Isiah James Joins Congressional Primary Fracas

The number of Democratic candidates U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-Brownsville, Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Flatbush, Kensington, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, Marine Park, Gerritsen Beach, Prospect Lefferts Gardens) has to worry about continue increasing in New York’s Ninth Congressional District.

Even with the recent departure of Michael Hiller following a personal family tragedy, the race gained two more official candidates. One is City Councilman Chaim Deutsch (D-Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach, Gerritsen Beach, Gravesend, Manhattan Beach, Marine Park, Midwood, Homecrest) and the other is Isiah James, a disabled veteran who has experience with community organizing and has some association with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

James grew up in a family with 10 other siblings and was born to a father who emigrated from Jamaica to Brooklyn and a mother who grew up in a southern sharecropping town. During his time in the military,  he served one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, before an explosion led to a medical retirement from service at age 27. He was blown up and suffered traumatic brain injuries multiple times. 

There is no concussion protocol in the military, as James found out first hand on many occasions. He said that he was once given some pills and sent back into action the next day. “You just have to deal with it,” he said. Along with the brain damage, he lost hearing in his left ear, had to go through therapy to learn how to speak again, would forget where he was, and would drink alcohol so he could fall asleep at night.

James believes a big part of his appeal is how he has lived the experiences of those whose voices are heard the least and who have the least representation in government. “I don’t come from money, I don’t come from privilege,” James said. 

Isiah James, center, served one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, before an explosion led to a medical retirement from service at age 27.

According to James, too many people who go to Washington to represent their constituents come from privileged backgrounds. He said that there is not enough representation of the poor and other vulnerable groups like immigrants, which are two communities he could elevate and represent.

“I know what it’s like to go without electricity growing up or without water growing up or I know what it’s like to be accosted by police officers for doing absolutely nothing wrong,” James said. “I know what it’s like to not get the healthcare or services that you need because of bureaucratic red tape.”

Politicians have a role in setting an example and leading by example, but they do not always live up to those ideals. “I think more politicians, more elected officials should actually walk the walk instead of just showing up for photo ops and tweeting about it and then going to their private fundraisers.” 

James applied that thinking on a local level too. “If Bill de Blasio took the train to work, maybe he would work to fix the damn MTA because he would see how inefficient and broken it is,” James said about the mayor, who has been criticized by climate and safe streets activists for being driven around in a fleet of SUVs while tweeting about how bad climate change is. 

James, on the other hand, can relate to the people who suffer from train and bus delays daily. “I take the bus, I take the train, he said. “I don’t drive because it’s killing the environment.” 

James also called out the MTA for its lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and said the agency recently indicated it has no plans to meet its accessibility obligations. James himself has helped countless people up and down the subway stairs with strollers.

Working in Brooklyn helped him learn how to build coalitions with people of all backgrounds, which he said contrasts to politicians trying to divide us by saying we don’t have the resources or that everything is a zero-sum game. 

James says if elected he will bring a different perspective to Washington and the way he would legislate.

“My mindset would be to go back always to when I was eight years old, and we were getting evicted from our house, and we had to live in a U-Haul truck in a parking lot of a hotel,” he said. He continued that he would always think, “is this legislation going to help eight-year-old Isiah and his family or is it gonna hurt eight-year-old Isiah and his family?”

James’s campaign website has numerous policy positions laid out in detail, including his plans to address the problems of big money in politics and elections through means like expanding public financing for elections. James said his campaign will accept “not a dime” of corporate PAC money.

In James’ vision, the crackdown on the potentially corrupting influence of money in politics goes beyond the campaign trail and should apply to what the elected officials do in Washington. He would push to prohibit politicians from being on committees or handing out contracts when there is a conflict of interest with a donor or donors.

James sees the tie between a lack of campaign finance reform and inaction on crucial issues like addressing the climate crisis. “We’re the only species in the history of this world that has the means to prevent this whole extinction. We have the technology. Now we just need the political will,” said James

The Green New Deal is the best example of that political will envisioned by James. He said that a Green New Deal would directly affect the city with jobs and better, more environmentally and energy-efficient infrastructure. James cited the recent water main breaks on the Upper West Side that interrupted subway service as an example of an infrastructure sorely in need of attention. 

He also wants to put a tax on companies that sell bottled water and create a plastic tax. He also considers high-speed rail a no-brainer and said that he would support high-speed rail on important regional routes that compete with airlines like Washington-New York-Boston and New York-Albany-Chicago because he would not be conflicted by lobbying from the airline industry.

The Democratic primaries in New York will be held on June 23.

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