It was 4:53 p.m. in New York when a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti – and rattled a Haitian-American neighborhood 1,500 miles away in Brooklyn. Congresswoman Yvette Clarke immediately released a statement called, well, “Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke Releases Statement on 7.0 Earthquake Hitting Haiti.”
Though the title lacked originality, the statement represents, in many ways, the moment that Clarke, a fledgling congresswoman, began to define her political identity.
“Indeed, she is to be commended for her tireless efforts and commitment,” said Marc Prou, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a member of the Haitian Studies Association. “Congresswoman Yvette Clarke’s leadership work,” he said, makes her “a champion of the Haiti relief/rebuild effort.”
Congress had only been in session a few days before Haiti’s earthquake. There was little activity on the House floor. And Clarke’s office had only peddled three press releases, none of which had anything to do with lawmaking.
This is not to suggest that the fashionable congresswoman – who recently donned a leopard-print trench coat to chase after census-gazelles, slow on filling out their forms – is just sitting pretty on her committees or in her district.
This year, the two-term congresswoman had already introduced four bills between January and April, half of them about Haiti. This boosts Clarke’s annualized bill introductions to 16, up from 10 last year.
Though the number doesn’t come close to that of veteran New York City delegate, Rep. Charles Rangel – he introduced 40 bills last year and has served almost four decades in Congress – it does suggest that Clarke is gaining political confidence. GovTrack, a website that tracks Congressional activities, considers Clarke a “follower” – that is, she tends to cosponsor bills of other members of Congress who do not cosponsor her own bills – though it has sharply increased her leadership score to 70 out of 100, up from 30 last year and 10 from the year before.
True, she wasn’t the first lawmaker to introduce a bill relating to Haiti’s earthquake. But upon closer inspection of those first bills, many of them did more to protect Americans than to help Haitians.
One bill, for example, wants to reimburs states that provided treatment to illnesses resulting “directly or indirectly” from the earthquake. Another bill would honor American military service members in Haiti. Yet another sought for speedier income tax benefits in the hopes that those dollars are donated to Haiti relief organizations.
But for Clarke, a Caribbean-American and Brooklyn-native with one of the largest Haitian constituencies, helping Haiti is “a family affair” – words that seem to reflect just how deep in her nervous system this cause is to her: like global warming for Al Gore; like health care for Hillary Clinton.
“I have a real bias,” Clark said, adding a little hip action and humor to her speech one recent Saturday morning in Brooklyn. “I can’t help it. It’s in my blood.”
So in February, Clarke worked on legislation that would allow some 55,000 Haitians who already have approved immigration petitions to join their relatives in the United States. And the following month, she introduced legislation to encourage investment in small businesses owned by Haitian citizens.
She “has definitely been on target from the beginning,” said Yolette Williams, president of the Haitian American Alliance of New York, a volunteer organization, “and has demonstrated great leadership during this terrible time for Haiti.”
Williams said that Clarke not only “introduced bills in Congress to help with the reconstruction efforts of Haiti,” but she was also “instrumental in the rapid response by the US Army and worked closely with the White House to monitor the rescue efforts.”
But Clarke hasn’t just taken the needs of her Haitian constituency to Washington. She has also brought the federal government to her district’s doorstep.
In late April, the Haitian government asked for relief efforts to stop and for economic rebuild to begin. Clarke then sprung into action and called on the United States Agency for International Development to meet with businesses in her district that could help in this next phase.
Though the meeting began a half-hour late, Clarke hosted a get-together between USAID and about 70 businessmen and women in a Brooklyn church to discover contractual opportunities in Haiti.
“We rarely get to work with the members of Congress,” said Phil Gary, USAID’s chief of staff of the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance.
He then thanked Clarke, who stood by in a soft white pantsuit with a light-blue tweed coat, smiling.
As a result of this meeting, said Dr. Roy Hastick, president of the Caribbean American Chamber of Commerce and Industry, “a more formal structure is in place” to make it easier for small businesses to export their services to Haiti.
He said commerce organizations like his have to work with the US Department of Commerce and other federal agencies. And that’s not always an easy job when it comes to helping entrepreneurs export their businesses, he said.
But now, Hastick said, “I see some positive signs have started.”
Indeed, at the meeting, her successor in city council, Mathieu Eugene, who is the first Haitian-born official elected to New York City Council, turned to Clarke and said: “We in the Haitian community are lucky to have you.”
David Montalvo is a graduate journalism student in business and economics at the City University of New York, publishing stories in The New York Times – The Local, The Daily Green, am New York, Queens Courier, NYCity News Service and CUNY-TV. He will begin an internship at Crain’s New York Business in June.