On Tuesday, June 9, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) gave his endorsement to Jamaal Bowman, a left-wing insurgent challenging 16-term Democratic incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel in New York, calling Bowman “someone we can trust to be a powerful advocate for a progressive agenda in Congress.”
The Sanders endorsement follows a string of positive news for Bowman’s primary campaign. As the candidate puts it, “We’ve reached a point in the campaign where we have a ton of momentum, a ton of support, major endorsements being announced throughout the week. That gives me a tremendous amount of clarity and hope for what’s possible with this campaign, if we’re fortunate enough to pull this off on June 23.”
Bowman, a former Bronx middle school principal who grew up in public and rent-controlled housing, has built up a formidable head of steam — and drawn numerous comparisons to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑NY) — in his primary challenge to Engel, the hawkish chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and representative of New York’s 16th Congressional District. Bowman is running on a broad progressive agenda including a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, reduced military funding and trade deals that “support workers, not CEOs and Wall Street.”
Engel, whose district covers some of Westchester’s wealthiest commuter towns, all three of its biggest cities — New Rochelle, Mount Vernon and Yonkers — and parts of the Bronx, has come under heavy criticism for a string of gaffes.
First, he appeared to lie to a reporter from The Atlantic in May, claiming he had been quarantined both in his Maryland home as well as his district, after his communications director told the same reporter that Engel had actually been in Maryland since March.
Engel’s office had also advertised his participation in two community aid events which gave away food, hand sanitizer and masks. “I was part of that,” Engel claimed. But when Atlantic reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere replied: “But you weren’t there?,” Engel conceded, “I was not there, no.”
Then, on June 2, Engel made his first appearance in the district. At a press event addressing the mass protests and unrest that have followed the police murder of George Floyd, he was caught on a hot mic pressuring Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. to let him speak at the event. “If I didn’t have a primary I wouldn’t care,” he said. Diaz asked him to repeat, and he did.
“Don’t do that to me,” Diaz replied. He added, “Everybody has a primary. You know, I’m sorry.”
Bowman, for his part, has been spending plenty of time in the district. “That same day I was at a protest in Mount Vernon,” he says. “The day before I was [at a vigil in] Bronxville, and the day before that I was in Yonkers.”
Engel’s gaffes “captures everything that everyone across this country is protesting against,” according to Bowman.
“Across the board we’ve seen our numbers go up, way up,” says Bowman’s campaign manager Luke Hayes. “Conversation about Jamaal now versus April is different. There’s a buzz.” On June 4, the campaign was closing in on 300,000 calls made. One week later, they’ve broken 400,000.
“I worked on Obama’s campaign, and it does remind [me] of that broad array,” Hayes reflected. “Just having older African American voters, young people across the board, progressives, liberals in Westchester; the breadth of it is really encouraging.”
In the week after Engel’s most recent gaffe, the Bowman campaign raised $360,000, putting the entirely-grassroots funded campaign’s war chest over $1 million. Early on, Bowman’s campaign had been dwarfed by Engel’s $1.6 million operation—funded this cycle by donors affiliated with pro-Israel groups, real estate interests and finance. But, aided by a half-million-dollar advertising spend from the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats, Bowman’s campaign is now on more even ground.
Bowman’s good week began after Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a fellow educator and the second leading progressive in the race, dropped out on June 1 to endorse him.
On June 3, Ocasio-Cortez added her endorsement to a slate that includes several progressive leaders and organizations, including the Sunrise Movement, Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party.
Then, two days later, New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi — whose progressive 2018 campaign defeated Republican-aligned Democrat Jeffrey Klein — appeared to retract her endorsement of Engel, condemning his “lack of courage.”
“We need someone who is focused on the future. So my opinion about where I stand right now, without taking a formal position, is that my full support behind Engel is not there anymore,” she told the Millennial Politics Podcast.
“I cannot in good faith stand on my two feet and represent this district, which, by the way, overlaps with [Congressional District] 16, and watch as my constituents and the voters in this district are harmed by the lack of courage that the people who represent this borough and this district take every single day — they take it for granted.”
But even before his opponent’s missteps, Bowman’s campaign was building excitement and challenging Engel’s shaky hold on the district.
Data for Progress polling from last October showed that many voters were undecided between Engel and a hypothetical progressive challenger. That confirmed what Bowman was hearing from his community, and what he already knew.
“I’ve been here 10 years as a middle school principal. I haven’t seen one flyer for an assembly, a town hall, or any meeting from Engel’s office focused on the issues that matter most in this district, which is fully funding our schools and education, universal healthcare, environmental justice, and jobs and job training programs,” says Bowman. “He hasn’t been a leader or fighter on any of those issues.”
His underdog campaign, whose shoestring budget in the early days meant no office and volunteers meeting up at local libraries, cafes, and malls, has anchored a strong progressive message in Bowman’s background in the 16th district.
