Jamaal Bowman, AOC Wins Show Progressives Are Ascendant in NYC

A slate of progressives largely swept their New York City races Tuesday night, led by Jamaal Bowman, a black middle school principal from the Bronx who grew up poor, faced police violence and reflected the mood of voters that have taken to the streets in the month since George Floyd's death at the hands of police.

Bowman declared victory and was leading 16-term Democratic congressman Eliot Engel, 62 to 35 percent. Absentee ballots are still outstanding, but the 16th Congressional District race was called by Decision Desk HQ because Engel cannot win.

"This fight was an opportunity to prove that a Black man who survived poverty and police violence at 11 years old could have the political power to transform this country," Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, said in a statement to Newsweek.

"Jamaal is the fourth challenger backed by Justice Democrats to unseat an out-of-touch incumbent. He could be the first candidate being swept into Congress by the movement in the streets right now," Rojas said.

The energy of the Black Lives Matter movement that has poured into neighborhoods across the country was tapped by Democratic progressive candidates like Bowman; Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her re-election big against a candidate backed by Wall Street donors; and Mondaire Jones, who declared victory and has double the votes of his challenger for New York's 17th Congressional District seat.

Jones, who would become the first black gay man in Congress, was raised by a single mother who held three jobs. At Stanford University, he organized student protests that led to the resignation of a police chief who endorsed racial profiling.

But it was Bowman, declared "the next AOC" by The New York Times and CNN, who made the case for his candidacy in recent weeks by tying it to the dual crises in America: the coronavirus pandemic, which is disproportionately killing blacks and Latinos, and police brutality.

Framing poverty as the product of political choice and rooted in a rotten system, Bowman said in his victory speech that his campaign is part of a movement to fight that institutionalized oppression.

"A movement designed to push back against a system that's literally killing us. It's killing Black and brown bodies disproportionately, but it's killing all of us," he said.

Engel, who courted controversy when a reporter discovered he was waiting out the pandemic at his Maryland home rather than in his district, was also criticized during the campaign for comments he made at a June press conference in the wake of protests responding to Floyd's death.

"If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care," Engel said, caught by a hot mic while trying to speak at the press conference.

"Eliot Engel, and I'll say his name once, used to say he was a thorn in the side of Donald Trump," Bowman said at his victory speech. "But you know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anything else? A Black man with power."

Brad Bauman, the former executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said that during a time of crisis, voters have no patience for politicians who sound like "robotic, cookie-cutter candidates who have come off the factory floor" for 50 years.

"The reason these candidates are winning is these are the candidates closest to the pain and anguish of the communities they're seeking to represent," he told Newsweek. "The folks closest to the pain, articulating their understanding of what needs to be done to fix this country so it lives up to the ideals of what we thought it's supposed to stand for."

The progressives' wins also serve as a warning to the establishment wing of the Democratic Party, which has largely treated victories by figures like Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 as not reflective of the party and the country at large. The recent protests, progressives said, changed that calculation. Engel was endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"It shows Clinton and Pelosi and those people trying to prop up Engel that it wasn't enough and incumbents can't take anything for granted," said Irene Lin, campaign manager for Andru Volinsky, a New Hampshire candidate for governor endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders. "The protests and Black Lives Matter show that there is a desire for change, people are not satisfied, and New York is a good barometer for that."

But Bauman pointed to the Kentucky Democratic primary, where establishment pick Amy McGrath was facing a stiff challenge from state Representative Charles Booker, as evidence that the progressives' generational shift in America goes far beyond New York's five boroughs.

"This is what the future looks like," he said. "I know it's hard for us in a moment of darkness to see hope, but this is the change we need to prepare for the rest of the 21st century, something we never bothered doing in its first 20 years."

Jamaal bowman
Democratic House candidate Jamaal Bowman of New York greets supporters on June 23 in Yonkers.