Former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman has toppled 16-term U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel in New York’s Democratic primary in another upset victory for the party’s insurgent wing.
A political novice who has never held public office before, Bowman, 44, was a progressive African American challenger who said Engel, the 73-year-old chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had lost touch with his economically and racially diverse district.
Bowman declared victory in the race on June 24, a day after the primary election. The Associated Press was able to call the race Friday after obtaining an absentee vote count that showed Engel narrowly ahead among votes received by mail, but not by nearly the margin necessary to overcome Bowman’s Election Day advantage.
Bowman earned his extraordinary win in a campaign season upended first by the coronavirus outbreak, then by protests over the death of George Floyd.
“I’m a Black man who was raised by a single mother in a housing project. That story doesn’t usually end in Congress. But today, that 11-year old boy who was beaten by police is about to be your next Representative,” Bowman said in a statement. Bowman said his campaign was anchored in the fight for racial and economic justice “and it resonated in every part of the district.”
Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, a progressive organization that backed Bowman, said in a statement, “This win proves that a Black man who survived poverty and police violence at 11 years old has the power to transform his community and country.”
Both candidates were unable to do traditional campaigning because of social distancing restrictions, but Bowman criticized Engel for staying at his home in Maryland as the pandemic turned his district in the Bronx and suburban Westchester County into one of the virus’s most deadly hunting grounds.
Engel said he was working on behalf of the district from Washington.
Then, after protests over Floyd’s death in Minnesota gave way to two nights of looting, Engel had a bad gaffe while appearing at a Bronx event where he joined other local politicians appealing for peace.
“If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said while pleading with the lead organizer for a chance to speak, in a comment picked up by a live microphone.
Engel, who is white, said he has “always believed that Black lives matter” and said his comments were taken out of context, but Bowman, who has spoken of his own experiences with police brutality, said they illustrated why the district needed new leadership.
By defeating Engel, Bowman replicated the success of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated another powerful New York City Democrat, Joe Crowley, in a neighboring congressional district two years ago.
"We started knocking on doors from the very beginning, and it was all about not politics as usual, but building deep authentic relationships with people throughout the distinct," Bowman said in an interview with NBC New York. He said he believes it's his background, coming from a working class family in housing projects and rent-stabilized apartments, that registered with voters.
The AP called the race after obtaining the absentee vote count from Westchester County. Votes cast by mail in the Bronx have yet to be released, but an AP analysis of absentee ballots counted so far indicated that Bowman’s lead from votes cast in person is too large for Engel to overcome.
Engel wished Bowman well in a statement released through a spokesman and said the district desperately needs resources from Washington “and we must continue to fight for them.”
"I want to thank the voters in New York's 16th District, who 16 times decided to renew my two-year contract and send me back to Washington," Engel said. "I never for a minute thought of this as my seat. It's the people's seat and it is a true honor that you put your trust in me to represent you.
The campaign was the latest proxy battle between the party’s progressive and pragmatic wings. Bowman was endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren while Engel picked up support from Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.
Bowman grew up in public housing in New York City. He was a teacher and school counselor for several years before becoming the founding principal of a Bronx middle school, the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action.
Candidates Chris Fink, Sammy Ravelo and Andom Ghebreghiorgis also appeared on the ballot, although Ghebreghiorgis withdrew from the race and endorsed Bowman.
The district is heavily Democratic, so the primary winner is virtually assured of victory in the general election in November.