The national progressive insurgency that grabbed Democrats by the collar in 2016 and fueled the rise of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez two years later has arrived at a crossroads in 2020.
With the primary battleground shifting to New York next week, progressives are eying their best opportunity of the current cycle to revive the spirit of 2018. The candidate now is Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a district that includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester.
The race’s potential to shake up the establishment and give the progressive movement a new surge of adrenaline has drawn a series of national figures into the mix – and crystallized the party’s ideological divide. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and leading local liberal officials are all lined up behind Bowman, while Hillary Clinton stepped in this week to back Engel, who also has the support of powerful members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn and New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries.
Bowman’s late push comes in the aftermath Sanders’ second presidential campaign, which was ultimately beaten back by a moderate coalition aligned behind former Vice President Joe Biden. And even as Ocasio-Cortez has emerged as one of the most dynamic figures in American politics – alongside the “squad” of Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib – the movement has struggled to translate grassroots energy into the ousters of powerful, entrenched party officials.
Engel’s missteps shake up the race
Engel first won the seat back in 1988 and has not faced a serious fight for it in decades. A political newcomer running for the first time, Bowman launched his campaign a year ago with a boost from Justice Democrats, the progressive political organization famous for initially recruiting Ocasio-Cortez, amid a scramble on the left to unseat Engel.
The field has since narrowed and the 44-year-old Bowman now has the support of leading progressives, from Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, to the popular first-term state senator Alessandra Biaggi, who after initially backing Engel announced this month that she had changed her mind and swung her support to Bowman.
“When the world changes, you have to be able to update your thinking,” Biaggi said at a news conference on June 5. “You have to be able to create a space where you say, ‘Perhaps that’s not the right way to go,’ even if that’s what you previously committed to.’”
The progressive star power began to coalesce around Bowman at the same time Engel was struck by a series of embarrassing missteps. In May, a knock on the door of his home in Maryland – which he has previously listed as his primary residence – from a reporter at The Atlantic revealed that Engel had been absent from his district during the height of New York’s coronavirus crisis.
“They’re trying to make a phony issue out of nothing. The bottom line here is what kind of a job have I done?,” Engel said on Monday before explaining he quarantined in Maryland “because the place near Washington is bigger and my wife and I in our apartment in New York could not both quarantine at the same time.”
But Engel’s more damaging gaffe, captured on tape, came a few weeks later, when he was caught by a live microphone asking Bronx borough president Rubén Díaz Jr. for an opportunity to speak at a press conference about anti-racist protests in the city.
“If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” Engel told Díaz – twice – after being informed there wouldn’t be time.
The video made national headlines and was cast by Bowman’s campaign and its allies as a neat, 12-second distillation of the case against not only Engel, but a complacent Democratic establishment.
“That’s why we were critical of him prior to that moment for being absent during the pandemic, that’s why we’ve been critical of him for living in Maryland for 27 of the 31 years he’s been in office while his district has suffered,” Bowman said of the incident in an interview days before early voting began in New York. “We know because the people throughout the district have told us that he hasn’t been here.”
Engel rejected the criticism, which has been a centerpiece of Bowman’s campaign, and invoked Clinton’s late endorsement.
“You think Hillary Clinton would endorse me if I wasn’t around?,” Engel said. “She endorsed me because she knows I’m always around and I always do good work.”
Engel is the co-dean of New York’s House delegation, along with retiring Rep. Nita Lowey. Over three decades in office, he has risen through the ranks to become a powerful figure in the Democratic caucus and has described himself as a member of Pelosi’s “kitchen cabinet.” Engel’s more hawkish foreign policy views have often put him crosswise with progressives, but his assignments on the Hill, where he is also a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, underscore his influence.
Bowman made his name in the Bronx by working to found a public middle school called the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action during former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s time in office, when public schools were being squeezed by city policy weighted to favor new charter schools.
“Before I started the public school, I was the dean of students for the High School of Arts and Technology. And my job was to monitor metal detectors as black and Latino kids came into the school,” Bowman recalled. “So that’s what the school-to-prison pipeline looks like: when you’re treating children as if they already incarcerated.”
The school, Bowman said, was a success of “political imagination” and testament to a theory of policymaking “that targets the most vulnerable and creates something that wasn’t there before.”
The contest turns testy
As the race turns into its final stretch, Engel has turned a more critical eye on Bowman. His campaign website now includes a page dedicated to “The Bowman Record,” which seeks to cast his challenger as an outsider in the community, questions his party credentials and cites a fine imposed on Bowman for allowing another candidate, in 2017, to film part of an ad inside his school.
The candidates have also clashed more sharply during a recent series of candidate forums. During a debate last week, Engel quoted Georgia Rep. John Lewis, who has endorsed him, when the conversation turned to race, saying, “We may have all come here on different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat together. We as Americans are all in the same boat together.”
Engel had used the line during a previous forum. This time, Bowman shot back in frustration.
