Eliot Engel first won his seat in Congress in 1988, in a primary that helped end the old corrupt Bronx machine. Today, according to the official call by the Associated Press, he lost his June primary to newcomer Jamaal Bowman, in a race that became a national symbol of the rise of a new wave of progressives.
A lot is happening in Engel and Bowman’s sliver of the Bronx and Westchester—and a lot is changing. The New York district was home to the state’s first reported coronavirus case, in March, but it’s also home to neighborhoods as different as Riverdale and Co-Op City, a long-standing Jewish community with a burgeoning population of color that has shown little interest in waiting for change. “You know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anything else? A Black man with power,” Bowman said during his primary-night speech. I asked him why when we spoke shortly after the primary. He told me Trump is “a racist, and a fascist, and he has benefited from white supremacy his entire life. And when you carry that ideology—white supremacy not just as skin color, but as mindset, as ideology—when you benefit from that, you can’t tolerate a Black man or a person of color with power who is not afraid to speak up for themselves, to speak truth to power, to engage in the community in the way that might be undermining to you.”
Bowman ran for more than a year in what had been a crowded field, slowly building off his reputation as a popular local middle-school principal to gain support. Engel had the backing of all the local Democratic forces. Then the race, like so much else, changed with the pandemic. In May, I rang the doorbell of Engel’s house in a Washington, D.C., suburb a day after he advertised being part of a mask handout in his district, and he answered the door. It turned out that he hadn’t been back to his district in months, though he told me, “I’m in both places.”
By then, other issues were gaining prominence, accentuated by the pandemic—eventually exploding into the district’s own Black Lives Matter protests. Bowman joined several marches, and said he would keep joining protesters when he’s in office. And if he does get to Congress, as is now expected, he said he’s ready to be part of a newer, more aggressive group of progressives. Should there be Tea Party–style shutdowns led by progressives, for example? “We’ll see,” he told me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Edward-Isaac Dovere: What does your win, and the others, tell us about where politics are in this country? Is this just a couple of results among a few thousand Democratic primary voters in New York, or do you think there is something else going on?
Jamaal Bowman: I think there’s something else going on. I’m a first-time candidate running against a 31-year established corporate Democrat, if you will. That indicates a yearning and a passion for change and fresh voices and fresh ideas. People are starting to realize that the system has failed them—and people have known that for a long time the system has failed them and is failing them. And in order to change the system, we need to get the right people into office. Even the protests and the process across the country, it’s a clear example that people want something new and different and fresh, and they are sick and tired. Enough’s enough, and they’re ready to hit the streets and risk their health during a pandemic to demand change.
Dovere: Was that tapping into the same frustration with the status quo as Donald Trump in 2016, or is it specific to progressive politics?
Bowman: We run on our values, our working-class roots and experiences, and on policies that the majority of Americans—whether they identify as progressive or liberal or not—agree with and care about: universal health care, fully funding our public schools, environmental justice, criminal-justice reform. Poll after poll shows that the majority of the American people care about these things. What’s different—different between a candidate like me and a candidate like Trump—is that my experience is rooted in serving in the community for the last 20 years, a community that has been mostly ignored and disenfranchised by a political and economic system that Trump is a part of over the course of my lifetime. So that’s the major difference. He ran as a reality-TV wealthy white man in this country. My background is: I’m a Black man in America, victim of police brutality, victim of institutional racism, working-class from working-class roots. That connection to the people in this district is what galvanized them to come out in pretty high numbers to support our campaign.
Dovere: The issue of Eliot Engel’s residency became a big one during this race, particularly after I reported finding him at his home in Maryland when he said he was at events in his district. Why did that matter?
Bowman: What you discovered just revealed and confirmed that he’s not here. When you live in NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority], for example, and your front door has been broken and your mailboxes have been broken and the elevator has been broken for four years, and whenever it gets fixed, it gets broken again, and you can’t get maintenance done in your apartment, and you can’t find fresh organic food at the local supermarket, and your schools are underfunded, it makes it worse that your congressperson is not physically living in the district and not engaging and connecting and leading on the issues that impact your quality of life every day.
Dovere: How much do you think the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd changed your race?
