Striking a Minor Chord

It's like an episode of The Oprah Show — in Creole. Massachusetts State Representative Marie St. Fleur is zigzagging toward the podium at the front of a Miami hotel ballroom, and dozens of Haitian-American women titter with each step she takes. People crane their necks. “This is going to be good,” one woman remarks aloud. The applause buoys St. Fleur, and she smiles and waves to familiar faces. The entire room seems to be urging her forward.

When she reaches the stage, she scans the hall. Then she nods her head in approval and proclaims loudly in her native Creole: “Fanm Ayisyen nan Miyami, mwen voye yon kout chapo.” (“Haitian women of Miami, I tip my hat to you.”)

The crowd erupts again. The women at this fundraiser sponsored by Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, or Haitian Women of Miami, positively beam. They soak in St. Fleur's message as if it were some feminist elixir, as if they traveled the long road with her from Haiti to Dorchester, as if they stood beside her when in 1999 she became the first Haitian immigrant elected to state office in the United States.

Oddly, St. Fleur's political success may be better known here in Miami than in her home city of Boston. But in the “new Boston” — where nonwhites suddenly compose a majority of the population — she is perfectly positioned. After all, St. Fleur is pulling her own Haitian-American community into the political arena, and as a politician considering a run for the state Senate this fall, she is seen by many Massachusetts Democrats as a viable bridge between the mostly white old guard and emergent minority voters. “Ladies, we still have a long way to go,” the 39-year-old St. Fleur tells the crowd in Miami. “We must shape our own destinies here. Power concedes to no one. You must go out and get it.”

Boston is home to the third-largest Haitian community in the United States, part of a nonwhite population that has exploded over the last decade. By the time of the 2000 census, nonwhites represented a slim 50.5 percent majority. Blacks were the largest subgroup, many of them immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. The 49,000 Haitian Americans in the state make up 15 percent of the state's black population.

Yet Marie St. Fleur seemed to come out of nowhere when, in 1999, she won the state House of Representatives seat vacated by Charlotte Golar Richie, who had left office to become Mayor Tom Menino's housing chief. In fact, St. Fleur spent years preparing for a political life, from the time her upper-middle-class parents fled their native country after her father spoke out against the brutal dictatorship of Fran쳌ois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

St. Fleur was only seven when she first landed in New Jersey and then settled in Dorchester. She attended UMass-Amherst and Boston College Law School and in 1988 went to work for then Middlesex County District Attorney Scott Harshbarger. It was a mentoring relationship that would eventually pay dividends for both. During Harshbarger's victorious campaign for state attorney general in 1990, St. Fleur proved an invaluable asset.

“She was really one of my major supporters and contacts, not just in Roxbury and Dorchester,” says Harshbarger, who now heads up the nonpartisan citizens lobby and watchdog group Common Cause. “She was a real leader for me in communities of color throughout.”

St. Fleur followed Harshbarger to the Attorney General's Office. Eight years later, Richie approached her about running for the empty Fifth Suffolk District seat, representing Dorchester and parts of Roxbury in the State House. It is a diverse district with black, white, and Latino residents but relatively few Haitians. Even though she'd never considered public office and was busy raising three kids, St. Fleur agreed.

“What really grabbed me were the issues I was going to be able to talk about and that people were going to have to listen,” she says. “I was going to be able to sit at the table where these decisions were going to be made.”

City Democratic power brokers, including Harshbarger and Menino, lined up with political support. “I knew she would be a good person for the neighborhoods, a strong voice for them,” says Menino, who was impressed by her calls for more outreach workers and neighborhood police. These high-placed endorsements also worked against St. Fleur, as opponents dubbed her the “downtown candidate.”

No matter. She won with 77 percent of the vote.

Politics is all about timing, and St. Fleur's political debut could not have been better timed. Boston's census figures would soon show the sudden plurality of nonwhites. To politicians, the minority majority meant they needed to refocus. Although they compose less than two percent of St. Fleur's district, the Haitian Americans all over the city who now refer to her as “our representative in the State House” could become a potent voting bloc.

