Group That Got AOC Elected Announces Democratic Primary Challenge to Her Neighbor

By gideon.resnick@thedailybeast.com (Gideon Resnick)
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

Almost a year after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in a district encompassing parts of the Bronx and Queens, a deeply entrenched New York Democrat from a neighboring district faces a similar challenger.

Jamaal Bowman, a middle-school principal and former teacher, on Tuesday announced his primary campaign against Rep. Eliot Engel with the backing of Justice Democrats, the insurgent left group that recruited and helped elect Rep. Ocasio-Cortez.

Engel, a powerful House Democrat who chairs its foreign affairs committee, has been in Congress since 1989 and has been viewed as a member ripe for a challenge from the left.

Bowman, 43, lives in Yonkers and was born and raised in the city by a single mother. His campaign will focus on education and racial and economic justice—and he hit Engel in his launch video for a series of related votes the congressman has made over his long career.

“My opponent has been in office for over 30 years,” Bowman said. “Over those 30 years, my opponent voted for an unjust war in Iraq, deregulating Wall Street, school privatization, and building more prisons. While the very few at the top continue to build their wealth and power, the majority of us continue to struggle.”

Bowman, who founded a public middle school in the Bronx (the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action), where he serves as principal, said that his experience as an educator has put him in touch with the “most damning challenges” of the day.

“We work with children and families who suffer from poverty, asthma from pollution, homelessness, and lack of health care,” he said in his launch video.

Bowman has railed against standardized testing in the past, once branding it a form of “modern-day slavery” even as his school reportedly ranked No. 1 in the 2015 school year for improved test-score averages on the state’s math and English exams.

Bowman’s platform, as revealed in the launch video, also will include free public college, Medicare for All, universal child care, criminal-justice reform, and the Green New Deal—all hallmarks of the progressive left and Justice Democrat-backed challengers.

Additionally, the ex-teacher said, he will not accept corporate PAC or lobbyists’ contributions, in contrast to how less than 1 percent of Engel’s fundraising in the 2017-2018 cycle came from small, individual donations.

New York’s 16th District—similar to the 14th District, where Ocasio-Cortez unseated Crowley—is majority people of color, according to census data, giving Justice Democrats hope that a repeat victory is possible.

“Our grassroots movement shocked the country last year with AOC’s upset victory and we are prepared to do it again in New York’s 16th District,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the organization. “It’s time to usher in a new generation of progressive leadership into the Democratic Party.”

This is the second candidate that Justice Democrats has backed for the 2020 cycle, following the group’s public endorsement of immigration and human-rights attorney Jessica Cisneros in her challenge against Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) in Texas’ 28th District.

Engel is decidedly less conservative than Cuellar, but is perceived as much more hawkish on international issues, a point that was highlighted by another one of his challengers for the upcoming primary.

The Group That Helped Elect AOC Has Its First 2020 Democratic Lawmaker Target

“Our representative’s hawkish record is clear: He voted for the Iraq War, voted against withdrawing the U.S. from Afghanistan, opposed the Iran nuclear deal, supported Trump’s decision to unilaterally move the U.S. embassy to Israel, and supported Israel’s illegal annexation of the Golan Heights,” said Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a lower-profile challenger who announced his bid last week.

Engel easily defeated a white male challenger in 2018, while many New York incumbents barely escaped primary challengers.

In a New York Times article from February about these very threats, Engel praised “new energy” in the Democratic Party, but said: “I think we’re doing the people we represent and the country a disservice by focusing on 2020 primaries when we have so much to do right now in Washington.”

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