Jamaal Bowman Set to Oust Rep. Eliot Engel in Major Progressive Power Grab

As votes roll in, progressives in New York state are now poised to win a slew of primary victories.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 17:  Former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman greets people outside a subway station on June 17, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Bowman is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee whose district includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County in next week's primary. (Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)
Former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman greets people outside a subway station on June 17, 2020 in the Bronx. Bowman is challenging incumbent New York Rep. Eliot Engel. Photo: Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

In what looks to be a major victory for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal from the Bronx, is set to oust Rep. Eliot Engel — the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee — in the New York primary.

“Eliot Engel — and I’ll say his name once — used to say that he was a thorn in the side of Donald Trump,” Bowman said in a de facto victory speech on Tuesday night. “But you know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anything else? A black man with power.”

Despite a last-ditch effort to save the hawkish Democrat, including an endorsement by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Bowman came away with a 24-point lead early Wednesday in the primary for New York’s 16th Congressional District — which includes portions of the Bronx and Westchester County, and the town of New Rochelle — pending mail-in ballots. Pro-Israel groups also scrambled to save the 16-term incumbent, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on his reelection, including a TV ad that attacked Bowman for failing to pay some of his state taxes over the years. This was Engel’s first competitive primary challenge since 2000.

Bowman’s primary challenge really began picking up steam when protests against police brutality erupted nationwide starting in May. The 44-year-old insurgent ran primarily on Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and other policies addressing issues of racial and economic justice. Though his focus was on domestic issues, he did criticize Engel over his deference to military contractors and certain foreign policy positions, including his support for the Iraq War. Bowman, who supports defunding the police and repealing the 1994 crime bill (which Engel backed), drew on his own experiences with police violence as a black man and teenager in the Bronx.

The protests lent momentum to a number of progressive candidates in New York on Tuesday. Though full results won’t come in until mail-in ballots are counted, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez handily defeated her Wall Street-backed opponent, Mondaire Jones appears to be the Democratic favorite in another House race, and left-wing challengers in state legislative races are all ahead as of early Wednesday morning. It’s also a big primary night for Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez to run in 2018 and which heavily backed Bowman.

An internal poll from early May showed Engel at 43 percent and Bowman at 13 percent. But, in the final stretch of the race, and amid the protests against police brutality, Bowman won a surge of endorsements including from neighboring representative Ocasio-Cortez, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the New York Times editorial board, and Rep. Katie Porter of California. He also won endorsements from high-profile progressive groups like the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, and Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a fellow local educator who dropped out of the race earlier this month after landing in that same poll at 1 percent.

“If successful, Jamaal will be the first candidate elected to Congress from this latest movement uprising for racial justice,” said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats. “He’s assembling the ‘Obama’ coalition in the 2008 primary of people of color, young people, and older white liberals but grounded in a deeply progressive ideology.”

Engel, who is white and has been in the House since 1989, was backed by much of the Democratic establishment, including the Congressional Black Caucus’s political arm, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Whip James Clyburn, Democratic Caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries, and House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Adam Schiff. Just a week before Election Day, Clinton threw her support behind the incumbent, making her first Democratic primary endorsement in a House race this cycle. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer initially held off on endorsing Engel, telling reporters that he was focused on Senate races, before officially announcing his support when it became clear Bowman was a threat.

A Republican Super PAC also got involved, funneling $100,000 to an outside effort boosting his reelection bid, The Intercept reported last week. Instead of spending on the race directly, Americans for Tomorrow’s Future went through another Super PAC, Democratic Majority for Israel, to broadcast the negative Bowman ad. DMFI also spent heavily against Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary earlier this year. The spending prompted Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party to boost spending on Bowman’s behalf, dropping another $250,000-plus before Election Day. The New York Working Families Party also played a major role in negotiating Ghebreghiorgis’s exit from the race and the endorsement of Bowman.

Engel’s campaign had faced a series of setbacks in the weeks leading up to the primary. Earlier this month, when addressing a crowd regarding anti-police brutality unrest, he was caught over a hot mic saying: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Before the remarks went viral, he had faced backlash over his absence in the district during the pandemic, including getting caught lying about being at local Covid-19 relief events.

