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A Black Progressive Beat A 16-Term Democrat In A Heated New York Congressional Primary

The win by Jamaal Bowman, an educator in the Bronx, over Eliot Engel, a 16-term member of Congress, is a signal victory for progressives.

Last updated on June 24, 2020, at 12:35 p.m. ET

Posted on June 24, 2020, at 12:18 p.m. ET

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Jamaal Bowman meets with voters at a school on June 23 in Mount Vernon, New York.

Jamaal Bowman, a former educator and middle school principal from the Bronx, declared victory Wednesday over Rep. Eliot Engel, a 16-term member of Congress who represents New York’s 16th congressional district.

The primary win is a galvanizing moment for national progressives, just two years after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who backed Bowman, sparked a new wave of progressive organizing to push the Democratic Party further left. And, like with Ocasio-Cortez’s success in 2018, it is another win for a challenger who cast the incumbent as too out of touch with their district.

“I’m a Black man who was raised by a single mother in a housing project. That story doesn’t usually end in Congress. But today, that 11-year old boy who was beaten by police is about to be your next Representative,” Bowman said in a statement Wednesday morning. “I cannot wait to get to Washington and cause problems for the people maintaining the status quo.”

New York is still counting votes and may be for days, with a huge increase in absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic. But Decision Desk HQ and others have found that Bowman's lead over Engel is too great for the incumbent to make up.

Engel released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying he did not believe Bowman should declare victory before absentee ballots have been counted. "Any declarative statement on the outcome of this race right now is premature and undermines the democratic process," the statement said.

Bowman’s candidacy was propelled over the last month by national protests against police brutality and a surging Black Lives Matter movement. He was one of several Black candidates to have a strong result in Tuesday’s elections.

“Tonight as we celebrate, we don’t just celebrate me as an individual, we celebrate this movement,” Bowman said during a speech Tuesday night. “A movement designed to push back against a system that’s literally killing us. It’s killing Black and brown bodies disproportionately, but it’s killing all of us.”

During his remarks, Bowman said he would only mention his opponent once.

“Eliot Engel, and I’ll say his name once, used to say he was a thorn in the side of Donald Trump. But you know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anything else? A Black man with power,” he said.

Jamaal Bowman, who has a lead in his primary against Eliot Engel, just spoke to supporters. "Our movement is designed to restore that faith, to restore that hope, to bring back the belief in what is possible, to root our values in everything we do."

Bowman is expected to win the seat outright in November in a Democratic-heavy district that spans across parts of New York City and stretches into Westchester.

Bowman’s race was just the most high profile in a series of New York congressional primaries pitting progressives against incumbent Democrats or those with the backing of the mainstream establishment.

Mondaire Jones, 33, appeared to win the primary for an open House seat in New York City’s suburbs with the support of Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Jones would be the first Black gay member of Congress should he win the seat. Rep. Carolyn Maloney faces a tight rematch from Suraj Patel, who ran in 2018 and secured 40% of the vote. Patel, a former Obama campaign staffer, ran on a platform similar to Bowman's of a Green New Deal, defunding ICE, and debt-free college. Rep. Yvette Clarke again faced Adem Bunkeddeko, a 32-year-old progressive who came within just 2,000 votes of defeating Clarke in 2018. Clarke appeared to beat Bunkeddeko Tuesday night.

But Bowman’s race gained the most attention over the last month, and was the contest progressives were most invested in winning.

Bowman, 44, began his campaign with the backing of Justice Democrats and other progressive networks that helped Ocasio-Cortez win in 2018. He campaigned on priorities for the left, like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, while also centering education and investment in public schools.

Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took heat late in the campaign for being absent from his district during the coronavirus pandemic and for announcing that he would be at events in the district that he ultimately did not attend.

In early June, Engel was caught on a hot mic at an event to address protestors against police brutality in his district telling the organizer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., that he only wanted to speak because of his campaign.

“If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said.

Two days later, Engel’s campaign released a statement saying he would refuse The New York Times endorsement after the paper ran a column from Sen. Tom Cotton calling for the use of military force against protesters.

“I have decided not to seek the New York Times endorsement and I call on my opponents in this race to do the same,” he said in the statement. “Sadly, any endorsement from an editorial board that supports the publication of such un-American demands at a time of great pain and turmoil is not worth the paper it’s printed on.”

A week later, the paper endorsed Bowman.

Engel still had powerful support for his campaign for a 17th term, including from Hillary Clinton and powerful House Democrats Nancy Pelosi, Jim Clyburn, Hakeem Jeffries, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.


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