclef, Aristide and Bill Clinton have most non-Haitians even heard of? Breaking through to one of the biggest city council jobs in the country is no small potatoes.
Granted, it's important to have Island representation on the Council. The woman that Eugene replaced - Yvette Clarke - was first-generation Jamaican, and given the large number of Caribbean-Americans in our district, it's quite likely that our reps will come from that community. And to his credit, Mathieu Eugene has been a fairly visible and committed rep through the tragic earthquake's aftermath and resulting troubles with immigration, as Haitians seek stability following the devastation of their homeland. His efforts are laudable, and were he simply a spokesperson for the Haitian community and known for his leadership efforts therein, I'd probably have nothing much else to say about him except super-positive things. But he's supposed to be much more than the Haitian councilman. He's OUR spokesperson in NYC's affairs, and as such, he must be held to a higher standard than simply a mouthpiece for Haitians.
On the plus side, in recent weeks he's pledged support for neighborhood efforts to combat crime, street trash and the miserable traffic snarl of Parkside/Ocean. I do hope he follows through on his pledges, because we Caledonians will be watching closely to see if he shows the kind of leadership worthy of our votes in 2013 when he's next up for re-election. It's time, as they say, to step up to the plate, sir, and knock one over the wall.
But let's be frank...no one I've met considers Eugene a powerhouse on the Council. His record is pretty feeble; since 2007 the Councilman has achieved little to show our district. There was the refurbished clock on Cortelyou Road, and the antique lighting for Church Avenue. He's quick to tell you about that. There's a couple million bucks for new gear at Kings County Hospital. He says a new park is coming for the playground near PS92. He says there are, thanks to him, more "smart boards" in the schools. He co-sponsored a handful of decidedly lackluster bills, the most exciting involving public water fountains and amending the plumbing code. Oh, and he helped make it possible for New Yorkers to pay their parking violations at check cashing businesses. For more info on these and other fun facts, check out Councilpedia.
By comparison, in the time Eugene has sponsored four bills (2010), Gale Brewer on the Upper West Side sponsored 40. Granted Brewer's been on the Council for awhile longer - since 2002. But she and other "big name" council members are known for tackling big issues and following through...they're also ubiquitous in their districts, attending every which sort of community meeting.
I want to go out on a limb and say that, given the $112K annual salary, councilmembers ought to personally go to ALL major community meetings. That's right, ALL.If they can't make it because of illness or a kid's soccer game, then of course it's fine to send a rep. In reality, there aren't so many official mtgs to go to - Community Boards and Precinct Meetings in particular - that they couldn't put in a personal appearance every time out. They represent a fairly small number of people (100,000 or so) and they should know our business like the back of their hands. And just to note the obvious, the vast majority of people at community meetings are there AS VOLUTEERS. We're not being a paid a red cent, and we should expect that our well-compensated reps can muster the energy to show their support in person. I've heard the line that Council members are paid too little, but I'm not buying it for a minute. It should be a PRIVILEGE to serve one's community, and any salary in the six figures is enough to live comfortably in Flatbush (though perhaps not the Upper West side!)
We shouldn't have to tell our councilman, about the minutiae of our district. For instance, Dr. Eugene angered a lot of people off by showing up at a meeting of the 70th Precinct Community Council, unaware that a frightful murder had taken place at the Parade Grounds just days before. A crowd showed up to bemoan the lack of a police presence there, and Eugene seemed totally caught off guard. (I suggest reading the papers, or blogs, before attending these things.)
On the other hand, Dr. Eugene seems to have his heart in the right place. The problem is, every time I talk to him, or hear him speak, he spouts the same pre-hashed phrases over and over again. Even looking at his platform on his website, one can't help but wonder if he's ever taken a controversial stand in his life:
His priorities are to ensure quality education with smaller class size, improve access to healthcare for all people, expand employment opportunities in his district, improve public safety services and police/community relations, improve affordable housing opportunities and support immigrant rights as well as provide strong advocacy for neighborhood preservation and homeowners.
I'm particularly annoyed by this stock phrase, that I've heard three or four time now. "Elected leaders cannot do much...we need your help to accomplish things." I'd argue that elected leaders can do a hell of a lot, given their proximity to power, and ability to call meetings of various players in all kinds of controversies and disputes. They can LEAD, and that's what I'm hoping to see more of from Dr. Eugene.
I'm ready to cut the Councilman a break. By his own admission in our interview, he never intended to be a politician. He was encouraged to run by people in his community, and his background is in medicine, not law or public policy. But even that line of reasoning begs more questions than it answers. For instance, though he takes great pains to call himself by the honorific "Dr." he apparently never had a license to practice medicine in the U.S.. And I'll be darned if I can even figure out what he did to make a living before taking office. His degree is from Mexico, so maybe he practiced there or in Haiti...but he didn't answer my direct questions about what he did before landing his current gig. In fact, very little is known about the guy outside of his church, where he served as president. And some of the controversies surrounding him only serve to further muddy the waters. One thing he's quick to trumpet is how he started a non-profit called YES (for Youth Education and Sports), but look closely and you find that the organization was essentially shut down by the City for bad leadership and shoddy record keeping. Further evidence that Dr. Eugene doesn't dot his i's or cross his t's should be obvious to all - he didn't bother to move into the 40th Council District before election day, essentially costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars by forcing a second election AFTER he'd moved here. NY Observer Article. And apparently he still calls his Canarsie home his primary residence on his taxes...a mystifying choice that cost him a slap on the wrists by the Daily News recently.
Councilman Eugene explains this all as "distractions" perpetrated by his opponents. I see no evidence of that. In fact, these transgressions would be easy enough to forgive if these stories were dwarfed by accomplishments. In his four years, Eugene has barely made a blip on the media's radar...it's really astonishing how rarely he appears in the papers and major blogs, beyond issues related to the Haiti earthquake of course.
But that's all old news. I'm willing to reset my feelings about the Councilman the minute he does something to prove that he's doing all he can to show real leadership and a willingness to take on tough issues. I like his recent attempts to take center-stage for fights like immigration status for Haitian refugees and most recently, against cuts to after-school programs. I think some of the members of his staff are strong - Jonah Rogoff and David Suarez have been super-responsive lately, And his friendship with Jean-Claude Van Damme and his black belt in Taekwondo will surely come in handy for something big.
For now, you're our man Dr. Eugene. We look forward to working with you, but we'll hold you to high standards. It's our job to do so, and your job to earn our votes come re-election time.
Here's proof I was there, though the picture seems to suggest that I have been injected with some sort of pink fiberglass insulation foam.