“All of a sudden attention is being paid to us,” says Pierre Imbert, executive director of the Haitian Multi-Service Center, the largest Haitian social service agency in greater Boston. “In the past you didn't have that rush of public officials toward the Haitian community. Now you go to functions and you hear businesspeople talking about her, wondering how the Haitian community feels about a particular issue.” Imbert says St. Fleur's success has prompted “unprecedented numbers” of Haitians to become U.S. citizens and register to vote.

“Symbolically we're creating momentum for the Haitian community to have a political identity,” St. Fleur says. “And that's very important.”

St. Fleur leads that momentum. Last October, she organized a conference on the state of Haitian Americans in Massachusetts that brought together 500 people from around the city, state, and country. She claims to have infused her district with $1 million for public safety and neighborhood improvement. Soon she'll have a chance to further widen her influence. In response to the census, a new, largely minority state Senate district has been carved out — one with a major Haitian-American population — and St. Fleur is eyeing that seat for the fall. If she runs and wins, she'll be only the second black woman elected to the Massachusetts Senate.

For all the advantages the shifting demographics have presented to her, St. Fleur claims to reject race politics. In contrast to black politicians in places like Miami, where ethnic politics dominate, St. Fleur focuses on broader issues — education, public safety, economic development, affordable housing. In 1999 she ran a traditional campaign that had her knocking on doors and attending neighborhood meetings. Her campaign brochure described her as “a girl from the neighborhood.”

“That whole Haitian phenomenon — being the first one — created positive energy in the community but also put pressure on me,” she says. “Sometimes I have to tell them that my main priority is the people in my district — not the whole Haitian community.”

Not everyone has thrown in with St. Fleur, though few will voice their criticisms publicly. She herself admits to some political missteps. When state authorities threatened to take over the administration of Roxbury Community College because of blatant financial mismanagement, St. Fleur shot back that the predominantly black institution was being unfairly singled out. When a local newspaper accused St. Fleur of playing the race card, she was furious, saying the characterization “sought to discount the argument that similarly situated state agencies were not held to the same standards or treated in the same way.” Now she says she could have handled the situation better, formulating a measured response before talking to the media, instead of reacting emotionally.

St. Fleur also upset some of her power base when she voted to cut appropriations for the Clean Elections Law, which would have made available more than $20 million in state funds for political campaigns in an attempt to wean elected officeholders from special-interest contributions. Voters had already overwhelmingly supported the legislation, but St. Fleur argued that the money could be better spent on social programs. “For me, it's not a strong argument,” she says: “Do you take $20 million and set it aside to pay for a prescription drug program, or put it aside for people to run for election? I didn't think it was in the interest of the people of my district. And I am happy with my decision.”

When St. Fleur suggested that the city's bilingual education program put more emphasis on English immersion — whereby students are put in English-only classrooms, rather than allowing them to speak their native languages — she raised more than a few hackles. “She came here at an early age, was immersed totally in English, and that has worked for her,” says Nydia Mendez, director of bilingual education and language services for the Boston Public Schools. “But that has not worked for many other students.”

St. Fleur counters: “We need to redefine what we're trying to do. It's not the school system's responsibility or obligation that every child maintain fluency in their native tongue.”

Such pragmatism has brought St. Fleur to the attention of state party bosses. “This is a city and state badly in need of leadership — in communities of color, particularly,” says Democratic State Chairman Philip Johnston. “She's someone who possesses a great deal of energy and insight into these communities and the problems that exist within them.”

Menino himself slips into Oprah-like gushing when discussing St. Fleur's counterintuitive politics, specifically her take on the Clean Elections bill. “Her being a progressive, you'd expect her to be all for it,” he says. “But she thought it wasn't the right thing to do without funding human services programs, which are underfunded. She understands that this business is about helping people.”

Whether addressing a packed house in Miami or the House assembly on Beacon Hill, St. Fleur knows her Haitian background is a benefit to her. But she also knows she cannot win the new state Senate seat solely because she's Haitian.

“It bodes well for us as a Haitian community and a black community,” she says of the potential political force of the Haitian-American population. “But if we don't learn how to use that influence overall, then it's useless.”

St. Fleur says she tells her audiences to use her as an example to empower themselves. “Demand of your state representative,” she says, “what you see me doing.”