The campaign of Isiah James, a charismatic Brooklyn congressional candidate, has sputtered in the final weeks of the race, as James has tried to recover from sickness amid the pandemic. James filed to run for the office held by Rep. Yvette Clarke, a New York Democrat, on January 22, 2019, attracting interest from local activists. Throughout the course of 2019, he spent just $3,341.90 on his campaign, according to his campaign finance disclosures, and had purchased no voter data.
More troubling for the viability of his campaign, a failure to file fundraising records for the first quarter of 2020, due on March 31, drew a rebuke from federal regulators. “It has come to the attention of the Federal Election Commission that you may have failed to file the above referenced report of receipts and disbursements or failed to file a report covering the entire reporting period as required by the Federal Election Campaign Act,” reads a letter sent to James’s campaign a month later, on April 30. “The failure to timely file a complete report may result in civil money penalties, an audit or legal enforcement action.”
James said that his late filing came as he was struggling with coronavirus symptoms, adding that he checked himself into the hospital on April 2, was released after a day, but was quarantined in his apartment for two weeks after. “I’ll admit, I got knocked on my ass. But we’re back,” James said. “The campaign had taken a backseat to my family and my health.”
James said that his campaign purchased voter data and texting and phone-banking software in April. His latest campaign disclosure, which is now filed with the FEC, shows him raising just over $4,000 for the first quarter of the year.
James, an Army veteran who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, pledged to run a grassroots-powered, housing-policy-focused campaign, and was the subject of an Intercept profile in September. Last week, he released a biographical campaign ad. A democratic socialist, he aimed to edge out Adem Bunkeddeko, who nearly unseated Clarke in 2018, for the role of leading progressive challenger in the primary. James’s campaign never took off, while Bunkeddeko has raised more than $320,000, sitting on $117,000 cash on hand heading into the final weeks of the primary, which is scheduled for June 23. Bunkeddeko has sworn off contributions from corporate political action committees and real estate developers, the latter addressing a criticism of his links to the industry that had bubbled in activist circles last cycle.
Further north, a pair of insurgent Democrats are similarly duking it out for the title of prime primary challenger to incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester. National and local progressive infrastructure has lined up behind Jamaal Bowman, a public school principal running on a platform of Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and new deals for housing and education. Progressive Andom Ghebreghiorgis is running on a similar platform with an emphasis on foreign policy, targeting Engel’s hawkish record as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Ghebreghiorgis, who had submitted more petition signatures than Bowman to qualify for the ballot, meanwhile remains in the race, having raised $202,861 to Bowman’s $540,330 and racked up far fewer endorsements.
“We are proud to have mobilized parts of the District that have been neglected for decades,” Ghebreghiorgis said in a statement to The Intercept. Ghebreghiorgis said his campaign has reached tens of thousands of voters in the Bronx and Westchester, where only 10 percent of registered Democrats turned out to vote in the district’s 2018 primary.
The rising left can afford to be outspent or under-covered in the media, but it can’t afford to be outmaneuvered on raw strategy.
The question for progressives, and for the candidates, in both races is just how strategic the left is willing to be when it comes to electoral politics, and who would lead that charge. In the presidential campaign, moderates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, joined by Beto O’Rourke, jumped out of the race after South Carolina’s primary, sparking a mass consolidation behind Joe Biden heading into Super Tuesday. The result was the fastest, deepest polling swing in modern campaign history, with Biden emerging as the presumptive nominee with little organizing or volunteer infrastructure — something his opponents were routinely scrutinized over. The rising left, which is a long way from dominant inside the Democratic Party, can afford to be outspent or under-covered in the media, but it can’t afford to be outmaneuvered on raw strategy. Yet without power, the left lacks the leverage to push candidates out of races they can no longer win. They have nobody of former President Barack Obama’s stature who can make a game-changing phone call. This weakness is an emerging pain point as the Congressional Progressive Caucus has repeatedly failed to make a coordinated push to see its priorities realized in coronavirus relief packages, despite lobbing harsh criticism at each phase thus far.
