Clarke Debate Refusal Sends Wrong Message To Immigrants

U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke

I’ve always liked U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-Crown Heights, Lefferts Gardens, Flatbush, East Flatbush, Brownsville, Sheepshead Bay). She’s well spoken, respectful and has always been an attentive lawmaker to me professionally and personally.

Which is all the more reason why she should agree to debate her primary opponent Adem Bunkaddeko. The latter has been calling on Clarke to debate and posed several dates to do so. Clarke has declined, citing pressing business in Washington, even though she is spending plenty of time in the district during the campaign season.

Clarke’s refusal to debate Bunkedekko is not good for either democracy or good government. It also sends a horrible message to immigrants. Both candidates are children of immigrants with several strong differences.

Clarke’s mother, Jamaican-born Una Clarke, is the first Caribbean born woman ever elected to the New York City Council, where she served from 1992 until being term-limited out of office in 2001.

And since leaving office, Una Clarke remains one of Brooklyn’s shrewdest political organizers this side of Frank Seddio. Among the local elected officials that she had a role in directly mentoring and bringing up includes State Sen. Kevin Parker, Assembly members Latrice Walker and Diana Richardson, City Council Member Mathieu Eugene and of course her daughter, Yvette, who succeeded her in the city council before going to Congress.

For this reason, it can be argued that Una is one of the main reasons why Mayor Bill de Blasio, U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, City Council Member Laurie Cumbo and more than a dozen lawmakers turned up at the Brooklyn Museum over the weekend to support Yvette in her re-election bid.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as both the Congresswoman and her mother – like the Kennedys, the Bushes and other American political families – are dedicated to public service.

But the rub here is that Bunkeddeko is an immigrant without the family connections.

Bunkaddeko’s parents were refugees from war-torn Uganda in the 1980’s, and his father came to the city and worked in a McDonald’s and as a janitor until he was able to bring his wife over to America. Bunkdekko was raised in a tiny apartment with his five siblings and went on to get an MBA in business from Harvard, where he started working at a bank.

But public service called Bunkdekko. He left the financial industry and began his political career as a grassroots organizer in Flatbush, knocking on doors and petitioning for various candidates and causes. He went on 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.

And in running for Congress, Bunkedekko raised over $200,000. Not quite the $610,000 that Clarke has raised as a six-term incumbent, but a healthy amount for a first-time candidate.

It is important to note, that one of the core issues that Clarke fights for is immigration reform. She has floated legislation, for example, concerning Temporary Protective Status for Haitians. She is outspoken when it comes to the rights of DREAMers, who came to this country as children and are still not legal here.

But the rhetoric on Clarke’s lips doesn’t match her lack of action in refusing to debate Bunkeddeko. It’s as if this lack of action is saying, “How dare you even run against me,” at worst and “reaching for the American dream has its’ limits,” at best.

The reality is that Clarke should be hailing Bunkeddeko’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant tale. Instead, she and her supporters denegrate Bunkeddeko as some child of the Wall Street class, and refuses to even hear his views out.

This sends a bad message to both immigrants – or anyone else – looking to get into politics. To counter this perception, Clarke should agree to at least one debate with Bunkeddeko.