Jamaal Bowman on His First Year in Congress

From the Capitol riot to budget negotiations, the first-term New York representative talks 2021.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images


Three days after he was sworn in to his first term as a U.S. House representative, Jamaal Bowman watched as the Capitol was stormed by a Trump-incited mob. It was the start of a very eventful year on the Hill. Bowman joins Ryan Grim to discuss his first 10 months in Congress and the battle over President Joe Biden’s budget reconciliation bill.

[Intro music.] 


Ryan Grim: Imagine spending your entire life not just outside of politics, but not really following national politics much on a day-to-day basis, because you’re busy working as a principal in the New York City public schools.

One day, after watching a bartender and community organizer take down a machine in a neighboring congressional district, you decide to launch your own long-shot primary against the chairman of a powerful committee who’s been serving in Congress for more than 30 years.

Then imagine that you win — and you arrive at orientation with two incoming freshmen who have been believers in the QAnon conspiracy, and may or may not be packing heat in the room with you. Then, just after you’ve been sworn in, the Capitol gets sacked by an angry mob.

Such has been the fate of Jamaal Bowman, a freshman congressman who represents Westchester and the Bronx. Bowman has made a Green New Deal for schools a top priority, and how much of it, if any, makes it into the major budget reconciliation bill still being finalized remains to be seen.

On election day in November 2020, I spent the day with Bowman as he went from precinct to precinct, and reflected on the transition from private figure to public official that he was going through.

It sounds trivial, but one of the first things a lot of new members of Congress worry about is finding an apartment in Washington — especially if, like Jamaal, they’re not rich.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman: So, I’m not moving my family to D.C., you know, so we’ll still have to pay our mortgage. Right? [Laughs.] So I gotta find an apartment. So I’ll have a mortgage payment and rent.

RG: And you have to pay for your apartment, right?

JB: Yes.

RG: It’s not covered by the — ?

JB: Yes, it’s not covered. Which — and it should be. I have my mortgage payment, and I’m gonna have to pay rent. I have my oldest son, I pay child support for him; he’s also in college. I have my own student loans. My wife has her student loans. Obviously utilities, and car, and gas, and all that. It’s just like — the middle class, the working poor, the poor can’t afford to run for Congress. And shit — when you win, what do you do then? You know? So it’s crazy.

RG: When did you first start thinking in terms that you could describe as political?

JB: I don’t know man. Probably junior high school. I used to listen to a lot of political music. You know, political hip hop. So like — I can play something for you right now.

[“Illegal Business” by Boogie Down Productions plays]

JB: So this is the music I listened to pretty much all throughout junior high school. Stuff with that sort of theme.

RG: Yeah.

JB: Yeah. While, like, sister being addicted to crack in real life and kids getting shot in real life, friends dealing drugs in real life. You know, you listen to music like that. And you know what’s happening in your family, and you see what’s going on in the world around you — it’s all political.

RG: How’s it feel to now be in a place where you can take that message and actually drive it somewhere, into the corridors of power?

JB: Well, ask me tomorrow, after we officially, officially win.

RG: That was election day nearly a year ago.

Joining us now to discuss what he’s been up to since is Rep. Jamaal Bowman.

Congressman, welcome to Deconstructed.

JB: Thanks for having me, brother. Appreciate it, man. Good to be with you.

RG: Yeah, you got it. And so what a lot of people might not know about you is that you did take a bit of a sojourn from the New York-New Jersey area and spent a little bit of time in West Virginia.

JB: Yes! [Laughs.]

RG: A long time ago. What was West Virginia like to you and did anything you learn there help you in these negotiations?

JB: [Laughs.]

RG: As the entire world is waiting on the word of a West Virginian.

JB: What was it like? It was a lot of mountains. West Virginia, the college team is called the Mountaineers. I see why. There’s a lot of mountains. And I didn’t learn much, man. I wanted to go away to school. I wanted to play football. The football team wasn’t very good. I didn’t have a good relationship with the coach. And I only spent a few months there, man, from like September to December — and then I got out of there.