The closest progressives may have to such a kingmaker could be Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the district next to Engel’s, and is keenly interested in the battle for control of New York politics. Her intervention in the Queens district attorney race nearly propelled public defender Tiffany Cabán to an upset victory (she led on election day but lost on account of absentee ballots and a controversial recount). Ocasio-Cortez launched a PAC in February dedicated to supporting primary challengers, a counterweight to the DCCC blacklisting challengers to incumbents last year, but she has been conservative in making endorsements.
So far, Ocasio-Cortez has only endorsed one New York congressional candidate, Samelys López, running in an open seat in the Bronx. There’s no guarantee that a phone call from Ocasio-Cortez would persuade James or Ghebreghiorgis to consolidate behind Bunkeddeko or Bowman, but it’s not obvious that anybody else would even get a hearing. Meanwhile, playing a behind-the-scenes role in helping to oust a Democratic caucus colleague, particularly one from the New York delegation, wouldn’t be without internal House consequences for herself and, potentially, her legislative agenda. In the wake of any such unified force guiding Democratic challenges from the left, competing primary campaigns are left eating away at one another while striving for similar goals.
Clarke, in her bid for reelection, is suffering from no such divisions among her allies. After Rep. Joyce Beatty survived a challenge from the Justice Democrats-backed Morgan Harper, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who also represents Brooklyn in Congress and chairs the House Democratic Caucus, boasted that Clarke’s win would be next. “Meltdown? Not us. Congrats @JoyceBeatty on a decisive 36 point victory in Ohio’s democratic congressional primary! Up next @VoteYvette @LacyClayMO1.”
Jeffries, a rising Democratic star who was one of the House members managing the impeachment process, had advised Bunkeddeko not to run during an in-person meeting in the city before the 2018 primary, the New York Times reported. The Times’ editorial board had endorsed Bunkeddeko a week before. After listing what Clarke said were her biggest legislative accomplishments, the editorial board wrote, “Major legislative accomplishments have been regrettably far between in her tenure in Congress. Residents of Brownsville, Park Slope, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Flatbush, Sheepshead Bay and Crown Heights deserve a more energetic advocate in Washington.”
Bunkeddeko ran against Jeffries’s advice, and Clarke came within 6 percentage points — less than 2,000 votes out of a total 30,552 — of losing. Bunkeddeko is a Crown Heights native and housing organizer who’s served on Brooklyn’s community board, and worked for the Empire State Development Corporation, New York state’s business arm.
Jeffries had suggested Bunkeddeko consider a lower-level office, following in the footsteps of Obama, or former Reps. Charlie B. Rangel or Shirley Chisholm, who represented parts of Clarke’s district as the country’s first black woman elected to Congress. Jeffries told the Times he warned Bunkeddeko against the alternative: run and lose. “If it’s good enough for them,” Jeffries recalled to the Times, “it should be good enough for anyone.”
Rep. Max Rose, a Democrat from Staten Island, made a similar call to Bunkeddeko last February. Rose, who was elected in 2018 to represent a district Trump won by 10 percentage points, has made a name for himself as a member of the centrist Blue Dogs. Rose advised Bunkeddeko to drop out before the upcoming primary and offered him a job if he did, City & State reported. According to Bunkeddeko, it was a job at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Rose also suggested that at first, Bunkeddeko run for something more feasible, like City Council.
“Plenty of folks have come to me, telling me to take a hike.”
In October, Bunkedekko was on the receiving end of an angry email from former Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Frank Seddio, who resigned in January amid allegations of fraud in New Jersey and $2 million in debt related to a Kentucky chain of Golden Corral restaurants. In response to a fundraising email Bunkedekko sent blasting New York’s congressional delegation for not fighting hard enough for tenants’ rights, Seddio wrote an email back, as reported by the New York Daily News. “How does a congressman in Washington fight for rent issues,” Seddio wrote. “You should think about running for the assembly or senate. Or stop bullshitting people about what you can’t do.”
“Plenty of folks have come to me, telling me to take a hike,” Bunkeddeko said to The Intercept.
