POLITICS
07/17/2020 11:21 EDT | Updated 07/17/2020 12:20 EDT

Jamaal Bowman Unseats Rep. Eliot Engel In New York Primary

The veteran congressman's defeat is a big win for the progressive left and a crushing blow for the Democratic establishment.

Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowmanousted New York Rep. Eliot Engel in a June primary, landing a major win for the activist left and a stunning defeat for the Democratic establishment.

Due to the unprecedented volume of absentee ballots, local election authorities didn’t certify the result until some weeks after Election Day. Bowman had declared victory after the polls closed on June 23, having amassed a 25-percentage-point lead over Engel in in-person votes.

“I’m ready to get to work,” Bowman said Friday in a statement. “I cannot wait to get to Washington and cause problems for the people maintaining the status quo.” 

Engel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, has represented parts of the Bronx and lower Westchester County since 1989. His defeat at the hands of a first-time candidate likely marks the end of a congressional career that began 32 years ago with his own successful primary challenge against a longtime incumbent.

“Engel’s lack of presence in his district was noticed by voters,” said Christina Greer, a Fordham University political science professor. “Even though he’s been an incumbent, his district wanted a change.”

Engel’s loss, which came despite the support of Democratic Party leaders, shows that the traditional incumbent advantages ― cash, name recognition and high-profile endorsements ― don’t inoculate party veterans against the challenge of a left insurgency.

That’s particularly true in New York City, which was also the site of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s landmark primary win in 2018. That Bowman, an unabashedly left-wing Black candidate, was able to prevail in a district that includes predominantly white, affluent suburbs is, in some ways, even more remarkable.

“It’s no longer enough to rest on being a Democrat,” Greer said. “You have to understand the ideological diversity of the party and obviously the racial and ethnic diversity of the party.”

Jeenah Moon/Getty Images
Jamaal Bowman's presence in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic marked a sharp contrast with Rep. Eliot Engel, who weathered the early days of the outbreak in the Washington suburbs.

Rachel Pinotti, a librarian and resident of New Rochelle, framed her vote for Bowman, who is 44, in part as a rebuke of Engel’s lengthy tenure.

“Bowman has a good platform. He’s progressive,” she said. “And I just think people shouldn’t be allowed to be in Congress for more than 15 years.”

Greater awareness of racism following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police appears to have increased the appeal of Bowman’s candidacy as well. Bowman spoke personally about the impact of racist policing practices on his life, including a violent arrest he endured at age 11.

Daria Harris, a Black school administrator from Co-op City in the Bronx who voted for Bowman, mentioned that her son is just a year younger than Bowman was at the time of his traumatic run-in with cops.

“He can identify with police brutality as a Black man,” Harris said. “I know that he’s experienced it.” 

Jamaal Bowman’s victory is proof that New York’s multiracial progressive movement is ascending — and here to stay.Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of the New York Working Families Party

Bowman’s win is also the result of critical mistakes by Engel, 73, and a uniquely robust, cohesive left-wing effort to support Bowman. In particular, two groups ― the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats, the latter of which recruited Bowman ― invested heavily in his bid, jointly spending more than $1.3 million on an independent advertising, mail and phone-banking campaign.

Sochie Nnaemeka, the state director of the New York Working Families Party, said in a statement that the strength of Bowman’s bid, coming amid the Black Lives Matter protests that gripped New York City, showed that Ocasio-Cortez’s win was not the fluke that naysayers argued. 

“Jamaal Bowman’s victory is proof that New York’s multiracial progressive movement is ascending — and here to stay,” she said.

Progressives across the country had seized on Bowman’s race as a potential silver lining in an otherwise disappointing election cycle. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the left’s preferred presidential candidates, both lost that primary race. And before Bowman’s win, progressives had succeeded in unseating just one incumbent congressional Democrat this cycle, Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski. (Lipinski’s opposition to abortion rights and other conservative social views earned him the opposition of mainstream liberal groups as well.)

Engel had elicited particular disdain from the left for his hawkish foreign policy record. He voted for the Iraq War, opposed then-President Barack Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran and applauded President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But Bowman sought to make the race about the veteran congressman’s lack of connection to the economically polarized 16th Congressional District, which is now home to more Black and Latino residents than white residents. As a Black educator living in Yonkers and working in the heart of the Bronx, Bowman was exactly the kind of candidate who activists hoped could gain traction among working-class voters of color, who are often reluctant to abandon establishment politicians with whom they have existing relationships.