Bowman: I shared personal stories of police brutality and police harassment throughout the campaign, prior to this. I was 11 years old when I was initially brutalized by the police, just for horse-playing with my friends and not responding to the police in the way they wanted me to. I was thrown against the wall, handcuffed, had my face dragged on the ground, had a nightstick to my back because of this incident, only to be let go without charge—as an 11-year-old. There were multiple times I was pulled over by the police, handcuffed, taken into custody, only to be released without charge. This happened at least two or three times in my life. I have been very transparent with those things prior to the George Floyd murder. After the murder, I did a direct-to-camera video and I was crying, I was sobbing. I just want to share my feelings in that moment. I had people in a district telling me, you know, how my voice was needed more now than ever at this moment in this country’s history. I hate that it took for the world to see the murder of another Black man.
Dovere: But so far, we haven’t seen many substantial results happen, and the protests have mostly faded. Would you call them a success?
Bowman: I don’t know if I would agree that we haven’t seen results. One could argue that our victory is a result. There were protests all throughout this district. I attended many of those. And I got a chance to speak at many of those. We still have the presidential election, and how are we going to organize in support of Joe Biden to help him get elected? And how are we going to continue to organize to work with President Joe Biden and also hold him accountable to what the American people are demanding at this moment?
Dovere: You said in your primary-night speech, “You know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anything else? A Black man with power.” What do you mean?
Bowman: Well, because he’s a racist, and a fascist, and he has benefited from white supremacy his entire life. And when you carry that ideology—white supremacy not just as skin color, but as mindset, as ideology—when you benefit from that, you can’t tolerate a Black man or a person of color with power who is not afraid to speak up for themselves, to speak truth to power, to engage in the community in the way that might be undermining to you. That’s what it is. And when I say “Black man,” I also mean Black people and people of color and white allies who are done with institutional racism. The collective power that we possess is what’s going to ultimately defeat Trump both as a president, but also as an idea—the idea of Trump or someone else coming along at the end, trying to leverage reality-TV stardom and wealth based on a rigged system to win the presidency.
Dovere: You also said “the system is rotten” because of the people, like Jeff Bezos, who’ve been increasing their wealth while the pandemic economy has left so many others in need. What’s the argument for trying to get into the system through Congress and not just tearing it down from the outside?
Bowman: It’s about political imagination and a vision centered on the most vulnerable in our society. It’s an inside-out strategy: You work within the system to change the system, while also engaging those outside the system more in the grass roots to craft the right policy and procedures and build the right coalitions to make transformative change throughout the entire system. I’m going to be the kind of congressperson where I’m going to be at rallies with the people, fighting for justice and being present and showing them that they have a fighter and a champion in Congress with them and for them.
Dovere: Would you want to see the progressives in Congress act more like the Freedom Caucus has, holding up compromises? Would you support shutdowns?
Bowman: I don’t know. That’s a bridge we cross when we get there, right? We’ll see. Who knows what’s going to happen? But in terms of the day-to-day work with my colleagues—that’s the work. The work is dialogue. The work is listening. The work is learning. The work is rooted in our values and meeting the needs of our constituents. And right now we have a system that doesn’t work for the majority of the country, and the country knows it.
Dovere: How different do you think the Democratic Party is from what Joe Biden thinks of it as?
Bowman: I don’t know. Our country is best when every person in this country feels valued and is a part of our democracy. And the Democratic Party—that’s the essence of what the Democratic Party should be. That’s the Democratic Party of FDR, LBJ, you know, really fighting for the working class and the poor and really trying to move civil rights and human rights and economic rights forward. I think there are aspects of the party that lost its way, and now we have corporate interests who are dictating how politicians are supposed to behave.
Dovere: You’ve won a primary against an incumbent in a district where the Democratic nominee is certain to win—which means it’s six months of the district being represented by a person who just lost. What are you going to do with that time?
Bowman: For me, that’s six months of building relationships within the district and building coalitions within the district and making our district a strong voice for democracy, racial and economic justice, and uplifting the voices of those in the working class and the poor.
Dovere: Are you going to put in an application for membership in the Squad?
Bowman: Absolutely. I’m going to submit it right away.