Eugene's Legacy: The Council’s Longest Serving Member Prepares to Step Down

Council Member Mathieu Eugene has represented District 40 for 14 years, the longest tenure of any member of the City Council. The end of 2021 will bring with it the end of an era: thanks to term limits, Eugene will be forced to leave office.

Eugene's Legacy: The Council’s Longest Serving Member Prepares to Step Down

As is true across much of New York City, the past decade-and-a-half have brought immense changes to the 40th Council District, which covers Flatbush and parts of surrounding areas.

The latest results from the 2020 census show that the Black population in most of the neighborhoods east and south of Prospect Park fell 15% or more, while the white population grew significantly over the last decade. An area once defined by low-to-mid rise buildings now has a few bigger ones, including the 24-story Parkline building at 626 Flatbush Avenue and the 26-story apartment complex at 123 Linden Boulevard. Before pandemic moratoriums put a (temporary) halt to evictions, Flatbush had become one of the toughest places in Brooklyn for a renter to avoid getting kicked out of their home.

Part of the area became the Little Caribbean or Little Haiti, depending on who you ask. New businesses opened on the neighborhood’s commercial corridors, like Flatbush Avenue, Nostrand Avenue, even as vacancies remained high. Serious crime in the police precincts that overlap with the Council District (the 67th, 70th, and 71st) fell significantly, from 6,557 instances of the seven major felonies tracked by the NYPD in 2007 to 3,970 incidents in 2019, before inching back up to 4,079 in 2020.

Throughout it all, there was Council Member Mathieu Eugene, who has represented the area for 14 years, the longest tenure of any member of the municipal body. The end of 2021 will bring the end of an era: Eugene will be forced to leave office thanks to term limits.

How much the changes that reshaped the district in that era—for better or worse—have to do with him is difficult to say.

Opinions about Eugene, now 68, remain complicated, and many of those who live and work in the district feel he has been ineffective and unresponsive to community concerns.

“You never knew if he would show up to a meeting or event,” said Brenda Edwards, president of the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association (PLGNA).

Earlier in the 2010s, Edwards was part of another local group, Prospect Park East Network, that led an ultimately unsuccessful fight to stop the construction of the tower at 626 Flatbush Avenue. Though Eugene eventually voiced support for the group’s cause, calling for a temporary moratorium on development in the district, Edwards said she felt the Council Member never gave them the attention or respect they deserved.

“It took a while to get a meeting with him,” she said. “We would go to his office after it was scheduled and then find out he was going to be late or he couldn't make it. We finally sat with him, just to be lectured about how he was very busy, how he understood the problem.”

“We found out later he didn't really understand the problem,” she said. “The bottom line is he really wasn't going to fight for us. Even if he knew he couldn't win, he didn’t even bother trying to help.”

The Flatbush Tenant Coalition (FTC), a housing advocacy group, had a similar experience earlier this year. In April, the group rallied outside Eugene’s office to encourage him to support a bill that would guarantee tenants legal counsel during eviction proceedings. Though Eugene eventually signed on to the bill, the Coalition’s organizers remained frustrated by the amount of work required to get his attention. District 40 has been home to the city's worst landlords, according to the list made annually by the city's Public Advocate, for over a decade.

“He was speaking to us as if we do not know that this is a housing crisis, as if we do not know that we’re in a pandemic,” Sarah Guillet, an FTC organizer who attended the rally, told The Haitian Times. “It took him months to give us any attention.”

The perception of Eugene as insufficiently communicative and not present in the district’s key battles is not uncommon. Eugene’s replacement in the Council seat will almost certainly be Rita Joseph, a longtime teacher who was also born in Haiti and who won the Democratic primary race for the seat in June. Joseph’s campaign declined to comment for this story, but in a recent interview with the outlet City & State, when asked what she would do differently than her predecessor, she made her opinion clear.

“No. 1, be present,” she said. “Good governance. And that was one of the things I encountered as I was knocking on doors. ‘Oh, wow, we've never seen our current Council member, but we see you.’ So being present, being available and being ready to serve on day one.”

Of course, Eugene wouldn’t have survived in office for so long without at least a few fans.

Even as his margins of victory became smaller in each successive Council Democratic primary (he won 59% of the vote in 2009, 48% in 2013, and 41% in 2017), he retained a strong base of support, particularly in the eastern portions of the district most heavily populated by Haitian and other Caribbean immigrants. And despite his poor overall showing in the Democratic primary race for Brooklyn Borough President this summer, Eugene managed to win a large swath of election districts in Flatbush, along with much of  Canarsie and Flatlands.

A map showing the results of the Democratic primary race for Brooklyn Borough President, broken down by election district (Map created by Sam Hudis and Competitive Advantage Research)

“I've been very successful at making a difference in the lives of the people of the community and I'm very confident people are satisfied,” Eugene told Bklyner in an interview earlier this year. “I’ve got such a good connection with my constituents. That’s the reason why I'm the most tenured member in the City Council.”

He bristled at criticism that he has been insufficiently responsive to community needs, calling it inaccurate and “not true.”

“People stop me every time to come to me, bring their issues, ask me for my assistance,” he said. “I’m driving, people stop me to approach me and I always stop to talk to them. If I'm walking two or three blocks in my district, people come to hug me. Beyond politics, that's what I’ve been doing. I'm not a politician, I'm a people-tician.”