But West Virginia was a bit more rural than I understood and was ready for as a kid from New York City. So I wasn’t there that long. I don’t think I learned much [laughs] that would help me in these negotiations. And that’s probably why we’re in the position we’re in right now.

RG: When you left, were you like: I’m done with this? Or was it when you got back home, you were like: There’s just no way I can go back for one or more semester there.

JB: Oh! No! When I left, I was like: I’m done. I mean, it wasn’t a West Virginia thing. I just wanted to be a bit closer to home. And I ended up at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, so that was good. I got to play there and be a train ride away.

Yeah, when I left, I was done. But it wasn’t just the fact that it was West Virginia. It was just a little bit further than I was ready for.

RG: Speaking of being out of your element. In New York City, you don’t meet many Republicans — or if you do meet Republicans, they’re a different type of Republican than the one that you’re interacting with now in Washington.

What’s it been like learning about this kind of other half of the country? And what have been the moments interacting with Republicans that have stuck out with you the most?

JB: Yeah, man, I mean, you watch them on the new, and you watch them on TV, and you read about them in the history books, but to meet Marjorie Taylor Greene in person —

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene: According to Q, many in our government are actively worshipping Satan, or who they call Moloch.

JB: — and Rep. Lauren Boebert —

Rep. Lauren Boebert: Don’t come knocking on my door with your Fauci Ouchie! You leave us the hell alone! [Cheers.]

JB: It’s really bizarre. You almost don’t think that there are people who really believe these things, you know?

One of the first things that happened was this argument around are firearms allowed on the House floor?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: We had members of Congress who want to bring guns on the floor and have threatened violence on other members of Congress.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: One just tried to bring a gun on the floor of the House. The moment you bring a gun onto the House floor in violation of rules, you put everyone around you in danger.

RG: That’s right.

JB: That was one of the first discussions. And because those two in particular from Georgia were adamant about bringing firearms to the floor, I now have to walk to a metal detector every single day when I go to vote, just to make sure Republicans don’t bring firearms to the floor. Right?

Add on top of that potential or possible collusion between Republicans in the House and insurrectionists, that’s complete insanity, in my opinion.

And then you’ve seen posters of — and, again, not to pick on those two, because trust me, there’s enough craziness to go around. But you know, I think I saw a post of Marjorie Taylor Greene holding an assault rifle with a picture of the Squad behind her.

And then Lauren Boebert did an ad with a 9 mm and talked about her right to bear arms. So that kind of stuff is crazy. But then you have Rep. Madison Cawthorn saying things in town halls about: I wouldn’t want to take up arms against my fellow citizen, but if things continue to go in this direction —

Rep. Madison Cawthorn: If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, it’s going to lead to one place: that’s bloodshed. And I will tell you, as much as I am willing to defend our liberty at all costs, there’s nothing that I dread doing more than having to pick up arms against a fellow American.

JB: You know, it’s really, really scary stuff and, as a Black man, it’s even scarier, because it’s like, I would probably be one of the first targeted by people like them and people who believe like them. So it’s been pretty crazy, man. Pretty crazy.

RG: So, meanwhile, you guys still have the majority. You’re possibly in the homestretch —

JB: Slim. Very slim, man. Very slim.

RG: Slim. As slim as it can be.

JB: Oh man.

RG: And so as Biden said the other day, everybody’s president because everybody gets to have a veto over this agenda. The thing you’ve been pushing the hardest, from your campaign up till now, is this the Green New Deal for schools? Where does that stand? And are you — how far have you told the president you’re willing to go to make sure that something along those lines is in?

JB: So right now, we are still in negotiation. It doesn’t look good. We were calling for $1.43 trillion investments in public school infrastructure, and buildings, and jobs, and redline communities and all of that good stuff, which would be $400-and-some-odd billion per year. What we got out of the first round of markups and in Labor was $86 billion, without the green language that needs to be a part of it to make sure we’re reaching our climate goals. And that was more in alignment with Bobby Scott’s RASA legislation than our piece of legislation.

