‘Nothing Has Changed Since the Previous Election’: Bklyner Speaks With Clarke Challenger Adem Bunkeddeko

‘Nothing Has Changed Since the Previous Election’: Bklyner Speaks With Clarke Challenger Adem Bunkeddeko
Adem Bunkeddeko. (Photo: Zainab Iqbal/BKLYNER)

CROWN HEIGHTS — Rep. Yvette Clarke will next year again have to fight for her seat.

Adem Bunkeddeko announced over the weekend that he would challenge Clarke for the second cycle in a row. The New York Times on Saturday broke the news that Bunkeddeko would throw his hat in the ring, describing Clarke’s seat as “perhaps the one considered most likely to turn over.”

“For a long time,” he told the Times, “the machine has picked run-of-the-mill politicians who aren’t getting anything done.”

Soon after the story was published, Bunkeddeko on Twitter announced that he would launch a rematch in the June 2020 Democratic primary.

“A better future for Brooklyn starts today: I’m thrilled to announce that I’m running for Congress in 2020!” he said. “Take the first step with me!”

“The campaign welcomes others to enter the race—that’s the American way,” a Clarke spokesperson told Bklyner of Bunkeddeko’s entry. “The Congresswoman’s record of action will stand for itself as voters go to their election booths next summer.”

In 2018, Bunkeddeko lost narrowly to Clarke, who represents New York’s 9th Congressional District, which includes central Brooklyn, parts of brownstone Brooklyn, Brownsville, Kensington, along with several neighborhoods in southern Brooklyn. In last year’s Democratic primary, Bunkeddeko, who ahead of the election received the New York Times Editorial board’s endorsement, earned 47 percent of the vote to Clarke’s 53 percent—a margin of less than 2,000 votes.

A Harvard Business School graduate and son of Ugandan refugees who lives in Crown Heights, Bunkeddeko made his last campaign about bringing a fresh face to Congress who would be more vocal and visible than Clarke, who Bunkeddeko has repeatedly said lacked concrete, legislative accomplishments to go with her long political career.

Before representing parts of Brooklyn in Congress, Clarke succeeded her mother, Una Clarke, in the City Council, where she served until 2006 before running for Congress that year. (Council Member Mathieu Eugene now represents that district, which includes Prospect Lefferts Gardens, as well as parts of Kengsington, Flatbush, Midwood and other surrounding neighborhoods). Clarke, who lives in Flatbush, has served in Congress since 2007.

But according to Bunkeddeko, throughout her time in Congress, Clarke’s “presence isn’t felt” in the district and in Washington.

Clarke’s absence, he says, has remained since he nearly won last year’s primary.

“What’s become clear is nothing has changed since the previous election,” Bunkeddeko said Tuesday morning in an interview. “I think it’s because of that frustration that I’ve decided, ‘Let’s try to make this case again.”

Beating Clarke in the 2020 rematch would not just bring a new member to congress; it would bring about an end to a local political dynasty that stretches back decades.

“I have respect for her and her mother, but I think it’s time for us to re-evaluate whether or not this has worked,” said Bunkeddeko. “There are a number of folks in our community who believe it’s time for us to move on.”

In Bunkeddeko’s telling, the district is in need of a new representative in Washington because Clarke has failed to advocate for her constituents on issues relevant to them. He said that “in order to move the needle” on housing, criminal justice, and immigration, “your presence needs to be felt, not only in the district, but on Capitol Hill.”

More specifically, Bunkeddeko says he will make the city’s troubled housing authority—and getting federal funding for it—a key piece of his campaign.

“I think when I think about public housing, we got real serious issues in Albany Houses, Brownsville Houses, Van Dyke Houses, and I think this campaign in large part, will be able to highlight some of the more challenging things going on in NYCHA, things that need federal attention,” he said. “For me, that’s a really exciting prospect.”

“Federal investment in public housing has been divested for now a couple of decades,” he later added, “and given that this district, in particular, has one of the highest proportions of public housing [in the country], I think having a champion or voice for that funding is where we really need to hone in on.”

Whether Bunkeddeko wins his 2020 go-around or he loses by a similar margin as in round one, of course, remains to be seen, but the 31-year-old insurgent believes things will fall into place a bit easier for him next year.

“I think we’ll have a lot more interest in the race than we had before, and I think that provides us an opportunity to be able to do things that ordinarily weren’t available to us during the previous run,” he told Bklyner.

He also explained that running as a first-time challenger made certain components of a campaign difficult in 2018, when he said he got “90 percent of the way there.”

“When you’re running an insurgency, you’re often running against the burden of proof. The benefit of the doubt generally goes to the incumbent, and so it’s more difficult for you to raise money, it’s more difficult for you to get your message out,” he said. “Those challenges are often more acute when you’re starting from zero. I think given the challenge we had set for ourselves, I think we did phenomenally well, given what we had to deal with.”

While Bunkeddeko’s first unsuccessful primary bid was just one year ago, much has changed in Congress since 2018. In that cycle, a number of relatively young, more left-wing Democrats than the party’s leadership won House seats, including several from backgrounds not traditionally represented in Congress. And in recent weeks, a group of progressive legislators known as “the squad”—comprised of Reps Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York— has been in the spotlight due to their public quarreling with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

So if Bunkeddeko enters the halls of Congress, he will likely have to respond to— if not pick sides in— legislative and rhetorical spats between the old guard and the fresh faces further to their left, whether he wants to or not. Where does he stand on the recent wars of words and divergent approaches to Congressional dealing in the Trump era? When asked, Bunkeddeko mostly toed the line and expressed sympathy for both factions in the ideological and generational divide.

“We should never shy away from a debate,” he said. “That’s part of us as a democracy, it’s part of us as being progressives: we are trying to figure out the best solutions for the way forward.”

He also acknowledged the enhanced scrutiny the four lawmakers, all of whom are women of color, have faced.

“It’s important to keep in mind that these four women of color … the way they are spoken about in public has an impact on how the world perceives them, because of their backgrounds,” he said.

“’The squad’ represents voices that have never been heard before in Congress. These are voices that are being heard for the first time, and they represent an important piece of the future of the party,” he added later on Tuesday in a subsequent phone interview, elaborating on his earlier comments. “Change is going to be uncomfortable, but we need a diverse group of leaders in order to make progress.”

Still, Bunkeddeko seemed to hold the Pelosi’s recent politicking in high regard.

“I think she’s done a job against Trump that I think, right now, maybe no one else could have done,” he said.

And on calls to begin impeachment proceedings, Bunkeddeko hinted that he doesn’t resent House leadership for the lack of them as of yet.

“I’m for impeachment, but I also understand that we have a big caucus,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of members who may not also feel the same way that I feel.”


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