“African Americans came here on slave ships. We were shackled and chained. We’re the only people on this land that actually existed on this land as property. As capital. When you say we’re in the same boat, we’re not in the same boat,” Bowman said, before talking in more detail about “institutional racism,” police violence, and other enduring racial disparities.
Even before protests swept through the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd, Bowman had spoken frequently about his own experiences being harassed and physically targeted by police, beginning in his childhood.
“I’ve literally had the s*** kicked out of me by cops,” Bowman told CNN last week. “And it happens to people of color, particularly black males, multiple times in their lives as well. And I’ve had cops throw me against the wall and scrape my face on the ground and hit me in the back with a night stick and stuff like that – and that happened when I was 11 years old.”
At the conclusion of another candidate forum, Engel suggested that Bowman is an interloper in the district and sought to turn his rival’s alliance with Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez against him.
“Mr. Bowman, nobody knows you. Nobody knew you from anything you’ve done in the community. You haven’t been around,” Engel said during a tense exchange a little more than two weeks before the June 23 primary. But it was his next line that, again, raised eyebrows.
After suggesting Bowman was, in effect, a creation of Justice Democrats, Engel – without saying her name – addressed the Ocasio-Cortez endorsement.
“This is not a dictatorship, this is a democracy. We shouldn’t have one person, from on high – even though she’s a colleague of mine – think that she can anoint whoever is elected to Congress,” he said of the first-term House member.
Asked about the charge, Bowman began laughing before Engel’s words could be read back in full.
“My reaction right now is what I was thinking (at the time),” Bowman said. “I mean, what makes AOC a dictator? He’s gotten endorsements as well. From many people. Are they dictators? I think it captured how out of touch he is and how disconnected he is. It was an absurd claim.”
The stakes heighten as early voting begins
The primary’s sprawling endorsement wars have taken a number of unexpected turns as Election Day nears.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who was listed as a backer on Engel’s website, hedged when a reporter asked him about the race. After the incident, his name was removed from the site’s list of endorsements. Guy Cecil, the chair of Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC, tweeted his support for Bowman late last week. A day later, The New York Times editorial board offered the same, writing that the district needed “new energy.” Warren endorsed Bowman on Tuesday morning.
On Sunday night, with national attention on the race growing, Engel got a boost of his own, when Clyburn and California Rep. Adam Schiff announced they were supporting the incumbent. He also continues to have the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus’ political arm.
The race has also become increasingly expensive. Bowman’s late run of endorsements helped fuel a surge of new donations. According to his campaign, he raised $750,000 in the first 15 days of June – nearly matching his total going back to the beginning of the campaign.
A joint independent expenditure group run by Justice Democrats and the progressive Working Families Party, is now expected to spend more than the initial $500,000 it pledged in support of Bowman, and Joe Sanberg, the entrepreneur and founder of Working Hero, a progressive organization, announced plans to raise money for the challenger. Lesser known outside groups supporting Engel, who held a significant fundraising lead for most of the year, have already spent around $1 million combined – a number that is also expected to rise in the coming days. A large chunk of the expenditures on Engel’s behalf have come from the Democratic Majority for Israel’s political arm, the same group that ran ads against Sanders early this year in the presidential primary.
For progressives, too, the stakes stretch out well beyond the borders of the 16th district.
A Bowman victory could help reset a troubling narrative that has dogged the movement since 2015 and 2016. Sanders and others on the left have consistently struggled to win over older African American voters and suburbanites, even as they – and Sanders in particular – improved their standing with Latino voters. If Bowman succeeds, he will at the very least have need to break even in the wealthier, largely white parts of the district, especially in Westchester.
Bowman campaign manager Luke Hayes, a native of the district who volunteered for Engel’s campaign in 2000, said he believes defeating the incumbent could force Democrats to reconsider their appeals across the board.
“A lot of people are pissed and s***-out-of-luck when it comes to employment, health care and all that,” Hayes told CNN. “Maybe they don’t join (the Democratic Socialists of America), but there’s still anger and frustration with capitalism and its failings, and our government’s role in not addressing those failings. This district can really show that this is a message that resonates with everyone.”
Still, unseating members of Congress with decades of seniority and influence in the caucus, even if they’re perceived by some as having lost touch with their evolving districts, is a rare accomplishment. Bowman got a boost when another progressive challenger, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, dropped out of the race earlier this month – a decision brokered in part by the Working Families Party’s New York leadership – and helped clear the way for progressives rally around Bowman.
Sochie Nnaemeka, the Working Families Party’s New York state director, was at the center of those discussions. She acknowledged the difficult road still ahead for Bowman – and the potential that the crises dominating the city and country right now exist are an electoral wild card as voting begins.
“Crises can be incumbent protection plans because people want security in a moment where it feels like everything’s erupting,” Nnaemeka said. “But crises can also be a moment of tremendous possibility and potential.”
CNN’s MJ Lee contributed to this report.