The Bronx, N.Y—Jamaal Bowman is feeling good—like, really good.
He and his campaign manager are standing atop the Van Cortlandt Park-242nd Street subway station platform handing out his campaign flyers to commuters rushing to make the train. The stop is one of those elevated stations that’s outside, where you can see the street down below and the horizon before you. Some of the commuters nod without making much eye contact and take a flyer as most New Yorkers usually do as a defense mechanism to avoid eager people trying to sell them their mixtape or something.
Then came Joe Hernandez, who was getting off at the front of the train almost exactly where Bowman was passing out flyers. Bowman went into his pitch.
“Hello. I’m Jamaal Bowman and I’m running for Congress and..”
Bowman, a former middle school principal who grew up in Manhattan, didn’t have to say much else because Hernandez knew who he was and said he was supporting him.
“I like [Eliot] Engel,” Hernandez told Bowman before giving him a fist bump. “I used to vote for him. But I heard he was away during this virus. If he’s not going to be here with the people, to hell with him.”
“I appreciate that, man,” Bowman replied.
“You’re going to win,” Hernandez said.
Since U.S. Rep. Engel made his disastrous hot mic comments a few weeks ago at a Bronx press conference addressing the unrest connected to the police killings of black people across the country, the 16-term Democratic incumbent has been playing defense in ways neither he nor his colleagues in Washington ever imagined. During the press conference with Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., Engel said, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” after Diaz refused to allow him to speak because he worried it would politicize the event.
Engel tried to apologize, but the damage was done. The Atlantic’s piece outlining his absence away from his district during the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped, either. The incumbent who was considered very safe may now be dangerously close to losing his seat.
I asked Bowman if he felt Engel had gotten too comfortable and didn’t see him coming.
“Not just comfortable but content in the way like, ‘I’ve had this job 31 years, people keep voting me into office.’ Sixteen times so far. I guess he feels that he’s entitled to the position,” Bowman told me as he greeted commuters through his surgical mask. “That sense of entitlement is what came through in that statement and how he’s taken the voters of this district for granted for decades. That’s unacceptable and unforgivable. The gentleman who mentioned once he found out he’s not here for the people during the pandemic, it captures the same sentiment, you know?”
In politics, moments often define the course of a campaign, either shifting momentum in your favor or against it. Sometimes, it’s a national tragedy that requires the candidate to dig deep inside of themselves for moral clarity to help navigate people through the labyrinth of hurt and pain they’re experiencing. We saw politicians’ shine bright or dimmer during 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Ferguson, Mo., and, more recently, uprising against police brutality amid a global pandemic. Campaigns have risen or fallen on the capacity of a candidate’s ability to rise to the occasion—or not.
In the case of Bowman, it’s been the uprisings, a pandemic and, perhaps more consequential, Engel really fucking up. The insurgent feels he can pull an upset in the 16th Congressional District race in next week’s New York primary Tuesday, June 23.
Engel’s colleagues in Washington, D.C., know it. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Rep. Adam Schiff endorsed Engel on Sunday and so did Hillary Clinton. Bowman has his own heavyweight endorsements from Washington, with U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) both backing him. Two of the U.S. Senate’s most liberal members, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are also throwing their support behind the former school teacher.
That so many big names are jumping into a primary race with an incumbent of Engel’s standing is a sign that the incumbent is in serious trouble.
“The fact that you have Schiff and Clyburn and these other folks running to consolidate behind Engel at the last minute is such a clear message that Engel is scare and other centrists and moderates are scared of losing power to the left,” said Tiffany Cabán, who has endorsed Bowman and is a progressive public defender who lost her race in 2018 for Queens district attorney by a mere 55 votes. “My message is if they are running scared, it means we’re winning.”
New York State Sen. Gustavo Rivera told The Root he was standing just 10 feet away from Engel when he made those comments. He didn’t overhear them in real time, but he was very troubled once he heard the audio played in local media. Rivera wasn’t going to endorse anyone during the primary but changed his mind once he heard Engel’s comments.
“When that audio became public, it encapsulated for me that, ‘You have served well, but it is time to have somebody that can actually show a true commitment to who we are today and who the Bronx is right now,’” Rivera told The Root.
Rivera added: “Eliot is a good dude. I have nothing negative to say about the job that he’s done, except that it’s past tense. It is the moment to move forward.”
There isn’t much polling in this race. The last poll was in October, when Data for Progress, which is aligned with Bowman, showed Engel with 29 percent of the vote versus just 10 for Bowman. The takeaway was that 60 percent of voters were undecided. A newer poll released Wednesday from the same organization shows Bowman leading by a 10-point margin.