We’re trying to do something pretty creative now, which is work with Lisa Blunt Rochester, because she has a bill that’s looking to retrofit all public buildings that would include public schools. So we’re working with her team to make sure the language is focused on electrification, which is a key piece to that, and we’re trying to add more money there.

So, right now it’s still up in the air. Public schools were one of my priorities for sure, and school construction — but also childcare was a big one as well. And because we were willing to vote down the BIF, that’s how we even got into the position to negotiate. So that’s a good thing.

But we’ll see where we are. I mean, this is like an hour-to-hour thing. I just got to Washington. We’re gonna have a meeting tonight with Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark. And I’m sure we’ll have some updates on where things are at that point.

RG: And do you have a sense, right now, of where your line is? That if you get pushed too far, you’re out?

JB: So you mentioned public schools, you mentioned childcare, there’s also housing, particularly in this district. Housing is a big one. So I don’t have a sense, is the short answer to what’s going to push me out; I want to see the actual details of the plan first, before I can say where I would be on it. And right now we don’t have those full details.

RG: By the way, speaking of schools, did you see the “Dads on Duty” video the other day?

JB: Yes, I did.

Norah O’Donnell: When the SOS went up at a troubled school, who answered the call? A bunch of D-A-Ds.

RG: What was your reaction to that? Is there any way to scale that up? Describe it for people who didn’t —?

JB: So there was a video being circulated of kids fighting each other in what looked like the school cafeteria —

Steve Hartman: Over the course of three days, 23 students were arrested for fighting.

JB: Apparently, at this Louisiana school, there had been just a series of incidents throughout the week, throughout several weeks. To your question, dads in the community decided to pretty much occupy the school, and work in the school, and engage with students in the school to help curb some of the violence that is taking place.

SH: Your qualifications are?

Michael LaFitte: We’re dads! We decided the best people who can take care of our kids are who? Are us!

JB: I think it’s a great idea. I think it’s the perfect example of communities supporting their schools and school system. What stops things like that from happening more often is the bureaucracy within schools and school districts. Usually, you have to jump through 10,000 hoops to allow anyone in the building. So a shoutout to that principal in that school district for allowing this to happen.

But honestly, my first reaction was just that I was heartbroken that the kids were fighting so much. That, to me, just is indicative of how we are not doing a better job of meeting the needs of kids in our schools, period.

RG: Mhmm.

JB: We’re not meeting their social and emotional needs, their mental health needs, we didn’t open up with the Covid trauma in mind. And we see kids like that acting out across the country. And one could argue, it’s like: Do we want more? The dads are dads, they’re not cops, but what that communicates is: We have to contain and control this environment as opposed to create a nurturing environment, which will make kids less likely to engage in violence in the first place.

RG: Well the violence prevention programs and money that you’ve been pushing for kind of flow into that.

JB: Yep.

RG: Is that on the chopping block, too? What’s your sense of whether or not that’s going to get in? And what kind of violence prevention — intervention — is it?

JB: Yeah, I haven’t heard that it is. So that’s good. I hope it remains. What I’ve heard is we’re going to do a better job of funding credible messengers and grassroots, community-based organizations that provide mentorship that interrupt violence and that engage at-risk youth in a way that kind of meets them where they are. That’s all incredible. I think, in addition to that, there really needs to be a clinical mental health component, there needs to be a vocational component, and there needs to be an education component — so true wraparound services for kids that have been identified as at-risk for whatever reason.

