“While Baldeo’s abrasive style of bare-knuckle politics may not win him many allies in the political establishment, it’s been effective in voicing the concerns of his community…If’s there’s one person qualified to represent the underdogs, it’s Baldeo.” – Queens Tribune/Press of South East Queens
Some leaders and visionaries are born before their time. His political battles against the status quo have often classified him as such, but Albert Baldeo sees it a bit differently. “It’s not that we are born before our time. It is more like seeing the long overdue need for economic and social justice to be dispensed across the board to those who are disadvantaged historically, and I have lived in such an environment both in Guyana and the USA where my crusade against such injustices probably make people think that way of me. But social inequalities are there for every minority person to see and experience, and I am one of those who feel strongly that it has no place in a democracy. Human rights do not have a timeline. They are fundamental to man’s existence and dignity,” Baldeo explained.
On February 7, 2012, Albert Baldeo utilized his vision and initiative as a District Leader and community advocate to organize an unprecedented march and rally by the large Indo Caribbean community upon Queens Borough Hall to demand a seat at the table of government, and to keep Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park or “Little Guyana” together as a district, instead of being fragmented into several Assembly, State Senate and Congressional seats. This redistricting exercise is done every 10 years, and previous attempts were quashed by those who wanted to preserve the status quo. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi have both talked about the urgency of now, and have installed in us that we must be the change we want to see in the world. We just cannot sit on the sidelines and expect that we will see changes. Democracy has never been a spectator’s sport,” Baldeo philosophized.
His initiative was well supported by other community leaders, as Vishnu Mahadeo, President of the Richmond Hill Economic Development Council, John Albert and Rachana Shah of the Taking Our Seat, Jerry Vattamala of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, Ashook Ramsaran of the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin, Richard David of the Indo Caribbean Alliance, Garth Marchant of the Civil Rights Alliance, Darrel Sukhdeo of Agenda 21, Rohan Narine and Aminta Kilawan of Tri Murti Bhavan and SADHANA, Ali Najmi of SEVA, Maf Uddin and Leela Maret of DC 37, Kawal Totaram, Kris Gounden, Rosanna Beaumont, Jeewan Persaud of Century 21 Crossroads Realty, Vishnu Bisram, Pandit Yoga, Stanley Raj, Bhola Ramsundar, Ramesh Kilawan, Frank Singh and Hari Dukhram, all coalesced in a strong show of support for a unified Richmond Hill district.
Albert Baldeo has built coalitions with progressive leaders-even with his detractors. Some call him the Al Sharpton of Richmond Hill; others refer to him as the Cheddi Jagan of New York. The Queens Tribune probably analyzed Baldeo best when they endorsed him as a champion of the oppressed in September 2008: “While Baldeo’s abrasive style of bare-knuckle politics may not win him many allies in the political establishment, it’s been effective in voicing the concerns of his community…If’s there’s one person qualified to represent the underdogs, it’s Baldeo.”
He is not a professional politician, but “became involved in politics because he knows that real economic, social and political reforms are best achieved through legislative action or by revolutionary initiative. Advocacy in the court room has its limitations, whereas you can help an entire nation through political initiatives,” he reasoned. His passion for civil rights and social justice found a natural ally in his professional instincts as a successful attorney.
In the legal field, he carved new horizons by becoming the youngest lawyer at 22 years, and a Magistrate and Senior State Counsel at 25 in Guyana. He was one of Guyana’s finest prosecutors and the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal judges complimented him many times for his presentations. His efforts rid the country of many violent criminals who terrorized and killed innocent hard working families. His most famous case was The State v. Alvin Mitchell, which was reported in the West Indian Law Reports. He prosecuted Mitchell for strangling a young waitress to death in Bartica, and then dumping her out of a land rover. In other cases, he secured convictions against Donald Aulder, and his marauding band of killers, who had instituted a reign of terror upon Guyanese. They had robbed and killed several business people, including the Shivram family, who operated a jewelry business. It was this concern for public safety, and making government answerable to the average citizen that propelled him into public service.
His historic 2006 State Senate candidacy found its genesis against a proposed bill to legalize racial profiling against people of color, sponsored in the state legislature by the incumbent Serf Maltese, and, citing the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, he said, “he could not in good conscience sit back and allow our children to grow up in the greatest country on earth to be judged by the color of their skin, and not by their content and character.”