In January, the Independent Neighborhood Democrats, a long-standing local Brooklyn political club, voted narrowly to endorse Clarke. She almost lost the endorsement last cycle, both embarrassing her campaign and serving as a wake-up call. The race was closer than many of the other votes that night, IND Brooklyn officer Karen Johnson, previously Brooklyn chief of staff to former Rep. Ed Towns, told The Intercept.
Brooklyn IND President Jason Shelly declined to say who he voted to endorse, but confirmed that the rematch endorsement fight was competitive again this cycle. “People spoke on both sides, people spoke for both for Adem and for the congresswoman, for Yvette,” Shelly said. “And there was a good discussion.”
Clarke, then a New York City Council member, was elected to Congress in 2006 after what the Times described as a “racially charged” primary race. In 2001, she inherited the Council seat from her mother, Una Clarke, who’d held it since 1992, operating for decades as one of the most powerful politicians in Brooklyn. It was the first mother-daughter succession in the Council’s history. Una Clarke is the kind of New York City political legend that local officials say taught them the ropes. Locally known as Momma Clarke, she is still president of the Progressive Democrats Political Association in Brooklyn, an organization Mayor Bill de Blasio has credited for his election, and sits on the board of the City University of New York. “I wouldn’t be mayor of New York City if it wasn’t for PDPA,” de Blasio said during a 2017 gala honoring Una Clarke and the organization.
Una Clarke was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1992, and was later that year appointed as a delegate to the Electoral College. In 2001, former Gov. George Pataki appointed her as Brooklyn director of the Empire State Development Corporation, giving her extraordinary sway over the real estate industry, a major center of power in New York.
De Blasio has praised Una Clarke, among other things, “for bringing us Yvette Clarke.” After joining the Council, Yvette Clarke was a reliable progressive, calling for a national moratorium on the death penalty and opposing the Iraq War. But over her 13 years in Congress, she hasn’t made noise on anything in particular. A generally reliable Democratic vote, in 2010, she broke ranks and was one of 36 Democrats to vote against a Democrat-sponsored bill to enhance disclosure requirements for corporate spending in elections. (She later supported an amendment requiring enhanced ad disclaimers for special interests trying to impact an election from outside a given district or state.)
While she’s recently co-sponsored a number of progressive policy priorities including Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and abolishing ICE, she has not joined her colleagues in signing campaign finance reform pledges against taking corporate PAC or oil and gas money. Interviewed last year for an article on Democrats in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which she is vice chair, Clarke said she does not have a position on taking oil and gas money. Asked if she thought it presented a conflict of interest, she said, “if that is a determination of how you vote or how you shape policy, then it’s definitely a conflict.” She said she hadn’t examined whether it had presented such a conflict for the committee in the past, but that committee Democrats had generally been unified against bad actors.
Part of Bunkeddeko’s challenge is Clarke’s reliably Democratic voting record, but he argues that her politics lack the urgency needed to adequately address the crises facing the district and the country.
One of her former district office staffers agreed with that characterization, saying that Clarke became noticeably more active in recent years. “I definitely think people have seen a strong uptick in her presence,” the former staffer said, requesting anonymity given that they still work in local politics. “She didn’t really pass any legislation and people were making note of that. But like, in the past two years, she’s been everywhere.”
Whether that’s because she faced a serious challenge in 2018 or because “the circumstances of the world are very different” is an open question, the former staffer said.
Asked what she says to constituents who say she hasn’t done enough over her time in Congress, Clarke told The Intercept she was proud of her work “to introduce, sponsor, co-sponsor, and pass bills that address the inequities in our healthcare system, affordable housing and immigration system to name a few.” During the current pandemic, Clarke said, she’s supported initiatives to relieve the economic stressors facing renters, homeowners, and small businesses, and black and brown constituents in particular, as well as “providing direct benefits to the most vulnerable members of our community.” Like every House Democrat other than Ocasio-Cortez, Clarke voted for the coronavirus stimulus packages that have served as corporate bailouts, rather than meeting the needs of the most vulnerable Americans.