Bowman is the former principal of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, a public school in the Bronx he found in 2009 after 7 years of teaching in the district. The school clinched the best ranking for improved test scores in the city, but Bowman became a vocal critic of standardized testing and a proponent of parent’s rights to opt-out of those tests.
Of the tests, Bowman told the Village Voice in 2016, “We’ve focused so much on annual standardized tests that we’re not focused on what research says works to close the achievement gap.” The year before, he likened the tests, and their failure to correct America’s racial achievement gap, to “a form of modern-day slavery.”
Discussing what led him from principal to candidate, Bowman notes that, as an opt-out activist, what he “often heard from local officials that their hands were tied by federal policy. And when you look at federal policy like No Child Left Behind and the  Crime Bill and Glass-Steagall, all of which Engel has supported, you see a direct connection between that and what’s happening to our kids.”
“As educators, we understand very intimately the impact of trauma and how poverty relates to trauma, and how poverty relates to bad policy that comes from Washington.”
Bowman is very familiar with the damage done by bad government.
“I’ve been a black man my entire life,” Bowman says, reflecting on the recent racial justice protests. “My first experience with police brutality happened when I was 11 years old, I remember it clearly. I was horseplaying with some of my friends and the police approached us, told us to be quiet — we may have had some back talk — and they literally beat the crap out of us. Threw me against the wall, threw me on the ground, dragged my face on the ground — my entire face was scarred up.”
“We didn’t do anything about it. We felt powerless to even act, to even protest.”
“This is a challenging time in our nation’s history,” he says. “Unfortunately, these protests had to manifest as a result of the death of another black man, George Floyd, at the hands of the police. But I have incredible faith and hope in the American people and the people of this district and the protests, and the pushback against the system of state-sanctioned oppression is something I’m inspired by. I feel humbled and really fortunate to be in this position as a candidate to speak truth to power on these issues.”
“But it’s not just the police. One of the reasons I ran was because I was tired of experiencing on a personal level and seeing on the professional level the structural racism that continues to plague our communities and our country.”
Bowman says that racism and the failures of federal policy manifested in his work in a particularly tragic way. “In 2017 and 2018, 34 children died within the K‑12 school system in the Bronx, and 17 died via suicide, and in New Rochelle, a student was murdered by another student. And in Co-Op City a student committed suicide by jumping off a building after being bullied,” he says.
“That year was particularly trying for me and for my colleagues, because not only were kids suffering and dying, but no one was saying or doing much of anything about it. Especially someone like Eliot Engel, who’s been in office 31 years, lived in Maryland 27 of those years, claiming that as his primary residency for over a decade.” Records show that Engel even filed his taxes in Maryland until the state stopped him in 2013. (Engel’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
The 16th district, the second most unequal in the country, is a potent microcosm of the country as a whole. While the parts of the Bronx that fall within the district have been among the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, wealthy towns like Rye and Scarsdale’s rates are closer to New York City’s richest neighborhoods, like the Upper East and West Sides. Mount Vernon, New Rochelle and Yonkers also all have case rates similar to the most devastated Bronx and Queens communities.
To Bowman, an ambitious progressive program is the solution to persistent economic and social inequality. Along with policies like Medicare for All, Bowman is also running on a New Deal for Education, which would dramatically increase federal funding for schools, boost teacher salaries and cancel student debt through taxes on wealth and Wall Street.
Bringing that transformative policy suite from ideal to law, Bowman argues, is about holding elected officials accountable within the halls of power, speaking boldly and lifting up the demands of organized movements.
“A Green New Deal, that’s part of the lexicon, part of the conversation now because a freshman congresswoman came with that bold new vision, that new idea. So it starts there, and then it’s about continuing to push colleagues in that direction while engaging the public in movement building around those issues,” Bowman says. “Even Chuck Schumer recently wouldn’t sign on to a recent foreign policy initiative because it didn’t have enough about environmental justice.”
When it comes to responding to the recent protests against police violence, Bowman says that we need a comprehensive approach — including redirecting funding from police departments to social programs.
“We need to focus on restorative justice in our communities, and we need to hold police accountable,” Bowman says. “We need to end the militarization of the police and transfer significant portions of the funding funneled to police forces into our schools and our healthcare facilities. We need to hire more nurses, hire more teachers, and hire more school psychologists. We need to create and grow our care economy overall, from early childhood care to long-term care for our seniors. We also have to deal with the issue of poverty. We see the rage manifesting because people are living in poverty and they’ve been living in poverty for decades. Until we deal with institutional racism and poverty seriously this anger and rage will continue.”
But to Bowman, his campaign’s premise is ultimately a simple one. “You can’t fake it — you can’t fake authentic relationships and love for your community,” he says. “It’s either there or it isn’t. That’s all we’ve been trying to do — continue to engage, connect, learn, and love the community that I come from and that I’m trying to serve in Congress.”