In 2006, he teamed up with the Tri Murti Bhavan, Chuck Mohan and other community leaders as they protested the plight of the Gounden family. Institutional prejudices was causing the Gounden family to lose their home in Howard Beach, as law enforcement and politicians targeted his family because they were minorities living in a white neighborhood. Baldeo gave the Goundens their day on February 7, 2012, and the latter’s testimony brought tears to many when he complained that the lack of political representation, racial profiling and racial insensitivities were suppressing Indo Caribbeans and other minorities in Queens. Previously, Baldeo had exposed and condemned police profiling and the quota system of revenue ticketing at a Town Hall meeting and protested to the various Commissioners that minorities were targeted by some of their members. His initiative brought relief to the community.
Many referred to the Borough Hall rally as akin to the great march upon Washington decades ago undertaken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, which led to the removal of the racial barriers we now take for granted in America today, albeit on a smaller scale, and with a “NY’s Little Guyana” focus. For Baldeo and company, it was the fruit of many long meetings for over a year. The group was armed with placards, t-shirts and data from the Asian American Legal Defense Fund and from the Taking Our Seat Organization. They dominated the proceedings, and made their voices heard. “I was born in America, but I never felt like we had any rights or voice in anything. Baldeo changed that today, and I will continue his legacy to carry that torch,” some young protesters vowed.
There has never been an Asian American or South Asian elected to office in the New York City or New York State. Baldeo was Exhibit “A”, as he explained the need for political representation, a fight he narrowly lost in that painful defeat against Republican Serf Maltese in 2006. He would have been the first to break the barrier, but many felt that our community was cheated because of his immigrant background and independent way of thinking. NY1 had declared him the winner on that historic night, when, for the first time, an Indo Caribbean and person of South Asian heritage had won an election in New York State’s history, only to see the results reversed overnight.
“Many have said that our votes were suppressed. However, Senator Maltese’s proposed bill to legalize racial profiling and make people of color second class citizens in NY State was defeated, as this was the main reason why I challenged him. We got our message across that all, including minorities, should be treated fairly in America,” Baldeo said.
Most people would have quit after such an excruciating experience. Politics is institutionalized in Queens. Outsiders are not let into the door. Immigrants are treated like orphans and step children. But Baldeo has never been a quitter. Not to be denied, Albert staged the largest margin of victories in Queens history in a triple contest when he won the Democratic District leadership, Delegate to the Judicial Convention and County Committeman’s race with 80% of the votes cast a few years later in 2010 against a well financed opponent, Harpreet Singh Toor. Although an unpaid position, District Leaders can use their clout to bring resources and recognition to their communities, and Baldeo has certainly put his on the map. To have achieved these large unprecedented majorities in gerrymandered districts speaks volumes for Baldeo’s appeal to voters across the board.
No victory or achievement has ever come easy for Albert Baldeo. He has no godfathers, or godmothers for that matter. His entire life has been one of overcoming odds, and daring to challenge and conquer new frontiers not previously traversed. At the tender age of 8 years, he was rejected by Rama Krishna Primary School, because he was “from the countryside.” It was his first encounter with society, class and caste, and he knew that he would have to regularly scale many mountains in order to succeed.
Albert had to remain at the Vryheid’s Lust/Better Hope Primary School, and dig in with extra lessons. His teacher, George Prashad, spotted his talent, and predicted that he was “going to make us proud” by being the first person to pass the Common Entrance Examination in the school’s history. “Teacher George” was right. Rev. George Sukhdeo ran across to the Baldeo household when the results were published, triumphantly waving the Guyana Graphic newspaper that Albert’s name was prominent among those who had passed nationally.
The underdog had made history. At a ceremony at the school as Albert prepared to compete with the country’s best brains at Queens College, the adulation of being admired by a large rural community must have left an indelible imprint in his psyche as to the many future challenges in life he would have to overcome, and that for the most part, he had to be a torch bearer. At his admission to the Bar, another first, the Judge remarked that he had never admitted a more promising lawyer, or one from a humbler family.
