Suffolk County Latina leader Renee Ortiz will be one of the people honored at CARECEN’s annual dinner on November 16, and in preparation for the event, I sat down with her last week.
Renee is currently the Chief Deputy Clerk of the Suffolk Legislature, and she is also a member of the Suffolk County Hate Crimes Task Force. She grew up in Central Islip and returned there to live after finishing college.
“I went back because I had a great childhood there,” she said. Her parents moved to Central Islip because they wanted their kids to live in a community “where we wouldn’t feel like we didn’t belong.
“My father is what he called a ‘Black Puerto Rican,’ of African descent, and my mother was a German Jew. My father converted when he married my mother, so we were unique. I was a Puerto Rican Jewish kid. But it was never an issue with my friends in Central Islip.”
Renee says that her father’s family was very close: “I had a strong connection to my Latino background, but I was also being raised in the Jewish faith.” Her Puerto Rican relatives never saw it as odd that they were invited to an Ortiz bat mitzvah.
“[My] past experiences in Central Islip explain my own passion for diversity,” Renee said. “I just don’t understand why people don’t embrace that. If my Puerto Rican and German Jewish Orthodox family could do it, anyone can!”
When Renee was still a student, she met Suffolk legislator Maxine Postal. “I wasn’t interested in working for a politician, but I just saw how much she wanted to form a stronger link to minority communities so she could establish better health care services for us. I went to work for her and, frankly, I was spoiled because she was not an ordinary politician.”
A few years later, Renee was tapped by newly elected Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy to serve as head of minority affairs. Renee didn’t know Levy; he had been part of the Democratic majority in the Assembly in Albany during her time working for Postal. She was urged by others she knew in the legislature to take the job, but she came to regret it.
Levy, after initially promising immigrant organizations that he would work with them, took a series of actions that seemed designed to land him on Lou Dobbs’ show.
“Unfortunately, I learned very quickly who I was working for,” she says. “Steve Levy made policy decisions affecting minority communities without even talking to me. I would wake up early and turn on the news at 5am to see what he had done the night before, knowing I’d have angry phone messages from CARECEN and other groups waiting for me at the office.”
When Levy announced his plan to use Suffolk law enforcement as immigration agents, Renee had to make a decision. “I live in this community,” she says. “I can’t expect people to respect me if I am seen as part of what he has done.” Her resignation helped alert people to the discriminatory attitudes in the Levy administration.
Renee went back to working at the Legislature and her presence there has encouraged more women and Latinos to get involved with county government. After the Marcelo Lucero killing, she was appointed to the county Hate Crimes Task Force. “The Southern Poverty Law Center hit the nail on the head,” she says, referencing a report that chronicled the lead-up to Lucero’s killing. “It was a climate of fear that claimed the life of Marcelo Lucero.”
Renee is also deeply involved in a scholarship fund she helped create in honor of her late brother David. The fund awards a scholarship to a Central Islip senior with special needs who is going on to college or vocational training. Although she is young herself, Renee Ortiz is already looking to foster the next generation of leaders in her community.