New York Reps. Yvette Clarke and Greg Meeks also had to fend off progressive primary challengers. Clarke, who has represented the Brooklyn-based 9th Congressional District since 2013, is significantly ahead in her rematch against a divided primary field, including Adem Bunkeddeko, who almost unseated her in 2018. In the 5th Congressional District, which covers Queens and a small portion of Nassau County, Meeks was reelected by a large margin. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, is leading by fewer than 1,000 votes in a rematch against Suraj Patel. Patel, a hotel executive and Obama campaign alum, ran on Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, as well as issues of criminal justice reform.

In the 15th Congressional District, Ritchie Torres took an early lead over Rubén Díaz Sr., a pro-Trump Democrat with a history of making homophobic and sexist comments, in a race that had prompted fears of vote splitting. Samelys López, who was backed by Ocasio-Cortez and most of the state’s progressive infrastructure, was in fourth place early Wednesday. The Voter Protection Project was the largest outside spender to support Torres, dropping nearly $500,000 on TV, mail, digital, and texting campaigns.

At the state and local level, Jabari Brisport, a Democratic Socialists of America activist and public school teacher, appears poised to win the primary for an open Brooklyn state Senate seat over the machine-backed candidate. Another DSA candidate, Zohran Mamdani for Assembly in Queens, had a decent lead Tuesday night as results came in.

“The rage and mourning we’ve seen in the streets is making itself felt in elections from New York to Kentucky,” Working Families Party National Director Maurice Mitchell said in a statement. “A remarkable cadre of candidates — Charles Booker, Jamaal Bowman, and Mondaire Jones —  has gained momentum in recent weeks because they are speaking to people’s pain and hunger for transformational change. Win or lose, these Black progressive candidates are expanding the scope of the possible and laying the ground for the future of our work.”

Bowman’s tentative victory would mark the fourth Justice Democrats’ candidate to unseat an incumbent since 2018, when Ocasio-Cortez defeated Queens machine boss Joe Crowley, who was also regularly floated as the next potential speaker of the House. This time, Ocasio-Cortez faced her own primary challenger in the first test of her congressional career and won reelection to her seat in a landslide. She won 73 percent of the vote, compared to her opponent’s 20 percent, according to the New York Times.

Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former CNBC contributor, challenged Ocasio-Cortez from the right in the 14th Congressional District primary. Her campaign, which was bankrolled by some of  Wall Street’s most prominent names and a Super PAC funded by her husband, investment banker Stephen Dizard, focused on Ocasio-Cortez’s national profile, accusing the representative of not being focused on the needs of her constituents. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful conservative lobbying group that usually endorses Republican candidates, threw its support behind the former anchor. The Ocasio-Cortez campaign reported having its best fundraising day yet, raising $170,000 with an average donation of $24.52, after emailing supporters about Caruso-Cabrera loaning her own campaign about $1 million.

Caruso-Cabrera, who was a registered Republican until a few years ago, positioned herself as a moderate, pro-business Democrat in the race while using GOP talking points against Ocasio-Cortez. She attacked Ocasio-Cortez for being “out of touch” with the district, saying that she “doesn’t know what it takes to put food on the table and to put a roof over the head of a family.” Ocasio-Cortez took on multiple jobs after graduating college to help her family make ends meet, working 18-hour days to supplement her mother’s income as a housecleaner and bus driver. As Business Insider reported, Caruso-Cabrera lived in a high-priced apartment in Trump International Hotel and Tower in Manhattan for years.

In a debate earlier this month, she went after Ocasio-Cortez for being the lone House Democrat to oppose a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package. As the lawmaker has previously explained, she could not “stomach” voting for the legislation because it provided crumbs for the working-class people most impacted by the pandemic while giving unprecedented corporate bailout funds for a range of industries. Her district, which covers some of the most diverse districts in the country in Queens and the Bronx, became an epicenter of the pandemic.

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