Adem Bunkeddeko came within 2,000 votes of unseating longtime Brooklyn Rep. Yvette Clarke two years ago, on the same day Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted powerful Rep. Joe Crowley in Queens and The Bronx.
The anti-poverty strategist with a Harvard MBA had campaigned on his biography as a successful son of Ugandan war refugees — and on his New York Times endorsement. Another boost: Wall Street dollars that raised his profile but put him under fire from the Democratic Party’s rising left wing.
Returning to face Clarke again in a more crowded field for the 2020 primary, Bunkeddeko nods to growing Democratic voter demands for fundraising free of corporate influence.
His website says he’s sworn off funding from “corporate PACs, lobbyists, and big real estate developers” — a contrast to the heavily PAC-funded seven-term incumbent. Bunkeddeko also is embracing policies on the left wing of the party, like the Green New Deal.
Yet his fundraising so far shows many of the same finance-industry donors are again backing Bunkeddeko — including Andrew Tisch of the Loews Corporation, Marc Kushner of Evercore and former schools chancellor Joel Klein.
Also giving the maximum $2,800 is Bradley Tusk, an adviser to Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign who is also an influential New York lobbyist registered, state records show.
In an interview with THE CITY, Bunkeddeko indicated he was not aware Tusk is still a lobbyist.
“There are folks who do not align with us and I don’t take their money, and that’s I think pretty clear,” said Bunkeddeko.
Bunkeddeko’s growing pains highlight the challenge confronting all six contenders seeking a path to victory in the diverse 9th Congressional District, which stretches from Park Slope to Brownsville and Flatbush to Sheepshead Bay.
The district is 53% black, and has robust Caribbean, Jewish and African-American populations. Unusually for New York City, it is also a purple district, whose southern swath voted heavily for Donald Trump in 2016.
No more than 9% of registered Democrats voted in a congressional primary since the current district lines were drawn in 2012 — giving an edge to the candidates most effective at driving turnout to the polls June 23.
“They’ll need to educate and stimulate voters,” said former Brooklyn Assemblymember Annette Robinson, a Clarke supporter. “There has to be a constant pull to get voters out. Otherwise, they just won’t come.”
Candidates for the NY-9 seat reflect a wide spectrum of the party.
From its left wing comes Democratic Socialists of America member Isiah James, a combat-wounded Army veteran who has notched the backing of Brand New Congress, the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign spin-off that gave a crucial boost to AOC’s longshot run.
“People have bought into the negative marketing that has been attached to socialism,” James said in an interview with THE CITY.
“When I talk to folks about housing [and] criminal justice reform in a socialist aspect they tell me, ‘You know what? You’re right,’” added the Florida native, who moved to Brooklyn in 2013 to attend Brooklyn College after he retired from the military.
James slammed Bunkeddeko for taking money from business leaders and for touting charter schools as a source of proven ideas to improve public education during his 2018 campaign.
He calls Bunkeddeko “a progressive in name only.”
James says he has a little over $10,000 in the bank, and about 20 volunteers.
Bunkeddeko, meanwhile, raised a little over $100,000 in the last quarter, which puts his total at about $250,000.
Jewish Votes Key
Councilmember Chaim Deutsch (D-Brooklyn), staking out Clarke’s right flank, has made his mark as an advocate for law enforcement. The son of Holocaust survivors, Deutsch got his start in civic life as a founder of the Flatbush Shomrim Safety Patrol in the early 1990s.
As a Council member, Deutsch has often advocated for the district’s many observant Jewish residents, including seeking government security funding for yeshivas and arranging for single-sex beach days that align with religious modesty rules.
Deutsch did not return calls from THE CITY requesting an interview.
Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer noted the Jewish vote has been pivotal in past Democratic primaries in Brooklyn. That includes the election last year of Councilmember Farah Louis, who is of Haitian descent and won with support of Jewish leaders, Deutsch among them.
Deutsch could mobilize well-organized groups of voters against Clarke, Greer said.
“If her opponent is visibly targeting the Orthodox Jewish community, we do know that they have turned out in primaries in the past, so if nothing else it bodes well for him to target a group of people who have a history of participation,” said Greer.
On the day Deutsch formally announced his candidacy, both Clarke and Bunkeddeko sent fundraising emails slamming his record, Gay City News reported.
Also in the race are Alex Hubbard, a first-generation Salvadoran-American data scientist from California, and Lutchi Gayot, who ran as a Republican against Clarke in 2018.
How much money the candidates have each raised so far will only become clear once Federal Election Commission filings due at the end of Friday come in.
Through last September, Clarke held a financial advantage, with nearly $260,000 in her campaign account, filings show. Corporate political action committee contributions make up almost 80% of Clarke’s funds for 2020, according to watchdog site OpenSecrets.org.
Many of those PAC contributions came from medical associations, the pharmaceutical industry and telecommunications companies, FEC records show.
While Clarke hasn’t retooled her fundraising for the AOC era, she told THE CITY her near loss to Bunkeddeko in 2018 changed her outlook — giving her a “renewed set of values for the democratic process.”
Clarke dismissed critiques from James and Bunkeddeko that she’s bought and paid for. “I can assure you that there are no contributions that have bought my voice or my vote,” she said.
“The 9th District of New York is going through some dramatic changes,” she told THE CITY via phone from Washington. “So it’s important for me to connect with new residents.”
Asked for examples of how she was doing that, Clarke did not share any.
Bunkeddeko he’s seen little progress in the district under Clarke.
“Nothing’s changed since the last election,” he said during an interview in the Financial District.
“We have enormous challenges on housing, criminal justice, and we haven’t had a voice in a long time on these issues.”
Already a supporter of Medicare for All, Bunkeddeko added college debt cancellation and the Green New Deal to his 2020 agenda — both popular causes among supporters of Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders.
I'm proud to announce that we've been endorsed by @LIDBrooklyn! Every day that Trump is in office, he poses a threat to LGBTQ+ Americans everywhere -- and I can think of no better partner than @LIDBrooklyn in the fight against hate and discrimination. pic.twitter.com/JGA5ZPj6Vm— Adem Bunkeddeko (@adembunkeddeko) January 27, 2020
Socialism as a brand “doesn’t have any play” in central or southern Brooklyn, Bunkeddeko asserted. Yet he’s hoping that his calls to abolish Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, legalize marijuana and make housing available to all will speak to progressive Democrats.
But the move to the left won’t necessarily help Bunkeddeko, said one political consultant, who pointed to moderate Rep. Max Rose (Staten Island/Brooklyn) beating out a primary field packed with liberals in 2018.
“If they’re four or five progressive candidates running against a more establishment candidate, in most cases that’ll split votes and split support,” said Paul Casali, a partner at Casali-Keller Consulting who managed a primary campaign against Rose in 2018.
Bunkeddeko isn’t fazed.
“Running for office is hard,” he said. “Being taken seriously is really hard and winning is even harder.”
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