The Left’s Resurgence Is For Real

Jamaal Bowman and other progressive and democratic socialist challengers had a very good night, while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cruised to victory—proving that the left wing is a force to be reckoned with.

Miles Kampf-Lassin June 24, 2020

Jamaal Bowman is poised to unseat 16-term incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel in New York. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Two years ago, New York City was the site of a stun­ning vic­to­ry for the U.S. Left that pro­pelled a trans­for­ma­tive can­di­date into office. When Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez won her pri­ma­ry to rep­re­sent New York’s 14th Dis­trict in 2018, defeat­ing long­time Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bent Rep. Joe Crow­ley, she shocked the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment by show­ing that a left-wing chal­lenger can run on a bold agen­da, lift up move­ment demands, and win. 

It appears New York will again be home to an electoral upset jolting the Democratic Party’s centrist wing.

After Tues­day night, it appears New York will again be home to an elec­toral upset jolt­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s cen­trist wing, as Jamaal Bow­man holds a dom­i­nant lead over 16-term incum­bent Eliot Engel in New York’s 16th Dis­trict. Engel, the hawk­ish House For­eign Affairs Com­mit­tee chair­man who has held the seat since 1989 and saw main­stream Democ­rats ral­ly around him in the wan­ing days of the cam­paign, end­ed the night los­ing to Bow­man by near­ly 25 points. If Bow­man holds onto his lead as mail-in and absen­tee bal­lots are count­ed in the com­ing days, he will almost assured­ly be the next Con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the deep-blue district.

Bow­man, a Black for­mer pub­lic school prin­ci­pal, had the back­ing of a broad array of pro­gres­sive groups in the state, includ­ing Jus­tice Democ­rats, the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty and the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA), of which Bow­man is a mem­ber. He was also endorsed by Oca­sio-Cortez as well as Bernie Sanders, whom Bow­man cites as first inspir­ing him to run for office. 

With protests over the police killing of George Floyd spread­ing across New York in recent weeks, Bow­man has embraced the grow­ing move­ment for racial jus­tice—includ­ing the demand to redis­trib­ute fund­ing from police depart­ments into social pro­grams, telling In These Times ear­li­er this month, 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.” In a speech to sup­port­ers Tues­day night, Bow­man ref­er­enced Pres­i­dent Trump’s antipa­thy toward the protests, say­ing You know what Don­ald Trump is more afraid of than any­thing else? A Black man with power.”

Through­out the course of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, Bow­man trans­formed his cam­paign into a vehi­cle to help res­i­dents access food and ser­vices while call­ing on the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to cov­er work­ers’ wages and enact a mora­to­ri­um on evic­tions, as well as mort­gage, rent and debt pay­ments dur­ing the cri­sis. His plat­form also includes key redis­trib­u­tive poli­cies such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, free col­lege, can­celling stu­dent debt, a wealth tax and major invest­ments in afford­able hous­ing and pub­lic education.

I can­not wait to get to Con­gress and cause prob­lems,” Bow­man said Tues­day night, sin­gling out insti­tu­tion­al racism and sex­ism and clas­sism and xeno­pho­bia” as what we designed this cam­paign to fight against.”

The remarks evoked Ocasio-Cortez’s entrance to Con­gress in 2018 when she famous­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed in a sit-in protest out­side of House Demo­c­ra­t­ic Leader Nan­cy Pelosi’s office orga­nized by the cli­mate group Sun­rise Move­ment to demand the pas­sage of a Green New Deal. This con­fronta­tion­al approach to advo­cat­ing for poli­cies with­in Ocasio-Cortez’s own par­ty has been crit­i­cized by some Democ­rats, includ­ing those such as for­mer Mis­souri Sen. Claire McCaskill who’ve been upset by her endorse­ment of pri­ma­ry challengers.

But Tues­day showed that this strat­e­gy can work, as not only does Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsed can­di­date look poised to top­ple the incum­bent Engel, but she her­self won a resound­ing pri­ma­ry vic­to­ry in her own dis­trict, stat­ing on Twit­ter: Tonight we are prov­ing that the people’s move­ment in NY isn’t an acci­dent. It’s a mandate.”