Clarke said she’s built coalitions on the ground to address the district’s evolving community, and has the necessary expertise to push for changes in Washington. “Effective legislation goes beyond writing letters and introducing or passing bills, it takes information gathering and coalition building,” Clarke said. “Having been born and raised in the community that I currently represent, I am uniquely in-tune with the issues we face on a day to day, along with the best ways to advocate for change in the House.”
Like James, Bunkeddeko’s central focus is housing as a right, an area he says Clarke has fallen short while representing parts of the city in the epicenter of the affordable housing crisis. While Clarke’s profile in Washington has risen, parts of her district have slipped deeper into that crisis. While rents skyrocket for some residents, developers are reaping profits. Some of those developers have had long-standing support from Clarke. And while a new crop of recently elected progressive city officials has been out in front fighting for tenants’ rights and affordable housing, Clarke has been slow to catch on.
Housing is one area where candidates need to earn voters’ trust, Josué Pierre, Democratic District Leader for the 42nd Assembly District — which is within Clarke’s district — and a candidate for City Council, told The Intercept in an interview.
“I think the onus is on both those candidates to articulate and show how they are going to fight.”
“You have a population that feels that it is losing ground both in terms of housing and education, and on a national level,” Pierre said. Residents need to feel “our interests are being defended and moved along the agenda. And I think the onus is on both those candidates to articulate and show how they are going to fight.”
Bunkeddeko is running on desegregating schools, Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, reforming the bail system and legalizing marijuana, abolishing ICE, overturning Citizens United, and banning campaign finance contributions from federal lobbyists, corporate, and super PACs.
Bunkeddeko said Clarke has done more recently to rename a post office after the late Rep. Major Owens and put up a statue honoring Chisholm than to pass meaningful legislation. “Who’s really asking serious questions here?” Bunkeddeko said.
During a Facebook Live broadcast in March, Clarke controversially promoted the use of public Wi-Fi kiosks for people struggling with internet access at home during the pandemic. “While most New Yorkers are sheltering inside, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke offered her constituents a novel way to contract coronavirus,” the New York Post wrote. Clarke’s campaign said the Post story was an unfair characterization of her comments, noting that she encouraged people to continue social distancing during the same broadcast.
Bunkeddeko knocked doors as an organizer with the Working Families Party in Brooklyn, later working with low-income families as a fellow at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, and continuing that work at the Empire State Development Corporation. He served as a member of Brooklyn’s Community Board #8, representing Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, and Weeksville. He launched his 2018 campaign after receiving an MBA from Harvard Business School.
He faced criticism from progressive activists during the last primary over contributions his campaign accepted from real estate developers and Wall Street executives. The campaign returned the real estate contributions after the election. Bunkeddeko said it was a mistake he learned from, and that the campaign would be more vigilant this cycle. He’s also been criticized for his support for charter schools, a pain point on the left.
Zephyr Teachout, who primaried Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2014 and ran for state attorney general in 2018, endorsed Bunkeddeko in January. Bunkeddeko’s other endorsements include Empire State Indivisible, the New York Progressive Action Network, the Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn, the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, the Stonewall Democrats’ biggest branch in the state, and the Arena PAC, part of a Silicon Valley-based organization training progressive candidates.
He’s raised $321,446 so far to Clarke’s $705,454. More than 72 percent of Clarke’s haul this cycle came from corporate, labor, and activist PACs including those for the McDonald’s Corporation, Morgan Stanley, AT&T, the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America, the American Hospital Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the American Association for Justice, and JStreet.
Clarke’s former chief of staff, LaDavia Drane, joined Amazon as a lobbyist focusing on the Congressional Black Caucus, as well as the Hispanic and Asian American caucuses, after the November 2018 elections. Since 2017, Clarke has taken more money from Amazon than any other member of New York’s congressional delegation, and joined dozens of elected officials who signed a letter asking Amazon to come to the city.
When James met with her as a constituent opposing the relocation, he said, Clarke distanced herself from the letter, claiming she never wanted Amazon to come to the district. James was so startled, he said, he decided to run against her.
Update: May 13, 2020, 10:04 a.m. ET
This article has been updated to include an interview with James, as well as details from his latest filing.