With Challengers on Her Left, NY Rep. Yvette Clarke Says She Is More Than Progressive Enough to Lead

U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) , right, preparing to march at a protest organized by local faith leaders in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y. on Sunday, June 21, 2020.
U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) , right, preparing to march at a protest organized by local faith leaders in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y. on Sunday, June 21, 2020.
Photo: Terrell J. Starr (The Root)

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—U.S Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) and a group of faith leaders are marching down Church Avenue here in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn behind a huge banner that reads, “#LETMEBREATHE,” referencing the police killing of George Floyd.

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A faith leader on the back of a truck speaks loudly into his megaphone.

“No Justice, no peace! No Justice, no peace!”

“Say his name: George Floyd!”

“Say her name: Breonna Tayler!”

The march of more than a hundred people was organized by local pastors who have a very specific message against police brutality and gun violence that doesn’t antagonize the police. But Ace Burns, a protester unaffiliated with the protest, roller skated around the marchers with other ideas.

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With his own megaphone in hand, he interjected with his own cadence.

“When-I-say-police, you-say-mur-de-rers!”

Some of the marchers repeat the words and continue doing so until the faith leaders regain control. Burns fell into the background. I approached him and asked what he felt about the organizers muffling his chants and if he feels Clarke represents his views for changes in policing and her policies in general.

“I’m a radical,” he said. “I’m one of these guys who has been watching the prayers and the silent vigils and the kneeling. I’m tired. I can’t bend down anymore. I love Yvette Clarke, but she’s been around for a long time. And [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo been around and [New York City Mayor Bill] de Blasio been around. Everybody’s been around for a long time and nothing has changed. We need something different.”

He declined to tell me who he was voting for, but he made one thing clear: Anybody but who is in office now. That includes Clarke.

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Burns isn’t the only Brooklynite—or voter across America, for that matter—who feels this way. A lot of people are unsatisfied with the incumbents representing them.

Across the nation, young political upstarts at every level are challenging Democratic incumbents they feel are no longer legislating on the progressive bona fides that got them elected into office. Emboldened by the success of Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, a new crop of progressive challengers are pushing incumbents to speak to the urgency of the national uprisings that have come as a result of recent police killings—or be ready to lose your seat.

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There are several key national races across the country, including in Kentucky where state representative Charles Booker is making what was supposed to be an inevitable win for Amy McGrath a closely contested U.S. Senate Democratic primary race; the state has cut more than 95 percent of polling places, in what election rights observers are calling a clear case of voter suppression. In The Bronx, Jamaal Bowman is aiming to unseat Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) in what experts say is a race that is currently trending in Bowman’s favor. Both Kentucky and New York, along with Virginia, are holding primaries Tuesday to determine those races.

Here in Brooklyn, Congresswoman Clarke is facing that very challenge with three primary challengers of her own, all claiming that she has lost touch with her district and lacks the political imagination to advance the current needs of her district.

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I’m on the corner of Church and Nostrand Avenues at the beginning of the march with Clarke as she and a group of pastors. Most of the people don black tops in solidarity for peace and justice and surgical masks to stave off COVID-19. Most of the hundred or so people are Clarke supporters who are carrying her campaign flyers and placards urging people to support her. These are her roots: civic organizations, church folk, some young folk. The consistent theme across each demographic: black women.

She will need all of them to support her in Tuesday’s New York primary.

Her toughest opponent, Adem Bunkeddeko, came within 6 points of defeating her in the 2018 primary. Isiah James, an Army vet running on a Democratic Socialist platform, has consistently hammered home the message that she is a “fake progressive.” Chaim M. Deutsch, a New York City council member, has name recognition, but, as the New York Times notes, has run a campaign based on fear-mongering.

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Clarke is still the favorite to win. But the generational battle of ideas and political outlook amid the current climate the “defund the police” movement and a more crowded 2020 primary field than 2018 may very well endanger her chances to earn the seniority in Washington, D.C., she and her loyal constituents covet.