I mean, here, not in my district, but there’s a program in New York City called the C.A.R.E.S. program, where they specialize in serving children who struggle with co-occurring disorders, so kids with both mental health disorders and substance abuse disorders, who have presented with depression, anxiety, bipolar, suicidal ideation, psychosis, and they specialize in serving this group of students. And they just have incredible, incredible results with clinicians working hand-in-glove with teachers and in small class sizes, providing the mental support they need. We need more of that in multiple schools, and we need more of that in community-based organizations as well. And part of my job is to help with the implementation of these resources when they come into my district, so that we take a true holistic approach.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: Speaking to young people, I also wanted to ask you about the Civilian Climate Corps, which is the project the Sunrise Movement has really made its kind of flagship demand, which is we would spend billions of dollars and model it after FDR’s CCC, and it would create one- or two-year jobs for people doing climate mitigation and other work around around the country. I’ve heard that there’s some significant jockeying, or some pushback in the caucus. There’s folks who were like: Look, we’re all for this, but why are we pumping billions of dollars into AmeriCorps’ traditional side? AmeriCorps, as you know, is this service project that already exists, but it’s had kind of a spotty record.

JB: Mhmm.

RG: And for some reason, there’s billions of dollars going into prop up AmeriCorps on the non-climate side, in order for it to also be able to manage the Civilian Climate Corps. To me, why not just have the Department of Labor or somebody else operate it? Is there any point in plussing up AmeriCorps to that significant of a degree?

JB: Well, that’s the conversation that’s happening now, to your point about the spotty record. It’s a spotty record with a much smaller budget. And the argument is: Well, how are they going to manage a larger budget?

RG: Right.

JB: So that exact conversation is happening, and there are some making the argument about the Department of Labor doing this. For me, the bottom line is that as many climate jobs as possible are implemented as efficiently, but, also, we want to have as large an impact as possible. I’m not that familiar with how the Department of Labor works and/or AmeriCorps. But it’s good to see that that hasn’t been taken out of the bill as of yet. So that’s a good thing.

RG: And sounds like you’re agnostic on who operates it? Or where do you come down on it?

JB: [Laughs.] Yeah, man. I mean, I got my own priorities, so that’s not one of them. But for me, it’s, I think, to ensure in alignment with Justice40, right? Are we targeting frontline communities? Are we targeting communities of color and kids from those communities to be a part of the Civilian Climate Corps? That’s the goal. What is implementation going to look like, and what sort of technical assistance and guidance are we going to give it at a federal level to make sure that it is really a Justice40 initiative and frontline communities are targeted the most. I mean, for me, that’s the most important thing.

RG: I also wanted to ask you about your recent vote for the $1 billion in Iron Dome funding.

Newscaster: A divide within the Democratic Party seems to be widening tonight, with a clash over funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system coming to a head.

RG: Afterwards, you talked about your district and hearing from people in your district. I’m curious, what were the calls ahead of that vote and after the vote from people in your district on the “yes” side and the “no” side?

JB: Well, way more on the “yes” side and the “no” side amongst — you know, the Jewish community is not a monolith, even though people like to think it is, but more calls on the yes side from both progressive and more conservative people in the Jewish community. It’s an important issue for this district in particular, which is why I voted yes. But it’s also, as I’ve been asked before, and as I’ve stated before, that vote is not going to stop me from continuing to fight for Palestinian rights, to fight to end the occupation which absolutely needs to happen, and to make sure Palestinian humanity is centered. I think it’s really important for us on the left to really organize around potential solutions to that problem there, and many other problems. We need to have more conversations to figure out how to best approach this going forward so it’s not just one-off votes that get our attention.

RG: Mhmm.

JB: We need to be really strategic and engaged — almost day-to-day — to figure out how to solve that problem in a way where we are uplifting Palestinian humanity and make sure the occupation ends.

RG: What about on the “no” side? Was there much organized activity or much that you heard from constituents? No, no way that you saw you see a lot online. But I’m curious what you saw kind of on the ground?

JB: No, no, no — not much at all, as a matter of fact. And if you remember, the vote came along pretty quickly, it was kind of just thrown on us. So we didn’t have a chance to even socialize it much in our district; we did a little bit, but not as much as we would have liked to. So when things like that happen, and this is why we are often very critical of leadership for doing this, it’s hard to even engage properly on who’s on the “yes” side who’s who’s on the “no” side. But those on the “yes” side were very clear, and very loud, and very consistent with why they believed the vote needed to be “yes.”