In his announcement video, which captured Bowman walking through the subway, he described his vision for a brighter future ― one with “Medicare for All,” tuition-free public college, a Green New Deal and racial equity ― from the vantage point of someone who grew up in poverty and remains on the front lines of the fight against it. “As educators, we work with children and families who suffer from poverty, asthma from pollution, homelessness, lack of health care,” he said. 

In recent years, Engel had amassed a relatively progressive domestic policy record, co-sponsoring Medicare for All legislation and the Green New Deal resolution. But he staked his career on steering foreign, rather than domestic, policy. His membership in the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition, which is opposed to Medicare for All, and his reliance on corporate PAC donations also raised skepticism about the urgency with which he was fighting for the left’s goals.

Referring to the kitchen-table issues on the minds of the 16th District’s many impoverished families, Bowman told HuffPost in April, “I don’t see Eliot Engel saying anything about these issues or leading from the front in any way.”

For months, Bowman toiled in relative national obscurity, knocking on doors and doing local media hits while Sanders, Warren and Texas House primary challenger Jessica Cisneros absorbed the lion’s share of progressive attention and resources. Even as the coronavirus pandemic deprived his campaign of the left’s bread and butter ― a grassroots door-knocking operation ― volunteers from allied groups like the Jewish Vote and the left-leaning Sunrise Movement helped Bowman’s team make what they estimate were 1.5 million phone calls to prospective voters.

Engel gave Bowman an opening when it emerged in mid-May that he had spent the height of New York’s COVID-19 outbreak at his home in a Maryland suburb of Washington. A mask-clad Bowman, by contrast, had stayed in the district, distributing food at pantries and joining a protest against the lack of personal protective equipment at a public hospital. His activism in the latter effort helped secure him the endorsement of New York’s largest nurses union

Around the same time, Nnaemeka of the New York Working Families Party was engaged in the kind of behind-the-scenes politicking that is normally the bailiwick of the Democratic establishment. She helped negotiate the withdrawal of Andom Gebreghiorgis, a fellow educator competing with Bowman for progressive votes in the primary. Gebreghiorgis endorsed Bowman on June 1.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Rep. Eliot Engel's insistence that he "brings home the bacon" for an economically polarized district was not enough to secure a primary win.

Bowman’s campaign really took off days later when Engel made one of the gravest errors committed by an incumbent member of Congress in recent history. While attending a press conference in the Bronx focused on addressing theft and property damage around the peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations, a live TV broadcast captured Engel asking the emcee for a speaking slot. “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” Engel said by way of explanation. 

Overnight, Bowman’s bid picked up momentum. Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party began their independent spending efforts the day after with TV ads tying Engel’s remarks to his absence from the district. “Engel only came back to win reelection, to help himself ― to save his job, not our lives,” the narrator of one of the spots said. For more than a week, the groups hammered Engel on the airwaves with no analogous ad blitz from him and his outside backers.

Bowman would go on to pick up the support of Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders. The blessing of the New York Times editorial board provided critical mainstream validation.

Soon he could point to evidence that his effort was picking up steam. A public poll that Bowman’s campaign commissioned showed him leading Engel by 10 percentage points in mid-June.

Engel put up a fight with his own series of big endorsements from Democratic Party leaders, including the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. The party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, made him her first endorsement of the cycle. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer also threw their weight behind Engel.

He argued that his seniority has helped him secure resources for the district, like money in the COVID-19 relief package for local safety-net hospitals. “I bring home the bacon, I bring home the money,” he said in a June debate.

Engel also benefited from the largesse of hawkish pro-Israel groups eager to protect an influential foreign-policy maker. The Democratic Majority for Israel PAC, which despite its name relied on cash from at least a few Republican mega-donors, spent over $1.5 million propping up Engel and tearing down Bowman.

In the end, the counter-offensive wasn’t enough to stop Bowman’s surge.

His victory is evidence that the nascent left’s ideas ― and increasingly sophisticated tactics ― are gaining traction, said Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats. She noted that Bowman is the fourth candidate the group backed to unseat a Democratic incumbent. (In addition to Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez and Newman, Justice Democrats supported Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who unseated then-Rep. Michael Capuano in September 2018.)

“For decades, the establishment machine stymied progressive visionaries by saying, ‘Wait your turn, that’s not realistic,’ and then dumping millions of dollars from corporate PACs like they did in the final weeks of this campaign,” Rojas said in a statement. “But our movement, and the ideas Justice Democrats are championing in the streets and in Congress, match the scale of the crises we face, and it’s not easy to stop us anymore.”

Photo gallery Scenes From Capitol Hill See Gallery