A primary defeat for Clarke will also mean the New York congressional delegation will lose its only black female representative. If Bunkeddeko or James wins, a younger voice with the urgency of now will represent the district in Washington. If Clarke loses, a very important, but older and, perhaps, more conservative constituency, will lose the voice they trust and have to grapple with a shift in political outlook that they aren’t prepared to fully embrace.

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I spoke with Clarke on Saturday via a Zoom conference call and we talked about the accusations that she is not a progressive. She smiled and walked me through her own political evolution. She spoke of her mother who immigrated from Jamaica to Brooklyn and became a city councilwoman and power broker in New York politics. She told me about her grandfather on her mother’s side who was a follower of Marcus Garvey’s form of Black nationalism. All of those personal threads in her family tree shape her politics.

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I told her that her opponents feel she lacks the political imagination for today’s climate and that she needs to step aside for fresher, younger leadership, as Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez made clear in 2018.

“I’m for the democratic process,” she told me. “I’m not discouraging anyone from running for office. What I’m doing is presenting to the community my lifelong record of commitment support, of engagement on the ground. Ultimately, it’s the voters that make that determination. You spoke about those young women, those sisters that came into the House of Representatives. But I’m also serving with Eddie Bernice Johnson, Maxine Waters, Sheila Jackson Lee. I’m serving with a whole host of sisters, Barbara Lee, very progressive sisters that have been in this body since before I was in the body. I’m not looking at this as a generational thing.”

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What makes Clarke’s primary complicated and different from Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez’s races is that both of those women ran against white men in a year that challenged the Democratic establishment to make room for the black female elected leadership and to reward black female voters who keep the party competitive in local and national races. Presley’s win, in particular, was a victory for black women. But a primary loss for Clarke means there will be no black female representation from New York City, which has the largest population of black people in the country.

We have to also consider that candidates like Bunkeddeko and James can be bolder now because the politics of this era allow them to. “Black candidates in general have not had the same latitudes regardless of what space they have been in to be able to stand bolder,” Anoa Changa, a political activist and staff writer at Prism said.

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She added that while the national progressive wave against incumbents—especially black women—should be conducted with care because the upstarts running as progressives today are doing so because the people they are challenging paved the way for them to do so.

“I don’t think that there has been necessarily the same level of understanding from strategists and campaign staff who are supporting primary challengers, even when it’s black candidates, when it goes into why they’re making the case in the community,” Changa said. “I think people aren’t accounting for the sentimental value of having particular people as their elected officials. They don’t consider what that person has done and the way they may have shown up in the community—even if they have not shown up on the policies that could benefit the community. The way they have physically been present and shown up in the community still matters.”

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Bunkeddeko and James have very clearly called for defunding the police. Clarke told me she supports the spirit of the defund movement, but uses more careful language that doesn’t call for all out abolition, like James, for example. But she definitely rejects any narrative that suggests she isn’t in sync with the urgency of the current uprisings against police violence. 

“With the talk I’m hearing on Capitol Hill right now, engaging with my colleagues right now. These folks, they are ready for systemic change in the House of Representatives. Remember, we have one of the most diverse House of Representatives in the history of the House of Representatives. We can pass everything we want to pass. Now we got to turn our sights to that senate. We got to change that senate. We got to flip that Senate, we got to flip the White House.”

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Two of her opponents do not think she should be there when either of those flips happen.


Bunkeddeko said he has strengthened his campaign apparatus to pull him over the hump today. His endorsements from The New York Times, Justice Democrats and other progressive groups have energized his base here in central Brooklyn in ways that may benefit him precisely because of the national uprisings.

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“We are at a moment of reckoning about how we think about race in this culture,” Bunkeddeko said in a phone interview. “I think it took a pandemic, no entertainment, no sports for us to fully concentrate and see, ‘Look: this is a country in which we have clearly two systems of justice and that is not how we’re going to be able to function as a society going forward or as a people.’ And so, back to this whole removing a couple of bad apples, no. It is about systemically changing and removing the tree and the soil from which these apples are coming from and that requires us to really confront some difficult issues that maybe folks like Miss Clark were just not willing to push the ball forward on.”