RG: Right.

JB: And that’s why I’m saying there needs to be much organizing on the left around this issue and others.

RG: But even afterwards, not much from the “no” side?

JB: Not from the district, no. I mean, that issue in the district, other than a certain segment of it, is not top 10, in terms of issues in the district. I ran on domestic policy, not foreign policy, number one, because we have a lot of domestic issues here — whether it’s gun violence, or housing, or education, or jobs, or you name the domestic issue, we have it here. And when it comes to foreign policy, the biggest issue is immigration: immigration reform, pathway to citizenship, and things of that nature. So not much post-vote either.

RG: Right. What about on the Capitol Police vote? That was your other controversial vote over the last several months where you voted “present,” which allowed it to pass by one vote? Did you hear much from the district on that? And what made you decide — was it that day that you decided to switch to “present”? What was your thinking there?

JB: Well, if I remember correctly, that was another one that kind of snuck up on us. I personally didn’t get enough of a chance to digest what was in the bill. What I did like about the bill was the staffers who were here during the insurrection, who literally were cleaning up blood and guts, were supposed to receive additional resources and mental health supports and other things, that was one of the things we fought for in the bill. What I didn’t like was what I perceived as more money to a police department that didn’t need it. That’s why I voted “present.” It was kind of like: I like some of it, don’t like other parts of it.

I don’t think I’m ever gonna vote “present” again, because that was just like an early, freshman, vote-present-so-you-don’t-kill-a-bill kind of thing, trying to be a quote-unquote, team player. But then it goes to the Senate. And the Senate does what they do with the bill and then it comes back and not only is it more money for the Capitol Police, it’s nothing for the support staff. So I voted “no” on that. But it didn’t matter at that point, because they had enough Republican votes where the bill was gonna carry and pass. So I chalked that vote up to learning and growing pains of being new here in Congress.

RG: You also got knocked around recently for your Colin Powell tweet after his passing.

JB: Uh huh.

RG: Tell me a little about that reaction? I don’t have in front of me — it was a pretty honorific remembrance of Colin Powell, where people were like: Hey, man, he also perhaps could have been the one guy who maybe could have prevented the Iraq War, set aside, M? Lai, Panama, the other things that he’s done.

JB: Yeah. I mean, I like your use of the term knocked around. That’s a good term. [Laughs.]

So, yeah, when I heard of his passing, what I tweeted was pretty much my first reaction. I had another tweet that was gonna be like a thread, that was gonna say the other stuff. I didn’t want to post that on the day of his passing. So I left it alone and ended up not posting it at all.

For me, what happened after 9/11 is top of mind. And I remember it clearly. He initially said there are no weapons of mass destruction, and then he said there were, and then we went to war. And for me, quite honestly, the way I interpreted that whole thing was like this system, the Military Industrial Complex, and this system, and these people rooted in a system of white supremacy just castrated this Black man in front of the world and scapegoated him in a way that led us to war. That’s how I looked at that.

Now, I haven’t done a deep dive into his whole military career. But as a Black man, and I said this to someone in private conversation, I grew up without a father. And there weren’t many role models in my community, other than rappers and athletes. So to see like Black man in a position like Secretary of State — there was no Barack Obama at this time — even though he wasn’t a perfect man by any stretch, and did a lot of bad things, at that time, as a kid, as a young adult, I’m not thinking about any of that. I’m just thinking about this guy.

And not only that, he’s from New York. He went to public schools. I mean, wow, that’s really impressive. So it’s the conflict of navigating this country as a person of color or a Black man when you don’t have, because of systemic oppression, many role models, and you end up looking up to someone who’s done some horrible shit.

So, for me, on the day of his death, I wasn’t gonna use that as a time to litigate and all of that, or talk about his legacy. I chose not to. At another point, I’m sure I will. I will offer the critique.

