The Suffolk County Democratic Committee announced this month the creation of a Black and Hispanic Democratic Committee that will operate within the party.
The new group’s co-chairs will sit on the Democrats’ newly expanded executive committee, up to 43 members from 41. This way, party officials explained, Democrats from Suffolk County’s black and Hispanic communities are guaranteed a stronger voice in the party when it comes to choosing and supporting candidates moving forward.
Shirley Coverdale of Riverhead was named as one of those co-chairs. The other is Dafny Irizarry of East Islip, president of the Long Island Latino Teachers Association.
For 31 years, Ms. Coverdale has served in varying capacities with First Baptist Church of Riverhead, where her husband, the Rev. Charles Cover-dale, is the pastor. She’s the executive director of the Family Community Life Center, an affordable housing and recreation center long planned for the church’s property on Northville Turnpike. She also sits on the boards of the Long Island Organizing Network, a nonprofit community advocacy group, and Long Island Housing Partnership, an affordable housing agency.
Ms. Coverdale sat with the News-Review to discuss the role of the new committee.
Q: How did you come to get involved?
A: I was contacted, as were other community leaders. This came out of concerns within these two communities, which essentially have the same agenda. The idea was to come together and get more traction in terms of their political voices being heard. Assemblyman Phil Ramos, party leader Rich Schaefer and County Executive Steve Bellone also thought this would be a good idea. So a group of us got together and it was decided internally, before we had really done much of anything, to select a co-chair from each community. The really nice thing about it is Rich Schaefer has recognized it as an offi cial extension of the county party. So both co-chairs will sit on the executive committee.
Q: What are some of the biggest issues facing the black and Hispanic communities today?
A: One fairly obvious one is the disparities in our schools. The resources that are distributed across schools systems are clearly uneven. I’ve been outspoken about the fact that we can go back to the ’50s and talk about Brown vs. Board of Education and we’re also supposed to be getting an equal education from the public schools but that’s just woefully untrue. It will take people lifting their voices to make a difference with that. Perhaps through more diversity that better refl ects [the black and Hispanic] populations in Albany, to have a more meaningful discussion on how to implement more meaningful, regional kinds of solutions. Right now, it’s not even a discussion.
Q: This is where the work of committee steps in?
A: It’s about being able to be fairly represented. We’ll be looking at minority candidates running for offi ces and non-minority candidates running where there are significant minority populations, to make sure that people’s needs are fairly represented, that the agendas espoused by the would-be elected official is what we need in our communities. Some of the poorest districts on Long Island, largely minority districts, pay some of the highest property taxes and get far fewer resources for what they’re putting in. Someone’s got to look at that and hold people accountable for that kind of discrepancy.
Q: How do the challenges differ between the two groups, and geographically, between the East End and western Suffolk?
A: This economy out here in eastern Suffolk is extremely dependent on the [Hispanic] immigrant population. Our farming and fi shing industries generate over $1 billion to the GDP of New York State. We don’t get a fair share of that money back. And if it were not for those workers, who’s doing the work? We can see a shift in the population and if we’re not dealing with the reality that the world is changing then we’re always going to be at odds with one another. And for what? But at the end of the day, everybody wants a safe, healthy environment in which to raise their families and decent jobs that allow them to do so. Whether it’s a rural community — though Riverhead is hardly the outpost it used to be — or a more urban one, the dynamics are pretty much the same.
Q: Where do you see the committee in five years?
A: If we’ve done our job, then we will have districts that have more diverse representation, not just among elected offi cials, but hopefully through employment opportunities. Not opportunities that are just window dressing. Whether it is in our schools, among administrators and teachers and so on. If this group is doing what it’s supposed to do, you’ll see change refl ected in that way. Across Suffolk County, the black and Latino populations constitute about 23 percent of the population and there are many areas where those percentages are much higher. In some cases, they’re the majority but that’s not refl ected through jobs that affect people’s lives.