Albert’s achievements and efforts must also be seen in the context of his family’s sacrifices. “They sowed the seeds. We reaped the harvest,” he says reverently of his parents, now deceased. He could not have flourished without his parents’ foresight. This resulted in the Baldeo siblings becoming an engineer, medical doctor, teacher and lawyer respectively, in one of the most unique and unlikely success stories, buttressed by the enduring faith of family and sacrifice, but that is a topic that deserves its own focus as the descendants of indentured servants from India who realized their fore parents’ dreams. Choices had to be made in his life, and he recounts nostalgically how he had to choose between becoming a lawyer and studying in the West Indies or majoring in History at Cambridge or Oxford Universities in England. He chose the former because it could better “equip him to effect social and economic change, and ground him with my Caribbean society,” he said. It is a decision which made our community the beneficiary.
We fast forward to February 7 last, and Albert and army are beginning their historic march to Queens Borough Hall. He inspired his troops to act with lively revivals of the prejudices and reality that race and social consciousness that still prevents minorities from reaching their full potential. The coalition of community leaders, religious organizations, business owners, professionals and residents staged a rally on Liberty Avenue, before boarding a large bus and dominating a packed public hearing at Queens Borough Hall, demanding that the Legislative Task Force for Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR), rectify their splintered Richmond Hill legislative district and make it whole, before submitting it for approval to the State Legislature.
District Leader Albert led the way as he fired up the NAACP rally outside Borough Hall, and then testified that Indo Caribbeans and South Asians have proved to all that they are electable in City, State and Federal elections in New York City. “I am living testimony of this, and you just have to check the public records when I almost defeated a 20 year old incumbent State Senator-Serf Maltese, but lost by a few votes, in a seat that has over 310,000 constituents before I was elected District Leader. We have come to cash that check,” Baldeo said. He then charged the large crowd if they wanted to see Richmond Hill united as a district, and they gave a resounding “Yes” to the Task Force, leaving them in no doubt as to what they came for. “Gerrymandering must go,” they demanded.
The group rallied around each other as they complained about the common problems-home foreclosures, closure of hospitals, medical centers and schools, kids being subjected to filthy, overcrowded trailer parks and locker rooms for classrooms, spiraling unemployment, increased taxes and the cost of living, and the lack of government services and funding. They even threatened legal action for breaches of the Voting Rights Act.
Albert summarized the case best when he said, “If you still harbor pause, just attend the Phagwah Parade which ushers in the spring, and you will see the hundreds of thousands of these invisible, transparent minorities who participate in one of the largest parades in the entire USA. Or visit JFK Airport Arrivals or Resorts World and you will be convinced as to who constitute the critical mass in Richmond Hill. You cannot suppress, divide and rule us any longer.”
His efforts has given us a blue print of how we can advocate and fight for our just share, unite over our petty prejudices, and assimilate as proud Americans in the USA. He led by example, putting us first and even going against his own interests as a District Leader. “The cause, the issue-it is bigger than all of us,” he rationalized. “But I have to meet another deadline. My immigration column has never missed a week since 1992 in the weekly West Indian newspapers, and I have work to do,” he said, as he savored the moment, and moved on to another task of empowering his community by giving free legal advice on the immigration and civil rights issues confronting them. He also donates to charitable causes, gives free legal consultations, does free voter registration and citizenship drives, and started a fund for sick children with Mendra Singh at the Trimurti Bhavan.
How does one who grapples with such challenges and pursuits find time to unwind? For recreation, Baldeo plays cricket, and is considered a leading expert on cricket statistics. He is such an accomplished batsman that he holds the record for scoring the most centuries in competitive softball cricket, not bad for someone who wanted to become a test batsman like Rohan Kanhai, his boyhood hero of the West Indies, but had to make adjustments along the way as his life and philosophy progressed. The state of New York, and the Caribbean, are very much the beneficiaries of those changes, as the several citations and testimonials that adorn his office confirm.
Our heroes are often the least acknowledged by us. Sometimes we take them for granted, as if they owe us. We are the ones who collectively owe Albert Baldeo a mountain of debt for fighting for us, and our children and generations to come are the beneficiaries of his largesse. We will be remiss if we did not say, “Thank you, Albert for the courage, the vision and the sacrifice, on behalf of a grateful community. Please continue the fight for all of us!”
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