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Progressive Middle School Principal Announces Run Against Bronx Democrat

Jamaal Bowman, the founder and principal of a public middle school in the Bronx, is running to unseat Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). Engel has served in Congress since 1989. (Photo: Jamaal Bowman for Congress)

Jamaal Bowman, the founder and principal of a public middle school in the Bronx, launched a progressive challenge against Rep. Eliot Engel, a 16-term Democrat representing New York’s 16th Congressional District, in the 2020 election.

Bowman is the second primary challenger this election cycle recruited and endorsed by Justice Democrats, the left-wing group that played a key role in the election of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a neighboring district in the Bronx and Queens.

In his announcement video, Bowman, who is African American, targets Engel’s past votes for the 1994 crime bill, deregulating Wall Street, the Iraq War, and then-President George W. Bush’s controversial education law, the No Child Left Behind Act. The two-minute spot features footage of Engel speaking in support of the Iraq War and the crime bill on the House floor.

Bowman promises instead to fight for “Medicare for All,” tuition-free public college, a Green New Deal, criminal justice reform and the devolution of public school control to local communities.

“It’s time to build a new America ― a new America that taps into its unlimited potential, a new America that leverages the brilliance of children and people from diverse backgrounds,” Bowman says. “That’s the America I want to be a part of, the America I want for my children and grandchildren.”

Bowman joins another progressive challenger seeking to unseat Engel, special education teacher Andom Ghebreghiorgis.

But only Bowman boasts the backing of Justice Democrats, a scrappy addition to the progressive firmament formed by alumni of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid.

The announcement from Bowman, 43, comes just a few days after Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old human rights attorney, declared her candidacy against Rep. Henry Cuellar, the eight-term Democrat representing Texas’ 28th Congressional District, with the support of Justice Democrats.

After Cisneros’ announcement, Justice Democrats immediately flexed its fundraising muscles. The group leveraged its considerable email list and social media following to raise $100,000 for Cisneros in the first 48 hours of her candidacy.

In some ways though, the bid to unseat Engel, 72, carries greater risks than Cisneros’ challenge against Cuellar. Cuellar has a long record of conservative votes on abortion rights, immigration and gun safety that puts him fundamentally at odds with the Democratic mainstream.

Engel has hardly been a progressive trailblazer. But compared with Cuellar, he is far closer to the typical Democratic member of Congress. He expressed regret for his Iraq War vote as far back as 2007, and he is a co-sponsor of single-payer health care legislation in the House. (Prior to running for Congress, he was even a public school educator, like Bowman.)

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) expressed support for Engel on Tuesday.

“Eliot Engel has done a very good job, I have a lot of faith in him,” Schumer said at a press conference on Capitol Hill.

As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, Engel is one of the most powerful members of Congress. And his committee’s work investigating, among other things, President Donald Trump’s relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin could provide him with potent fodder on the primary campaign trail.

Of course, Engel’s leadership of the House’s foreign policy panel is part of what has elicited the ire of some progressive activists as well.

Engel, who is Jewish, has been one of the more vocal critics of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He demanded an apology from Omar for allegedly invoking a “vile anti-Semitic slur” in comments she made in March about U.S. policy toward Israel. (Engel nonetheless did not acquiesce to Republican demands that Omar be stripped of her committee post.)

Omar was under fire for remarks she made during a discussion of the relative inattention that Palestinian human rights receive in Washington. The first-term congresswoman told a progressive audience that she wanted to “talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

Omar and her defenders claimed the comments were merely an accurate reflection of what pro-Israel advocates ask of her, and they accused those who censured her of trying to silence criticism of the Israeli government. They also noted the lack of similar outrage over anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant comments from Republican members of Congress.

Bowman does not mention Middle East policy in his announcement video. Depending on the stance he stakes out, however, the primary could become another front in the proxy battle within the Democratic Party over how to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Engel, who has raised over $1 million from pro-Israel groups over his career ― more than any other sector — has a record as an Israel hawk, albeit a more liberal one than his Republican colleagues. He opposed the Iran nuclear deal prior to its enactment, but, unlike Trump, he supported staying in the accord once it took effect.

In other respects, he has aligned with the Trump administration’s approach to the conflict. He supported Trump’s May 2018 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv, a step that many experts maintain has jeopardized peace in the region. And in January, he joined Trump in recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, a territory captured in 1967 whose sovereignty remains a matter of international dispute.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, is the increasingly rare white representative of a majority-minority district. (Photo: Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

Bowman almost certainly comes into the race with lower name recognition than Engel.

But he is not entirely unknown. He made waves locally when he spoke out against state standardized tests in 2016, even though his school, the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (CASA), posted the biggest year-over-year improvements in English and math scores in New York City. The school takes a holistic approach to education, boasting a robust arts program, a curriculum that celebrates black history all year long and a less punitive approach to addressing student misbehavior.

The public educator’s path to the Democratic nomination likely runs through the communities of color that together make up a majority of residents in the district. New York’s 16th stretches from northern neighborhoods in the Bronx to the diverse cities and suburbs of lower Westchester County.

It has become increasingly uncommon for white lawmakers to represent congressional districts where whites are in the minority. The two Justice Democrats-backed candidates to oust Democratic incumbents during the 2018 election cycle were both people of color taking on white congressmen in majority-minority districts: Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts.

Like Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley, Bowman also overcame economic hardship. He was raised by a working-class, single mother in the Bronx, where he grew up in public housing and later, a rent-controlled apartment. Bowman now lives with his wife and three kids in the city of Yonkers in Westchester County.

Ocasio-Cortez also benefited from an energized base of supporters in a district where many less motivated Democrats did not show up. She received fewer total votes than the losing candidate in a neighboring district, but still prevailed against then-Rep. Joseph Crowley.

Thanks to New York’s byzantine electoral system, which seems designed to depress voter turnout, Bowman could enjoy a similar advantage.

New York’s Democratic presidential primary, which is likely to be hotly contested, is due to take place on April 28, 2020.

But the state’s congressional primaries are scheduled for June 23. Assuming that the lower-profile June primary draws a smaller crowd than the presidential contest two months prior, Bowman stands to gain from the support of a more motivated base.

Even if he falls short, Bowman’s bid is likely to succeed in making Engel more accountable to his constituents, according to Mike Casca, a progressive strategist and former spokesman for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“Not every race is going to give us the next AOC, but competitive primaries will consistently move our party closer to the people – something we desperately need,” said Casca, who has not endorsed in the race. “Incumbents with a record to defend shouldn’t fear them, and party leadership should applaud the courage of young people speaking up for change.”

Igor Bobic contributed reporting.

This article has been updated to include Schumer’s comment.

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