Adem Bunkeddeko: Son of Ugandan refugees making a difference in Brooklyn

By Tony Mushoborozi

Early last year, not many people knew who Adem Bunkeddeko was, not least Ugandans. In fact, it is possible that many people in the country were following other personalities who were vying in the midterm elections. Bunkeddeko, a Ugandan was one of them

When the primaries were held to nominate those who would stand for the midterm elections, 30-year-old Bunkeddeko stood in the democratic primaries in Brooklyn, New York City and almost won.

Bunkeddeko, a first timer, challenged an incumbent Congresswoman, Yvette Clarke, representing Brooklyn’s District 9 for the last 12 years, and lost by just 1,750 votes.

Soon after the June primaries, The New York Post quoted a former staffer of Bunkeddeko’s opponent saying, “The blood is in the water,” alluding to the fact that Clarke’s political life was in grave danger.

Another news website called Black Star News had this to say: “The last time Clarke had a primary challenger was in 2012 and she won by about 76%. She had no challengers in the last four primary races; then Bunkeddeko arrived on the scene like a political meteor.”

While talking to the Daily Monitor via email about his near win, Bunkeddeko writes, “I am thankful that I received great support at a grassroots level in Brooklyn. While the incumbent drew on traditional support from establishment Democrats and numerous labor unions throughout the community, my message of change resonated with a large swath of the electorate.”

Bunkeddeko is reported to have spent just $231,000 (about Shs855 million) for the race which fades in comparison to $620,000 (about Shs2.2 billion) that his opponent used for the same job.

As an incumbent of 12 years and a daughter of a former congresswoman, Clarke had zero issues when it came to the all-important name-recognition.

As a first timer, Bunkeddeko’s case was quite the opposite. While Clarke is a historical resident of District 9, Bunkeddeko grew up in Queens, a totally different part of the city, and only moved to Brooklyn for work after his studies. He’s therefore been living in this community for about 10 years.

It is against that backdrop that this politician needs to be watched. For a poorly-funded first timer, who is also a new-comer in this particular constituency to stand against a historical politician and prove to be the biggest challenge she has ever met in her political career is a sign that this could be a brand new political star just getting ready to enter orbit.

So who is this guy?
Bunkeddeko is a Ugandan young man that was born in exile. He was born and raised, with three other siblings, in a poor neighborhood of Queens, New York City. His father, Sulaiman Bunkeddeko and his mother Jean Kaddu Bunkeddeko, both of whom hail from Bulemezi in Luwero District, fled the country during the 1980s when the Luwero Triangle was besieged by the bloody NRA war that brought President Museveni to power.

Bunkeddeko went to public schools in Queens for his junior and high school education after which he moved to Haverford College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for his undergraduate arts degree. It is while here that he would proved himself worthy to get accepted into Harvard Business School in Massachusetts for a Masters degree in Business Administration. Having left Harvard, Bunkeddeko moved back to New York to help the less fortunate.

Here was a brilliant young professional from Harvard, who could easily get employed by a financial company with a hefty pay. Yet, he chose to go down to the poor communities and try to find solutions for the less privileged of New York City.

High level endorsements
In October 2017, The New York Times expressly endorsed him by reporting: “Mr. Bunkeddeko is running with an aggressive agenda on housing, one that would support the creation of not just vaguely affordable rental apartments, but of routes to ownership for families making between $30,000 and $80,000 a year … in a district that is suffering from one of the most acute housing crises in the country.”

The young politician was also endorsed by big wigs in the Democratic National Committee. While the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club was endorsing him in April last year, they said of him, “Adem strongly supports our club’s values, believing that everyone has the right to achieve the American Dream no matter their gender, sexual orientation, race, religion or economic status. With Donald Trump threatening all the progress we’ve made, we need proactive leaders like Adem fighting for social justice in Congress.”

But high level endorsements aren’t enough without a compelling campaign in the community. Jumba Mugwanya, a Ugandan who lives in New York and who is a close friend of Bunkeddeko said, “He was able to build a grass-roots campaign with the support of a dedicated team. Having been involved with civic organisations and local leaders in the area for several years as a professional, Bunkeddeko knew the issues of the people.

“It can be argued that Adem was able to provide a compelling vision for change and to draw on voter dissatisfaction with the incumbent Congresswoman. She has held the office for 12 years and she hasn’t done much for the people,” Mugwanya added.

But, eventually, Bunkeddeko lost. Talking about why he lost, Bunkeddeko says, “I was faced with a significant disadvantage in campaign funds. I lacked the resources to broadcast my messages to a wider group of voters through campaign advertisement on television, radio, newspapers, and so on.”

Despite noted differences, Bunkeddeko congratulated Rep. Clarke and respectfully conceded defeat on the morning after the election in June. He has a great deal of respect for Representative Clarke and her years of public service, both in New York City and United States Congress.

A bright political future?
When Obama won the US presidency in 2008, the world literally came to a standstill. A black man had beaten all odds to become the leader of the free world. It didn’t matter that Obama’s mother was white. The fact that his father was a black man of Kenyan origin was enough to shake the world.

Although it seemingly looked like a black man had come out of nowhere to rule the world, it soon became apparent that he had spent many years being faithful with the little before he got entrusted with the much.

The Harvard-educated 44th US president had started out as a community worker in his hometown of Chicago before launching his political career. In the year 2000, Obama lost his first attempt to be a Congressional primary by a very wide margin of 76.5%. However, a few years later, he went on to win the same seat. From that point on, the dominos started falling until the last one that landed him on top of the world.

In comparison, Bunkeddeko lost his first ever attempt at an election campaigns by just a mere 4%. That is almost tantamount to a win for a 30-year-old son of Ugandan war-refugees.

Like Obama, Bunkeddeko is Harvard-educated, and like Obama, he has spent years in community work. Despite the fact that he holds a Masters’ degree in Business Administration he’s only worked in the banking world for a very short time only to go back to community work.

Bunkeddeko is not your typical struggling comedian deciding to stand for elective office as a last resort to find a more satisfying source of livelihood. He has laid down a possibly stellar career in the finance world to help his community solve its challenges.

His passion for the community has seen him work in several notable community organisations and he is also a member of Brooklyn’s Community Board, which is the US equivalent of the local council. All this may point to his passion for people.

Although he doesn’t reveal whether he will stand again or not, chances are he will. And if he does decide to continue in this journey, his political future looks bright.

Future president?
Does Bunkeddeko plan to follow in the footsteps of his fellow Harvard-educated politician and former community worker, Barrack Obama, to stand for presidency in future? The unassuming Bunkeddeko says,

“I am very flattered by the subtle comparison but my focus remains on improving the lives of my fellow Brooklynites.”

The budding politician is single and has no children. Outside of politics and government, Bunkeddeko is avid reader, a sports lover and a traveller. He’s travelled to Uganda several times. Although he was born in the US, Bunkeddeko keeps a close affinity to his extended family here.

“I follow the news from Uganda, but not closely enough to have any specific insight to the current political situation in Uganda,” he says.

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