Jamaal Bowman wasn’t supposed to win.
The 44-year-old black progressive candidate, a former middle-school principal, challenged a New York representative who’s been in Congress since before the fall of the Berlin Wall and who had the backing of some of the most powerful players in the Democratic Party. But if the initial results in his primary yesterday hold, he could soon be a presumptive congressman. Although officials haven’t yet counted each absentee ballot, election analysts have begun calling the race for Bowman, given his significant advantage so far over the incumbent, Eliot Engel.
Bowman’s lefty insurgency should sound familiar, two years after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s triumph over the local Democratic Party boss Joe Crowley in 2018. But his likely win is set against an extraordinary backdrop that has little precedent: a historic few weeks of civil unrest over the treatment of black Americans at the hands of the police, during a pandemic in which black Americans are suffering and dying at a disproportionate rate. The uprising directly fueled Bowman’s success, and produced a swell of energy and enthusiasm that led several other black progressives to triumph too. Their wins are the first electoral victories of the current protest movement, and progressives are counting on this electricity to continue coursing through the body politic until November.
“Democrats are more mobilized, more likely to give, and more energized” than they have been in a while, Daniel Gillion, a political-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Loud Minority: Why Protests Matter in American Democracy, told me. The protests “have pushed a sense of investment in politics,” Steve Israel, the former New York congressman and the onetime chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told me. They represent the continuation of an “entrepreneurial social-activist movement” that started after Donald Trump’s inauguration and will spill over into the general election, he says.
Bowman caught the attention of activists and progressives nationwide when, within days of George Floyd’s death last month, he became a fixture at the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the 16th district, which covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester County. Bowman often spoke during the campaign about living under New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy and how he was once jailed for allegedly failing to use his turn signal. His protest appearances generated a surge in social-media attention, which quickly translated to more volunteers, more donations, and more endorsements from progressive leaders such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Ocasio-Cortez. “It’s been this perfect storm of things that has catapulted us and created this tremendous momentum,” Bowman told me this week.
The nationwide movement apparently had the opposite effect for Engel, who was criticized for being absent from the district at the height of the COVID-19 crisis in New York City, and was later jeered after being overheard at a protest saying that he “wouldn’t care” about speaking at the event if he didn’t have a primary challenge. If the district’s absentee votes don’t upend the election, Bowman will likely coast to victory in November. (Although a candidate for the Conservative Party is running too, the district is extremely blue.)
New York politics in particular is experiencing a fundamental shift as a new and diverse generation of young people uproots the establishment, Israel told me. “Congressional seniority is yielding to political intensity,” said Israel, who as a congressman was a close ally of Nancy Pelosi and once oversaw the Democratic caucus’s messaging. Pelosi, among other party leaders, endorsed Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Those rules that I was taught—you wait your turn and pay your dues—have been rightfully cast aside by a resistance to Donald Trump that doesn’t believe we can afford to wait,” he added.
In New York’s 17th district, which includes Rockland County and parts of Westchester, the black attorney and activist Mondaire Jones won his six-way primary race to replace longtime Representative Nita Lowey, the chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Over in New York’s 15th district, Ritchie Torres, the Bronx’s first openly gay public official, defeated Rubén Díaz Sr., a pro-Trump Democrat and a Pentecostal minister with a long history of making homophobic remarks.
The past month of activism has increased the competitiveness of primaries far from New York too—galvanizing voters who might not otherwise have engaged in races, and stirring up funds for candidates who might not previously have enjoyed them. In a Virginia congressional race yesterday, Cameron Webb, a 37-year-old black physician, handily defeated his three primary opponents, including the race’s top fundraiser—a female combat veteran backed by EMILY’s List. The demonstrations also injected a massive jolt of energy into the Democratic Senate primary yesterday in Kentucky.
Before protests began in May, Charles Booker, a black progressive state lawmaker, was a low-funded underdog compared with Amy McGrath, the former fighter pilot who, like Engel, has the backing of the Democratic establishment. But Booker was also extremely active in local protests, demanding police accountability for the killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old who was fatally shot in a botched raid in Booker’s hometown of Louisville. In just the month of June, Booker’s campaign raised $3.8 million, a spokesperson told me, and by yesterday he’d nearly caught up to McGrath in the polls.
As of this afternoon, McGrath is leading Booker by about 7 percentage points, but ballots are still being counted and analysts haven’t yet called the race. Whether or not he wins, the demonstrations undoubtedly turned his fortunes around, Al Cross, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and a political columnist, told me. “If there was ever a candidate who caught the crest of a wave, it’s Charles Booker.”
After Sanders’s disappointing defeat in the presidential primaries, progressive victories this spring in Nebraska, Illinois, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania had given them reason to be hopeful down-ballot. But this week’s events are in some ways even more meaningful, as achievements for the Black Lives Matter movement overall and for those pushing to elect more lawmakers who know what it’s like to be black in America. “We are taking the protests to the ballot box, through our votes and through black candidates stepping up to run for office,” Quentin James, the founder and executive director of the Collective PAC, a political-action committee that recruits black progressive candidates, told me. “Our community is showing that we understand that if we want to change the laws, we must change the lawmakers.”
“Change is here, change is possible, and change is real,” Bowman told me this week. “The more we engage in our democracy—from protests to voting to running—the more likely change will happen.”
Protests are ongoing across the country, and activists plan to keep pushing for police reform—among other lefty causes—at the Democratic National Convention this summer. November is still months away. The pandemic is still raging. Both of those factors mean that progressives’ next task will be complicated: trying to bring the same energy to bear in the coming months as they did this week—not only to keep voters’ attention on individual races, but to help their broader crusade of yanking the Democratic Party to the left.