the city politic

The Draw of the Vineyard

More members of New York’s Black political Establishment are making a late-summer sojourn to the island.

Oak Bluffs. Photo: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Oak Bluffs. Photo: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The rising stars of New York’s Black political Establishment, still growing accustomed to their power, made the wise decision to put a trip to Martha’s Vineyard on the agenda this year. For nearly a century, the annual summer gathering of Black upper-middle-class artists, scholars, lawyers, doctors, and executives has been a hub of cultural events, academic panels, and informal social bonding. In recent years, it’s also been a good place for politicians to pick up campaign donations.

It’s a trip that requires some planning: It’s not always easy to get a ticket on the ferries that service the Vineyard, and only a few daily direct flights from New York — and almost no available hotel rooms on the island in August (a recent search on Airbnb found weekend stays going for between $979 and $10,000 a night).

So it’s a big deal that Mayor Eric Adams arrived on the island and stayed overnight to attend a fundraiser in Edgartown sponsored by DeNora and Mark Getachew. Attorney General Letitia James, Assemblymembers Alicia Hyndman and Latrice Walker, and activist Tamika Mallory showed up for quiet meetings. (“I listened and learned. I spoke and informed. I gave money and received support. I laughed so much with friends,” Mallory posted on Instagram.)

The private fundraisers and informal meetings are a chance for the state’s leaders to network without pressure from needy constituents, pushy lobbyists, and nosy journalists.

“I’ve been trying to get [Assembly Speaker] Carl Heastie to come here for years. This is his first time,” said Hasoni Pratts, a political consultant with a home in Oak Bluffs, who co-sponsored a fundraiser for Heastie and separate events for several other candidates. “This isn’t like the Latino political conference or the Black Caucus weekend. It’s a much more relaxed environment — not as stuffy and transactional as the usual events.”

Pratts also hosted Brooklyn’s own Representative Hakeem Jeffries, a leading candidate in the race to become the next Speaker of the House, in his first-ever Vineyard fundraiser. Jeffries was in town to headline California congresswoman Barbara Lee’s 17th Annual Martha’s Vineyard weekend, which included Representative Gregory Meeks of Queens, Joyce Beatty of Ohio, Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, Lisa Rochester of Delaware, and Terri Sewell of Alabama.

The fascinating story of how and why generations of Black professionals have flocked to the Vineyard every August is chronicled in Our Kind of People by author-attorney Lawrence Otis Graham, who died last year at age 59. Graham, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law, was an insightful analyst of race and class; he once took a break from his corporate-law job to work undercover as a busboy at an all-white country club in Greenwich, mercilessly exposing its snobbery in a New York cover story.

Oak Bluffs, on the north coast of the Vineyard, has become a place where Black middle-class overachievers come to relax, connect, and network, free from the tensions, glass ceilings, and subtle snubs of their mostly white workplaces and neighborhoods back home. This month, members of Jack and Jill, the invitation-only Black youth organization, held mixers for teenagers — along with a session on SAT prep. Recruiters from Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase were on hand for low-key meet-and-greets with university students, many of them from historically Black colleges. And hundreds of members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority gathered at Inkwell Beach, which they turned into the “Pinkwell” for a day.

The 2022 season started with a bang, when ex-president Barack Obama and Michelle Obama — who own a 29-acre estate in Edgartown — made a surprise appearance at the 20th annual Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival to introduce Descendant, a documentary produced by the Obamas’ film company, Higher Ground. The festival included Viola Davis, broadcaster Tiffany Cross, the Reverend Al Sharpton (the subject of a documentary), Tyler Perry, and of course Spike Lee, who owns a home in Oak Bluffs and has a forthcoming film about NFL ex-quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

In addition to the film festival, Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee hosted a sold-out fundraiser for Wes Moore, the former CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation who is the Democratic nominee for governor of Maryland.

I ran into my friend Patrick Gaspard, the former White House political director for Obama, who now runs the Center for American Progress think tank and was part of a panel in Oak Bluffs on Black women in the workplace that included Yamiche Alcindor, the host of Washington Week on PBS. Political commentator Bakari Sellers moderated a panel on Black philanthropy; former Bronx assemblyman Michael Blake put together a conference on tech and politics; and the Council of Urban Professionals, a civic and corporate networking organization, convened its summit.

Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas was in the Vineyard, as was Deidre DeJear, the Democratic nominee running for governor of Iowa. So was Representative Karen Bass, the leading candidate for mayor of Los Angeles. There was buzz around Representative Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Representative Nikema Williams of Georgia, both considered young up-and-comers likely to wield significant influence in Congress (Williams doubles as state chair of the Georgia Democratic Party).

“The reason why I open up my network is to help those who don’t have those connections or resources, but they really want to do good — they really want to be good public servants and their values are in the right place, but they just don’t have the network,” says Pratts. “Running for office is hard, and a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to do any type of self-care. But when they come here, at least they get a few hours to do self-care, even if it’s just sitting by the pool or going to the beach. So that’s also part of the donation.”

Culture, conferences, teen mixers, professional networking, personal rejuvenation, and a stream of Black money to politicians accumulating dramatic levels of power. Somewhere, Lawrence Otis Graham is looking down and smiling.

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The Draw of the Vineyard