CROWN HEIGHTS/FLATBUSH – Adem Bunkeddeko is living the American Dream. Son of Ugandan war refugees, who arrived in the country with $50 and hope, he is running to unseat Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, who has been representing the 9th Congressional District in Brooklyn for the last decade.
Last week he told the NY Daily News his campaign had raised more than $120,000 in the fourth quarter, though the filings are not yet public. That would put him on par with Clarke, who’s got $120,000 cash on hand according to third quarter filings in 2017. His run has the support of the former Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch, as well as the civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, NY Times reported. The last time Clarke had a Democratic challenger was in 2012, attorney Sylvia Kinnard.
The 30-year old Harvard Business School grad and current Crown Heights resident decided – after a brief stint in banking – to help others live their version of the American Dream. While Bunkeddeko has never held public office, though he served on Community Board 8, he’s not worried about the lack of experience. “Yvette’s been there for 12 years, she had experience in the City Council, yet that experience hasn’t gotten any legislation passed,” he said. “So the question becomes, is this political experience that everyone keeps talking about, is it beneficial? And I don’t necessarily think that’s the case.”
In her 12 years in Congress, Clarke was the primary sponsor of H.R. 1693, a bill “to amend the Small Business Act to add reporting requirements for certain small business concerns, and for other purposes.” According to the government website, the bill was enacted via other measures: “Provisions of this bill were incorporated into other bills which were enacted, so there will not likely be further activity on this bill.”
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The 9th Congressional District includes Brownsville, Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Flatbush, Kensington, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, Marine Park, Gerritsen Beach and Prospect Lefferts Gardens.
The district is home to about 740,000 residents, according to the 2016 US Census update, and is 35% white, 50% black and the rest of mixed heritage. Bunkeddeko is worried about the displacement of people of color in the district as gentrification makes its way through the area.
“When you think about what this community is going to look like in the next 10 years, one real question you have to ask is, is it going to have folks of color? Or is it just going to be another cookie cutter neighborhood like Williamsburg?” he said. “What does it mean to have no community? And if no one is asking that question right now, before you know it, there will be no one to ask it at all.”
This brings him to the American Dream. Bunkedekko wants to re-write the social contract: “What we have now isn’t working,” he said.
“For a long time, we thought about [the American Dream] in the post-Second World War sense, that everyone has a house, a dog, a garage, live in the suburbs, picket fence and everything,” he said. “I think as a country, we’ve always been ambitious, striving folks, but we do have to have to ask ourselves what does this dream look like in today’s context, in this world that we do live in?”
Bunkeddeko believes that investing in education, healthcare, and housing is fundamental to ensuring people are able to exercise their basic rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, and essential to enabling us all “live out our version of the American Dream.”
If elected, Bunkeddeko wants to get a lot done – starting with excellent constituent service, and an unwavering focus on making housing accessible for all. And not just affordable rentals – Bunkeddeko would like to see more of Mitchell-Lama style housing programs that would enable those making between $30-80k to own property and thus more of a stake in their communities. This, he believes, needs to be supported by infrastructure development.
“You have a contingent of folks in Brooklyn who are excited and think we need to do a lot of infrastructure work. There are places in our district where it takes almost 30 minutes to get to a transit point,” Bunkeddeko said, a big proponent of high-speed rail, among other projects. “Think of all the developments in housing if you were able to quickly access NYC from Albany, in less than 30 minutes,” he said. “That, I think, would be a game changer.”
Social justice is high on Bunkeddeko’s agenda and a strong belief in the possibility of redemption. Many in our communities, unable to participate in the society or living on the margins, lose hope and turn to alcohol, opioids, and other drugs, or a life of crime. “There are a lot of folks who basically pay a life sentence, not necessarily jail, but by virtue of not being able to earn a living, to not be able to provide for a family because of an offense that your white counterparts in Nassau and Westchester don’t have to. I am encouraged by is the fact that people are willing to say that this is a problem that can be overcome.”
Having universal healthcare would help – “It’s economically more efficient,” he suggested, “also, from a moral and social standpoint we could cover everybody, and as for the private sector, it allows them to make other key investments. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
“Immigrants are not the problem,” he said. “Everyone in this country except Native Americans is an immigrant or descendant of immigrants.”
“I am often reminded of – had they sent him back, my dad said they would’ve cut his head off at the airport. And this country, which owed him nothing, gave him everything. For us to walk away from that would really shatter a fundamental piece of our DNA, that we are not only a nation of immigrants, it is what makes us vibrant.”
For Bunkeddeko, this is a challenging race, but he believes it’s doable.
“The stakes are simply too high,” he said. “We aren’t going to get everything done in one snap. This is hard. Change is hard. Reform is hard. But if we band together and push through, we will make progress in all of these fronts.”
And Bunkeddeko is hopeful for everything that is to come– after all, it could always be a lot worse.
“Count your blessings, get up the next day, work hard, and we’ll make progress,” he said. “You’re talking about a kid whose dad came here with fifty bucks and managed to get all of his six kids to college. I’m always going to be hopeful.”
For read more about Bunkeddeko, check out his website here.