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.”