Ditmas Park resident launches primary challenge to Rep. Clarke

September 30, 2019 Kelly Mena
Michael Hiller, Democratic candidate for New York's 9th Congressional district. Photo courtesy of Marco A. Gonzales Photography
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A Ditmas Park resident is looking to end a political dynasty in Central Brooklyn that has dominated Congress for more than a decade.

Attorney Michael Hiller is running to oust U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke — the daughter of former City Council member Una S. T. Clarke, a political powerbroker among Brooklyn’s black and Caribbean communities. Clarke’s 9th Congressional District includes Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, Crown Heights, Park Slope and Brownsville.

Hiller claims that Clarke, who has been in office since 2007, is failing to bring resources or change to communities of color in her district that he says are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system and housing issues.

“The reason that I’m running now is quite frankly: There has been a failure of leadership, there’s been a lack of accountability in this district. You know, Yvette Clarke has been my representative and she’s been in Congress for 12 years and she simply isn’t getting it done,” Hiller told the Brooklyn Eagle. “We don’t have the luxury in America today to have people in Congress who are not working day in and day out to improve the lives of the people we represent.”

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The 53-year-old Brooklynite launched his campaign Sept. 23 with the initiative “No-PACS Promise to the People” — a commitment to not take any real estate money or big corporate donations.

“The real problem we have is that Yvette Clarke takes over 90 percent of her contributions from corporate PACs, special interests that have no real connection to the district,” said Hiller. “This is an initiative by us, calling on members of Congress, starting with Yvette Clarke, to return all of the corporate PAC money she has received — as far as I’m concerned, members of Congress represent people. They don’t represent corporations.”

PACs, or political action committees, are organizations that pool campaign funds to support or defeat candidates or legislation. Not all PACs reflect corporate interests; they can also be set up by labor unions or advocacy organizations. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which maintains a public database that tracks political fundraising, PACs provided just under 89 percent of Clarke’s campaign funds, primarily from the communications, health and labor sectors.

The first-time candidate’s plan for tackling some of the “disparity” issues he says are becoming prevalent across the district including income inequality, affordable housing, legalization of marijuana and creating stricter gun laws.

Hiller touts his previous work fighting against luxury development construction at the historic Hopper-Gibson House in lower Manhattan as a career milestone — the house located at 339 West 29th St. is the last remaining Underground Railroad site in Manhattan and was set to get a fifth-story addition before it’s owner was taken to court for the illegal construction project, according to The Real Deal.

Hiller also cites his current work in a federal lawsuit — Washington v. Barr — that aims to strike down the federal government’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Plaintiffs in the case say marijuana has critical medicinal purposes and has disproportionately affected communities of color, thus preventing minorities from participating in the new state-legal marijuana industry, according to the case.

Hiller declined to say whether he saw himself more as a traditional progressive or in the vein of the left-leaning Democratic Socialists, who also have campaigned on promises to reject corporate money. He did say he supports the Green New Deal, introduced by Democratic Socialist U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“I am not going to align myself with one person or another. I am going to try and create coalitions to pass legislation that I think the entire party supports,” said Hiller. “I support [the Green New Deal] because if you think about what is going on with climate change today and the problems it is creating you recognize that that isn’t part of the machine, that is a nonpartisan issue — something that affects us all and threatens us all.”

Hiller’s entrance into the race marks the fifth challenger mounting a campaign against Clarke, who in 2018 faced a competitive insurgent, progressive candidate and Harvard graduate Adem Bunkeddeko. Clarke won the primary narrowly — by fewer than than 2,000 votes, according to the NYS board of elections.

Bunkeddeko, now in his rematch battle, welcomes Hiller into the race and believes that a crowded field will only pay off to unseat Clarke.

“Another entrant into the race is more evidence that Yvette Clarke is not the representative we need, and I am confident that our message of bold progressive change and our broad coalition of community support all across the district will lead us to victory in 2020,” said Bunkeddeko.

Clarke’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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