White House adviser Patrick Gaspard's heart is in Haiti
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
On Jan. 12, Massachusetts state Rep. Marie St. Fleur landed in Boston and listened to a painful voice mail from White House political director and fellow Haitian American Patrick Gaspard, informing her about an earthquake that had devastated the island nation.
"He wanted us to know that he was on it," said St. Fleur, who, like Gaspard's parents, was born and raised in Haiti.
Gaspard, the highest-ranking Haitian American in the Obama administration, has quietly assumed the role of liaison to distraught Haitian American leaders, even as his job requires him to focus on Tuesday's crucial Massachusetts special election, upon which hangs President Obama's health-care overhaul and much of the domestic agenda for the foreseeable future.
"I have so much respect for him. He is being pulled in a thousand ways," said St. Fleur, who exchanged text messages about Haiti with Gaspard on Sunday. It was no ordinary weekend, as Gaspard was accompanying Obama to Boston to campaign for Martha Coakley, the Democrat trying to fill Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's seat, just as her collapsing poll numbers threaten the party's filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
"He is our voice in that corner office with the president," St. Fleur said. "That's who we have. It's a huge pressure. I don't know how he sleeps."
Gaspard, a soft-spoken but hard-hitting operative who prefers to work behind the scenes, declined several requests for an interview and repeatedly resisted the notion that his personal connection to Haiti warranted a news article. The White House, though, has been less reluctant to make use of Gaspard's standing in the Haitian community. Over the weekend, he sat silently next to Vice President Biden during an event with Haitian American leaders at Miami's Little Haiti Cultural Center.
"This is personal," Biden said, touching Gaspard's arm. "This is personal for some of the folks on our team as well."
Gaspard was born in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo and raised in New York City. Gaspard's parents are from Haiti, and he feels a visceral connection to the country's culture and politics. His personal hero is Aimé Césaire, the anti-colonialist poet who wrote the biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leader of the slave rebellion that liberated Haiti from the French.
Administration officials acknowledged that the convergence of domestic and international crises this week had been taxing for Gaspard.
"You can see the concern weighing on him," White House senior adviser David M. Axelrod said in an interview, adding wryly that there has at least been one "ancillary benefit of the Massachusetts election, because it's given him something to focus on other than his anxiety."
"Everyone here is aware of it and appreciates the difficulties through which he's laboring here," Axelrod said of Gaspard's colleagues. "And he's been helpful to the team in terms of thinking through some of the human issues related to the disaster. It's tough. He's a quality person. And he's dealt with this as I would expect him to do -- trying to meet his responsibilities, both to his family and to us."
"When there is somebody who is Haitian, it is extremely helpful," said Raymond Kelly, the New York City police commissioner whom president Clinton sent to Haiti in the 1990s to overhaul the police force. Days before the quake, he was meeting with Haitian President Rene Preval about security. "In whatever role, that will evolve for him. He is going to be a major player and he should be."