[Laughs.] I haven’t moved to the right on foreign policy or anything like that. It’s just, it was more —

RG: As you absorbed it as a young man, you kind of felt like he got done dirty by —

JB: That’s how I took it as a young man. And I could be wrong about that. I’m sure that it’s arguable. But I felt like the system did him dirty. He was castrated politically, and he was forced to sort of do what he did.

Now, I know what I would have done, especially 20 years later. You know, hindsight is 20/20. I know what I would have done in that situation. But the world was different then. There was no progressive movement, and social media, and all that good stuff. So he did what he did, man.

And this is somewhat related, but not really — a separate conversation involving a racial analysis of the left I think is important for us to have as well. That’s a conversation I wanted to be a part of. Because I’ve spoken with members of the Squad about this — they’ve said it, I’ve said it — the misogyny and the racism that comes out from the left is palpable, is real. And I think some reaction is rooted in that — not all of it. And the critique related to the Colin Powell tweet, I’ll take it. I understand it. It’s valued and validated. But I do want to have a bigger conversation around organizing on the left overall, but then also racial analysis of the left.

RG: Where else have you seen it most noticeably? The kind of racial politics of the left influencing the way that people respond to politicians of color?

JB: Yeah, I mean, when I look at the responses to like Cori, and Alex, and Ilhan, and Ayana, and Rashida — I mean, it’s fucking brutal, yo. Not only is it brutal online, and it’s rooted in this vitriol, but they have to have increased security details because of not just a brutal response of the left, but literally threats against their lives.

I mean, I’ve been at events with them at times where I’m like: Damn, are you the president? Like they’ve had some serious security details, because they get threats a lot. I get threats as well. And I’ve had to have my own detail. But the way they get it, it’s like a convergence of misogyny and racism, because they are five — four, now five — women of color. That’s where I’ve seen it most vicious.

But then also much of Bernie Sanders’ brilliance was rooted in his critique of the economic and social conditions of our country. But there was not often a racial analysis that was part of that. And I think some of that was deliberate, right? Because we want to have a Big Left tent, and bring everybody in, and, first of all, who is Bernie as a white, Jewish man having a racial analysis anyway? I mean, of course, he could say something about it. But it’s definitely important for someone like me or someone else to talk about that because of our lived experiences.

So yeah, when I meet with certain groups, and you know, whether it’s the Indivisibles of the world, the DSAs of the world, and others, it’s like: Who’s in the room? Who’s making decisions? Who’s leading the conversation? What are we talking about? All those things. Like, it’s clear as day; it’s evident, right?

RG: Yeah.

JB: And it’s just a growth area for us. I think we can get a lot better and a lot stronger, and I think we will, but we definitely got to talk about it.

RG: Right. That’s actually one reason I was probing on the question of how much organized effort there was on the ground around the “no” vote on the Iron Dome, because obviously you have a large Jewish population that’s going to be heavily supportive of that vote, but you also have Black and Brown communities in your district, and it just doesn’t feel like the organizing work has been done there around these issues of Palestinian solidarity to the point where you’re going to hear from people about that.

JB: Yeah, especially when people right here are struggling to put food on the table, you know? They have their own domestic struggles.

I mean, the overarching conversation around our funding of the military, our funding of certain countries over others, those conversations happen. And that’s there, right? We spend $7.6 trillion every 10 years on the military alone — no one bats an eye. And Manchin is trying to not spend more than $1.5 trillion over 10 years for programs like childcare and what he calls “entitlement programs.” So that right there, I think, captures what’s wrong throughout the country, and what people in my district understand clearly and feel, right? Like, that’s BS that we’re doing that and that absolutely needs to change.

But to your point, yes, on the ground organizing around whatever issue has to be done, and has to be done on a consistent basis. But also — and I want to just reiterate this again — we got to organize around the issues that matter to the district. And other than a small percentage — not a small percentage, but a decent enough percentage of people other than them — that issue doesn’t register in the top 10.

RG: Well, I know you’ve got to run, but I really appreciate your time.

Congressman Bowman, thanks for joining me.

JB: Of course, sir. Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

[End credits music.]

RG: That was Congressman Jamaal Bowman, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

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