Much of that love comes from a couple of distinct sources. Partially, it’s the community of people that rely on the area’s hospitals, Health+Hospitals Kings County, and SUNY Downstate, to which Eugene, a doctor by training, has directed at least $66 million in discretionary funding.

But Eugene’s primary base is the area’s large Haitian population, where he has deep ties and strong name recognition. He has sought to position himself as a sort of unofficial ambassador for Haiti and its people. After the 2010 earthquake in that country, his Council office served as a conduit for the thousands of Haitian Brooklynites trying to get news about loved ones on the island, and in 2015, he sponsored a resolution in the City Council establishing October 9th annually as “New York City Haitian Day.”

“I've done for the Haitian community more than anyone,” he told Bklyner.

But Eugene has also faced questions about his financial commitment to the community. An investigation by The Haitian Times earlier this year found that Eugene gave over $946,000 in discretionary funds to groups outside District 40 in the last fiscal year, compared to around $298,600 to organizations located within the district. Haitian and other Caribbean organizations in CD40 and nearby areas received only $82,000 from Eugene.

“It’s been historically like that for the past few years with his office not supporting us enough,” Spencer Cassius from the Haitian-American Community Coalition told the paper.

To Bklyner, Eugene called The Haitian Times “a paper that from day one was against me.” He said they were “trying to sabotage” his borough president campaign, “and everybody in the Haitian community knows that.”

As for the distribution of funding, he said it was an issue of the capacity of local organizations.

“Even when I provide funding to them, after the first year, they lose it, because they don't have the structure, they don’t comply with the rules and regulations,” he said.

He pointed to his efforts a decade ago to help create the NY-Haitian Leadership Fellowship, which he said was intended to help build capacity amongst Haitian community groups. And he said many of the groups he did direct funding to, several of which are Jewish, provided essential services to all the communities in the district. Some of those organizations, including the Flatbush-based Council of Jewish Organizations (COJO), which received $51,593 from Eugene that year, came to the Council Member’s defense after the investigation was published.

“I know that whether it’s placing thousands of young people in summer jobs through the city’s SYEP program or graduating hundreds of students who take our Adult Computer or High School Equivalency or Adult Basic Education classes, we do so for all who come to us and with the knowledge that public servants like Mathieu Eugene make it all possible,” the group’s CEO Louis Welz wrote in a letter to the editor.

Criticism has come on other fronts. The advocacy group StreetsPAC derided Eugene’s record on transportation issues, describing him as someone “for whom transportation has been an afterthought, at best.” This news outlet chastised him for taking four years to push the city’s transportation department to install a single crosswalk and traffic signal near a school and for being unresponsive to media requests. A City & State analysis of the 2019 legislative session found that he ranked 45th of 51 members in terms of the number of bills introduced.

Eugene has been the primary sponsor of 141 pieces of legislation in his 14 years in the Council, according to the body’s legislative database. However, 78 of those were “resolutions”—effectively non-binding statements with little impact on city operations. Of the remaining 63 sponsored “introductions,” or proposed changes to local law, 11 have been enacted. Compare that to the Brooklyn Council Member that won this summer’s Democratic primary Brooklyn Borough President: Antonio Reynoso. In just eight years in the Council, Reynoso was the primary sponsor of 70 introductions, 20 of which became law.

To Bklyner, Eugene defended his legislative record. He said he was particularly proud of a 2018 resolution (again, nonbinding) calling on federal and state governments to create a special commission to address health emergencies and infectious diseases, which was passed last year. He also mentioned a 2017 law he sponsored that created “a disconnected youth task force.” The task force published a report with recommendations in January of this year, three years late.

But Eugene also says focusing solely on legislation is missing the point.

“Legislation is very important but I think we have to do more than legislation,” he told Bklyner. “And my philosophy is we have not been doing enough. Gun violence, for example, we have so much legislation on gun violence, but shootings are up. They're shooting kids in the park. My approach is to invest in the human being.”

Ultimately, that approach wasn’t enough to convince voters he was the man for the Brooklyn Borough President job. His campaign generated relatively little attention in the primary race, and he ultimately finished fourth in the contest.

It was a stark contrast from the flurry of headlines that accompanied Eugene’s ascension to the Council in a special election in 2007. Some were celebratory: in central Brooklyn’s heavily Caribbean 40th Council District, New York had elected the Council’s first Haitian-born member. Eugene had won with backing not only from the politically influential mother-daughter team of Una and Yvette Clarke (who had held the seat until she was elected to Congress the preceding November) but also from Representative Anthony Weiner, 1199 United Healthcare Workers East, and the rapper Wyclef Jean.

But things quickly got messy; questions arose about whether he actually lived in the district he was elected to represent. Eugene maintained that though he lived in Canarsie until early 2007, he had moved into an apartment in the 40th District in February of that year. But the confusion forced a second special election, which prompted confusion, controversy, and a visit by the New York Times to Eugene’s apartment.

The dispute, the Times wrote, “offered a bitter aftertaste to an election that was watched from Brooklyn to Haiti.” That aftertaste continued to dog Eugene for years. Now, many residents say they’re excited to move on to something new.

He’s a nice enough guy,” said Cheryl Sealey, a long-time Prospect Lefferts Gardens resident and local activist. “He just wasn't a great leader.” Sealey said she was excited by the prospect of being represented by Joseph, who she hopes will “take the community forward in terms of how we respond to gentrification, housing, and all the issues confronting us.”

“Unfortunately, very little was done the last 14 years, at least for our part of the district,” Sealey said. “She has a lot of work to do.”