During my hourlong conversation with Bowman on the Van Cortlandt Park-242nd Street subway platform, he made it clear that the main problem with too many mainstream Democrats is that they are unwilling to move forward on the more radical changes America needs to make for the marginalized communities they claim to represent. For example, he supports defunding the police and says he is committed to articulating what that exactly means so people are able to reimagine what public safety means with armed cops.
“It means a reallocation of resources,” he said. “Right now, they are funding lethal training, military arms, limited education and aggressive tactics. That’s where funding in training is located. We need to raise standards for police. They need to earn a bachelor’s degree and have continuing education for you to remain a police officer, number one. No. 2, police aren’t military. We need to take away the military equipment that we see police use. No. 3, we need non-emergency responses to cases that happen all over the country. Like Atatiana Jefferson in Texas, for example. That was a non-emergency situation. Officer came, shot through the window and killed her. So it means reallocation of resources towards public health and investing in jobs, investing in housing, investing in education, investing in mental health support. That’s what communities and police need more than anything else.”
More specifically, what Bowman is calling for is a new social order. The ways in which we govern human behavior is based on neoliberalism, which, in large part, centers individualism over the group and favors free markets that often abuse those who are at the bottom. A key component of neoliberalism is profiting from imprisonment. Activists forced Hillary Clinton and other politicians over the years to reject campaign contributions from private prison companies.
In Bowman’s vision for public safety, he wants to take that sentiment further by making restorative justice the norm in the American criminal legal system.
“It’s restorative,” he said. “In a school, two kids have a fight. If instead of suspending the child from school and sending them home you bring the two children together and you have a conversation, mediation, you get an understanding of the back story related to the fight. You develop an understanding of how that fight caused harm to not just those two but to the community around them. Most of the time other children are involved as well. After that discussion, the community is restored. Without restorative justice, we have a punitive system. In that punitive system, children and individuals are discarded and dismissed. Restorative keeps them in the community and makes the community stronger because we collectively learn from the issue that’s in front of us. There’s no learning happening in our criminal justice system right now. It’s recidivism, it’s crime and punishment, crime, jail time.”
Bowman feels that while Democrats are doing a better job of serving black and brown people than Republicans, they are too tethered to moderate politics that acquiesce to corporate interests that undermine progress and allow injustice to thrive.
The most recent electoral revolt against neoliberal elites took place in 2018, when Reps. Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Pressley (D-Mass.) joined a national wave of insurgent progressives in upsetting well-established and otherwise progressive incumbents in their primaries. Upon entering Congress, “The Squad,” which includes Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) made it clear to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that it was no longer business as usual on the Hill.
One of the issues with Engel and his black and Latinx constituents in the Bronx is that the current national uprisings reveal the incumbent’s disconnect with calls for abolishing and defunding the police. In districts with large minority communities that have endured international, news-making police killings like Eric Garner and others, that spells trouble for people like Engel and those who are considered to not have responded to those killings appropriately.
“The reality is that the collective Democratic Party has not advanced an equitable safety package that specifically speaks to communities of color—even more so the experiences that black bodies and brown bodies face with their local law enforcement agencies,” said Ify Ike, a political strategist and founder of the social equity firm Pink Cornrows. “In a city like New York, that’s very important.
“Bowman presents the baton pass that’s necessary for communities to start building with leaders that aren’t afraid of voicing their issues from jump as candidates, instead of banging their heads against the status quo of the establishment,” Ike added.
Ike made clear that there are people in Washington who are considered “establishment,” but aren’t as closed-minded to radical politics as many assume. She cites Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who were both Black Panthers. But when Bowman talks about the establishment, he also speaks in a cooperative tone that allows for give and take without conceding his core values.
One body he is especially looking forward to working with if he wins is the Congressional Black Caucus.
“I know there are people within that space that agree with me on many things,” he said. “There’s a lot that needs to be done in this country to deal with poverty, to deal with institutional racism, to deal with sexism, genderphobia, classism, housing, education. There’s so much work to do and there’s so many people, Republican and Democrat, who are serious about doing that work sans the noise. So let’s block out the noise, let’s stay rooted in our thinking. Let’s stay rooted in the needs of the people of the country and let’s do the work.”
After an hour or so passing out flyers, we exited the platform and made our way to street level. Speaking about why he decided to run against Engel in the first place, Bowman said the math was in his favor.
“In the last primary, there were 30,000 total votes—which is about 9 percent of the district and he got 22,000 votes,” Bowman told me.
(Engel got 22,160 votes and his other three primary opponents garnered a total of 7,918 votes, per Ballotpedia)
“I realized, ‘Damn. I could get 22,000 votes.’ You know what I’m saying? You have someone with a chair on the Foreign Affairs Committee making trillion-dollar decisions on behalf of our community that doesn’t benefit our community at all and he got 22,000 votes and he’s doing that? That’s unacceptable. Not just here, but anywhere in this country.”