Like James and Clarke, Bunkeddeko, 32, also comes from immigrant roots. His parents immigrated to the United States from Uganda to escape a civil war. He grew up in Queens and later moved to Brooklyn where he became a community organizer and, quickly, Clarkes’ political opponent.

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I asked him about the Congressional Black Caucus and how much they value incumbency over primary challengers because of how coveted seniority is in Washington—especially for black elected officials who have historically been blocked from earning it.

His response is that he is more than willing to build coalitions in the CBC, but that Clarke lacks the “imagination” needed to consider what is possible and that her time in office hasn’t yielded much for central Brooklyn.

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“What has she done with that seniority and experience? That’s the question I always ask,” Bunkeddeko said. “We got folks, this is the epicenter of the nation’s housing crisis. For over a decade. Ms Clark said nothing about housing till we ran on housing. That’s when she started talking about housing. Now, to me, that is imagination. Getting people to move in a direction that they didn’t think was even possible or should have been possible. And, to me, that’s the kind of work that we need to do in Washington, is moving people who didn’t think this thing was workable into a place that is workable, but part of it is you have to believe. So when people say Ms. Clark has had seniority or experience, I often ask them, ‘What has that translated there for us in this community?’ And there’s nothing, no legislation, no resources back to the community. Her tenure has really been a failure, I believe.”

During our Zoom call, Clarke struck back against those allegations, aiming at Bunkeddeko. She cited that she is fighting for refugees and went to Tijuana to help black refugees seek refuge in the U.S. “This brother’s parents were refugees and were given asylum in America. I haven’t heard him say one thing about that, other than the fact that he’s the child of refugees,” she said. “But what are you doing about it? Where’s your bona fide in terms of your progressivism?”

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She added: “It’s interesting to hear people spin their narratives out there when they themselves ... It’s gas lighting, it’s gas lighting of our community. I think that that’s very disingenuous and should not be happening, not in a black community, not in this moment where we need unity in our community.”

James isn’t buying it. A retired Army vet who was born and raised in Brooklyn, he said during a phone interview that part of what makes Clarke no longer fit to serve the Ninth District is what he says is her dated politics.

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“To see this community slide down the tubes under black leadership is abysmal,” he told me. “ This is Shirley Chisholm’s old district. The fact that Shirley Chisholm was such a bold advocate for change. Even Yvette Clarke’s own mother just came out and said that she’s not as vocal as she would like her to be. Her own mother said that in the Times yesterday. I think the moment is calling for bold reformational leadership and change. I hope to be that change in Washington.”


Back at the march, Clarkes’ support is strong and vibrant as they walk down Church Avenue into East Flatbush. Her supporters are walking up to folks on the sidewalks and the bodegas encouraging them to vote, passing out flyers.

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After making some short remarks atop a truck leading the march, she stepped back down to the streets and told me how she was feeling about her election chances and about the movement in general.

“I’m extremely optimistic,” she said. “I’ve seen how the people who have stayed in the streets have made a substantive difference in legislatures across the country. Already, we’re seeing movements around the policing in communities. Some have gone to the extremes of reimagining what their police departments should look like: disbanding their police departments and demanding a human-centered policing strategy. That’s what these people are asking for right now.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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DISCUSSION

Yvette Clark has been my representative since 2013 and I have in the past been fine with voting for her in general elections. Prior to that, I lived in the neighboring district, where Velmanette Montgomery was and continues to be the rep in the NY State Senate. Same on being fine with voting for her in past general elections.

But their primary challengers are correct: in the past decade plus (longer for Montgomery), I struggle to come up with much that they have accomplished in office to directly benefit the communities they represent, much less how they’ve used the economic shift accompanying Brooklyn’s supergentrification to support community programs. Seniority is great, but it doesn’t mean much if it isn’t used in service of the district.

So, I’m willing to give James or Bunkeddeko a chance should they do more than Clarke, and Jabari Brisport should he win over Montgomery. My past votes for Clarke and Montgomery have more or less been ones that have preserved the status quo.