Two years ago, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning primary upset of veteran Rep. Joe Crowley made national headlines, Brooklyn’s Ninth Congressional district also witnessed some drama: neophyte candidate Adem Bunkeddeko coming within 1,600 votes or so of taking the Democratic nomination from Congresswoman Yvette Clarke.
The two face each other again in the June 23 primary, and to some degree the arguments are the same. The challenger says the incumbent has a lackluster record in Washington and that the district needs new, more energetic representation. The incumbent points to her experience, which began in the City Council in 2002 before she moved to Congress in 2007, her consistency and the value of her seniority within the House Democratic caucus.
There are, however, differences in 2020. Clarke is aware of the threat she faces. Three other candidates—Councilmember Chaim Deutsch, Isiah James and Lutchi Gayot—are in the race. And the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of campaigning.
On Wednesday’s Max & Murphy Show on WBAI, Bunkeddeko made his case for change.
“We have folks who are finding it difficult to keep food on the table, keep a roof over their heads, and make sure their own children are able to live out their own version of the American dream,” he said. “Mrs. Clarke has decided to be checked out and not be interested in doing the job. It’s more than simply just saying we need an effective member to do the kinds of things that our values are true to.”
Bunkeddeko’s near-miss in 2018 can be read two ways: That he has potential for a bigger vote count this year with better name recognition, or that he missed his chance to unseat Clarke before she could mount an effective defense. He interprets it the former way. “That was a signal that folks were hungry for change. They wanted to go in a different direction. We were outspent three to one. We were running against a machine that has been entrenched in our beloved borough for over three decades.”
When it comes to policy, Bunkeddeko says the COVID-19 crisis has only deepened his support for an “American Homes Guarantee.”
“I believe housing is a human right and COVID has only made that issue even more important for us to fight for in Washington. In the short term we need to cancel rent and fully fund NYCHA. We have got folks who are finding it difficult to continue to live here and pay rent on a monthly basis,” he said. “This is a fundamental challenge that we have to fight for as Democrats.”
Clarke said there’s no broad desire in the district for a new face. “When I run into my constituents, they’re typically saying, ‘Thank you and keep up the good work.’ When they’re asking me why they should vote for me it’s the experience that they’re sending to Congress, the leadership that I’ve obtained is working on their behalf.”
She continued: “Right now we’re in crisis and it’s important that we have experienced leadership that they can rely on who’s been there for them throughout their tenure to be leading the charge to make sure that they’re well taken care of, expand our healthcare infrastructure—worthy and formidable enough to combat COVID-19, that we’re looking out for their economic wellbeing in a time of real economic crisis and hardship.”
Asked to highlight her chief accomplishment, she cited the Affordable Care Act. Of course, credit for that law goes chiefly to President Obama, but Clarke has been a vociferous defender of it—even against people calling for a single-payer healthcare system.
“People are being able to be treated for COVID-19 because of the affordable care act and they’re on the program,” she said. “I have been focused on healthcare disparities ever since I was a councilmember. We’ve made incremental changes to the way we dispense healthcare in our nation and New York City led the way.”
Clarke also argued that now that Democrats control the House, she will be able to pass more legislation—a lack of authored laws is one of Bunkeddeko’s critiques of her.
“This election cycle, I am in the majority. I have leadership in the house of representatives as vice-chair of the energy and commerce committee and because of my seniority, the fact that Democrats have the house, the Republican roadblocks that were impeding our progressive policy and agenda have been removed,” she said.
Hear our conversation with each candidate or the full show below. The other candidates in the district will be invited to appear on next week’s program.