Indeed, in the last cycle, Oca­sio-Cortez was wide­ly dis­missed as being a seri­ous threat to the estab­lish­ment, and her oppo­nent Crow­ley hard­ly cam­paigned in the pri­ma­ry. This time, she faced a well-fund­ed chal­lenger in CNBC con­trib­u­tor Michelle Caru­so-Cabr­era, who attempt­ed to smear her demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist rival by claim­ing I am a real Demo­c­rat.” In the end, Oca­sio-Cortez won by over 50 points.

A sim­i­lar dynam­ic also played out in Bowman’s race, where Engel sensed his for­tunes falling after a string of gaffes — includ­ing when he was caught on a hot mic say­ing, If I didn’t have a pri­ma­ry I wouldn’t care” at a press event address­ing recent protests. Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment heavy­weights includ­ing Hillary Clin­ton, Sen. Chuck Schumer and New York Gov. Andrew Cuo­mo sought to revive his cam­paign with their sup­port. Engel also received over $1.5 mil­lion in finan­cial sup­port from the pro-Israel PAC Demo­c­ra­t­ic Major­i­ty for Israel to fund his reelec­tion, along with oth­er big-mon­ey dona­tions from lob­by­ing groups. And he attempt­ed to slam Bow­man per­son­al­ly by claim­ing he’s not real­ly a Democrat.”

But in the end, these big-name endorse­ments, PAC con­tri­bu­tions and attacks weren’t enough to hold off Bowman’s chal­lenge — a tes­ta­ment to both the insurgent’s polit­i­cal skills, as well as to the growth of a vibrant left-wing elec­toral infra­struc­ture in the Unit­ed States.

In July 2019, Fox News reporter Brooke Singman quot­ed a senior Demo­c­ra­t­ic source as say­ing of the Jus­tice Democ­rats: No one is afraid of those nerds. They don’t have the abil­i­ty to pri­ma­ry any­one.” Bow­man isn’t the only exam­ple of how this sen­ti­ment has been proven wrong. In March, pro­gres­sive chal­lenger Marie New­man — also a mem­ber of the Jus­tice Democ­rats — oust­ed right-wing Demo­c­ra­t­ic incum­bent Dan Lip­in­s­ki in Illinois.

The Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty, which also endorsed Bow­man, saw oth­er suc­cess­es on Tues­day, includ­ing the like­ly vic­to­ry of pro­gres­sive Mondaire Jones in the pri­ma­ry to rep­re­sent New York’s 17th Dis­trict in Con­gress. Jones is set to join prob­a­ble 15th Dis­trict win­ner Ritchie Tor­res in becom­ing the first open­ly gay, Black men in Congress. 

DSA sim­i­lar­ly flexed its elec­toral mus­cle on Tues­day, as mul­ti­ple endorsed can­di­dates either won their races or took the lead in New York. Besides Oca­sio-Cortez and Bow­man, incum­bent State Sen. Julia Salazar won her pri­ma­ry by a mas­sive mar­gin. On a video call ahead of the results, Salazar said, What’s real­ly excit­ing to me is that we’re going to elect more demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists tonight…and with that pow­er we’re going to grow the work­ing-class movement.” 

She could soon be proven right, as pub­lic school teacher and DSA mem­ber Jabari Brisport appears like­ly to defeat machine-backed can­di­date Tremaine S. Wright to take a State Sen­ate seat in Brook­lyn. And Zohran Kwame Mam­dani, anoth­er DSA-backed can­di­date, holds a lead in his race for State Assem­bly in Queens.

In 2018, main­stream media pun­dits and estab­lish­ment Democ­rats — includ­ing Gov. Cuo­mo — attempt­ed to write off Ocasio-Cortez’s shock win as a fluke.” But Tuesday’s results are an indi­ca­tion that, at least in New York, the left-wing is a seri­ous force to be reck­oned with, capa­ble of deliv­er­ing votes, oust­ing pow­er­ful incum­bents and advanc­ing the demands of grass­roots social movements. 

As the like­ly 15th Dis­trict win­ner Tor­res told the Wash­ing­ton Post ahead of the elec­tions, It’s like B.C. and A.D. — before AOC and after AOC…In the post-AOC world, incum­ben­cy is no longer an enti­tle­ment, no longer a guar­an­tee of elect­ed office.”

(The author is a mem­ber of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of America.)

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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