By Bill Gaston, a District Leader for the Bronxville Democratic Party
Jul. 22, 2020: No one saw it coming. Except for a few of us, that is.
Those of us who had met Jamaal Bowman and had heard his life story knew it was coming. Those of us who had canvassed for him on Mount Vernon street corners knew it was coming.
Bowman’s historic upset primary victory over 30-year Congressional incumbent Eliot Engel was no fluke. Across the country, a wave of younger, multiracial, progressive candidates won races against establishment Democrats on a platform of transformative and generational change.
It was a David beats Goliath moment: Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal from Yonkers, and a political unknown in the 16th Congressional district, had never run for office. His opponent had the backing of nearly the entire Democratic Party establishment, including Hillary Clinton, as well as scores of Westchester County elected officials.
Bowman was outspent 2-1 in the campaign, overcoming a $5 million blitz by several super PACs in the final week that failed to salvage Engel’s seat. Bowman won handily with 60% of the “in person” votes (with most of the absentee votes counted). Early tallies showed he carried all major demographic groups across the district.
How could Congressman Engel lose this election -- and so decisively --after 16 terms in office? The simple answer: he lost touch with his voters.
The demographic face of his district had also shifted. While Engel had risen to the top ranks of House leadership, becoming chair of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, his district had become majority-minority. He had grown aloof from many of his own constituents, particularly in underserved neighborhoods in the Bronx and Westchester, who hungered for new representation.
Jamaal Bowman, an educator and community activist, had cultivated grass roots networks with communities of color as well as multiracial social justice coalitions. Bowman’s success mirrored that of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose own stunning primary upset in 2018 over a 10-term incumbent in a neighboring district tapped into the same progressive energies. In a major boost to his campaign, AOC would endorse Bowman, as would Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
A second reason for Engel’s defeat: he was caught flat-footed by twin catastrophes. The first was the coronavirus, whose deadly epicenter has ravaged the district, disproportionately affecting African Americans. The second was the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and a surging Black Lives Matter movement. Bowman was a fixture at many of these gatherings in the Bronx and Westchester, including one in Bronxville, where he spoke eloquently about his mistreatment at the hands of the police, as well as the evils of militarism and systemic racism.
Meanwhile, during this unprecedented turmoil, a reporter discovered Engel holed up in his home in suburban Maryland, far from his district. Adding insult to injury, on a trip back to speak in the Bronx, Engel was captured on a hot mic uttering words that ultimately sealed his defeat: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
Congressman Engel might have escaped the damage of these unforced errors had not the political earth beneath his feet undergone a seismic shift. Progressives, after years of frustration and defeats to play-it-safe establishment Democrats, successfully flipped the script and chalked up a big win.
In delivering an early retirement to Congressman Engel, primary voters demanded change. In doing so, the voters punched Jamaal Bowman’s ticket to the general election in November, where he will be the clear favorite to be our next Representative. Our party and nation are headed in the right direction as a result of Bowman’s historic win.
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