Adem Bunkeddeko says his mother wishes he’d have gone and made some money. He is a graduate of Harvard Business School. But as the son of Ugandan refugees in a family filled with social workers (both of his parents and each of his five siblings), Bunkeddeko was soon drawn to the world of politics.
“I wanted him to make money,” his mother explains, smiling in a video posted on his website. “He wanted to make a difference.”
Now, Bunkeddeko is challenging U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-Crown Heights, Flatbush, East Flatbush, Brownsville, Sheepshead Bay) in a race for the 9th Congressional District seat, which Clarke has held, virtually unopposed, since 2006. Before serving in Congress, Clarke served as the 40th District City Councilwoman representing Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Flatbush and Ditmas Park), succeeding her mother, former City Council Member Una S.T. Clarke.
Though Bunkeddeko is clear that he respects Clarke and her work, he argues that her service has been lacking in legislative achievement, clarity on key issues, and engagement with the community.
“For 12 years we have had the status quo, and for 12 years, we have gotten nothing in return,” said Bunkeddeko. “We’re in the middle of a housing crisis, we have criminal justice issues, we have a president that is basically tearing apart the country, and tearing apart families who came here as immigrants. And we’re not going to tackle any of these large problems doing things as business as usual. No ill will toward [Clarke], but it’s time for change.”
Bunkeddeko grew up in Elmhurst, Queens, in a one-bedroom apartment he shared with his siblings and his parents, both refugees of Uganda’s Civil War in the early 1980s. His parents sent all six children to college—Bunkeddeko attended Haverford College and later received an M.B.A from Harvard Business School.
Bunkeddeko began his political career as a grassroots organizer in Flatbush, knocking on doors and petitioning for various candidates and causes. Briefly, he worked on a gubernatorial campaign and a senate campaign in Arkansas, before returning to Brooklyn to work at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. He spent three years at Empire State Development Corporation, and more recently worked as Associate Director for Business Initiatives at Brooklyn Community Services. He is a longtime member of Community Board 8.
Though he has never held elected office, Bunkeddeko argues that he has the “right kind of experience.”
“I look at it and I say, look at what all of this political experience has gotten us—not very much. Yvette has had a number of years in City Council, she was a legislator before going to Congress, but she has yet to pass legislation in congress,” said Bunkeddeko. “I come from a background of organizations, I come from nonprofits, I come from places where I’ve had to build coalitions, I’ve had to affect change for folks living on the margins of society.”
Bunkeddeko says that housing is the most significant issue facing Central Brooklyn, as well as the rest of New York City and even other cities across the country. He argues that legislators must create pathways to home ownership, as well as affordable housing for families making between $30,000 and $80,000 a year. When it comes to development of public land, he says Community Land Trusts should be implemented to allow for more public input. And above all, he says the federal government is a key player.
“The kind of cruel injustice of it all is that these communities were created by Federal Housing policy. People were basically shoved into them, locked out of mortgage financing, and are now being blue-lined out of them,” said Bunkeddeko. “Rent is up 20 percent or more in some parts of central Brooklyn. We’ve lost over 5000 rent regulated apartments. What’s this city going to look like without working class communities of color?”
Bunkeddeko also argues that the federal government must work across the board to aid immigrant and refugee families. He says that when his own father came to the United States, all he had was $50, working at McDonald’s and other minimum wage jobs until he had enough money to bring over Bunkeddeko’s mother.
“My parents would have never been able to create or build the lives that they’ve led, been able to send all six of their children to college, were it not for the ability to one, come here and seek asylum but two, enjoy the full benefits and rights of citizenship,” said Bunkeddeko. “They’re eternally grateful, to a place that owed them nothing and gave them everything.”
He called the federal government’s recent decision to end Temporary Protective Status for Haiti “callous, cruel, and unjust,” arguing that immigrants should be given asylum and pathways to citizenship, protected and supported by city, state, and federal government.
Bunkeddeko urges criminal justice reform, calling for change in bail and sentencing procedure, as well as the decriminalization of marijuana, which he argued disproportionately affects communities of color. He also suggested national suffrage for formerly incarcerated citizens, and said that a “merciful” criminal justice system was necessary.
“I grew up in this city as an African-American male—I can’t tell you how many friends I had who got arrested for very miniscule things, would end up going to Rikers for possession of marijuana, for jumping a turnstile. And their counterparts in Westchester, in Nassau County, in Long Island, many of their white counterparts who did the same things, would never suffer those fates,” said Bunkeddeko, pointing to bias and flaws in the bail system.
Bunkeddeko said that he looks forward to negotiating with fellow legislators in Washington, both Republicans and Democrats. He said it was crucial to be able to stand for policy principles, while also communicating and working with legislators on both sides of the aisle. He argued that there would be no way to ever truly effect change without effort on the federal scale.
“How are you able to accomplish all of these policy fronts without the input of the federal government. What exactly is the federal government there for if it is not going to do these things?” said Bunkeddeko. “To me, it only makes sense that, if we’re in a war for the soul of the country, we need to go to the front lines. And the front lines is Washington.”