Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning victory over Congressmember Joe Crowley in June 2018 has helped inspire numerous challenges to established incumbents, from state senate candidates like Alessandra Biaggi and Julia Salazar to Tiffany Cabán’s narrow defeat in this year’s Queens DA primary. Now, another unlikely candidate is hoping to join AOC in Washington by mounting his own challenge to a longtime Democratic insider. Jamaal Bowman, a middle-school principal and education reform activist, is taking on one of the Bronx's most entrenched elected officials: Eliot Engel, a 16-term Congressmember who chairs the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Engel, who has represented the north Bronx and southern Westchester in Congress since 1989, having served in the state assembly for 12 years before that, is up for re-election in 2020. In his last primary in 2018, Engel easily defeated three challengers, winning 74 percent of the vote. Yet despite a lack of government experience, Bowman—who, like Engel, began his career as a New York City public school teacher—believes he has a shot at deposing the self-styled progressive (who is actually “more of a corporate Democrat,” in Bowman’s view).
That’s partly because Bowman has earned the backing of Justice Democrats, the national political organization best known for fueling the rise of Ocasio-Cortez. Bowman says he was inspired to run because of her success, as well as that of “the other amazing women who are transforming America as we speak.” But the seeds were planted throughout his years in education.
Bowman, 43, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and has lived with his family in Yonkers for the last seven years. He says he got into teaching almost by accident: “Quite honestly, I needed a job out of college.” He was looking for opportunities in corporate America when a teacher friend encouraged him to consider working for the Board of Education instead. He “fell in love” right from the start: “As soon as I walked into the school, I felt like this was the place I needed to be.”
In 2009, Bowman became the founding principal of the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, a public middle school in the Bronx with the aim of “educating the whole child.” He has also been involved for years with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE), the group that sued New York State over unequal school spending, taking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to task in 2016 for failing to comply with the court’s ruling in that case. He has also been a fierce opponent of standardized testing, organizing teach-ins for parents in low-income neighborhoods to raise awareness that parents have the right to opt their children out of high-stakes testing.
Watching the children he taught struggle year after year with a host of issues related to poverty and lack of housing, Bowman says, made him wonder what he could do to make a meaningful difference in the lives of children and families in his community, not just those in his school. And that’s what has led him to challenge Engel for his Congressional seat.
One area of contention between Bowman and Engel is No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Bush-era education law that tied federal funding to student performance on standardized tests. NCLB, Bowman and many other education reformers believe, has decimated American public schools by allowing states to shut down or privatize public schools deemed inadequate under the law.
Engel voted for NCLB, though he later acknowledged that it no longer served its intended purpose. The law, he said, identified “many of the problems, but placed too much emphasis on standardized testing, then grossly underfunded any assistance for states to meet these requirements…As a result schools are punished for failing to reach artificial benchmarks, thus making it more difficult for them to improve their educating of young Americans.”
Bowman is confident that Engel's 16-election winning streak says more about voters’ disengagement and low turnout than it does about the incumbent's popularity. Only 30,078 people, or around 7.3 percent of the district’s active enrolled voters, cast ballots in the 2018 Democratic primary. (Low turnout is common in federal primaries in New York for a number of reasons, including the fact that they are held in June, months before state primaries.) Bowman sees the fact that so few voters went to the polls for a contested primary as “proof” that they are not engaged; he says that while knocking on doors in the district, he was surprised by the number of people who told him they had no idea who Engel is.
Bowman is taking a similar approach to that of many other insurgent challengers in recent years, railing against Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that removed limits on corporate political spending, and refusing money from super PACs in favor of courting donations from “regular working people.” (According to OpenSecrets.org, over 63 percent of the money Bowman has raised so far is from small individual contributions of $200 or less; none is from PACs. He told Gothamist his average contribution size is around $47.) “To be clear,” he adds, claiming his campaign has attracted over 200 volunteers since its launch, “the goal is not to outraise Eliot Engel; the goal is to outwork him.”
Engel has also advocated to overturn Citizens United. But according to OpenSecrets.org, only around 2 percent of his money is from small individual contributions of $200 or less; nearly 24 percent is from PACs, including those associated with weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman.
Engel’s detractors point to his support for the Iraq War, his 1999 vote for repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which helped worsen the 2008 financial crisis, and his initial opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement. Of the war vote, Engel acknowledged in a July statement, “Authorizing the Iraq War was a mistake—the worst vote I ever took as a member of the House of Representatives.” Of Glass-Steagall, he said, “I think that if I knew then what I know now I would not have voted to repeal it.”
Bowman faces at least one other opponent, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a former special education teacher and first-generation Eritrean-American whose policy positions and criticisms of Engel are virtually indistinguishable from Bowman’s.
When asked to draw a contrast between himself and Ghebreghiorgis, Bowman demurs, saying he prefers to focus on his challenge to Engel. Ghebreghiorgis is “a good guy; I wish him well. We’re focused on our campaign and doing the work that we have to do.”
Waleed Shahid, a Justice Democrats spokesperson, tells Gothamist the organization is only endorsing eight candidates nationwide in upcoming races. Six, including Bowman, are primary challengers, and all are in federal races. To be considered for an endorsement, someone familiar with your work in the community must nominate you. Over a dozen people were nominated for Justice Democrats’ endorsement in New York’s 16th district, including Bowman and Ghebreghiorgis.
The group backed Bowman because, Shahid says, “we thought that Jamaal had the best shot in taking on Eliot Engel, and he had a really good bio and experience in the community.” Citing Bowman’s involvement with the Campaign for Fiscal Equity and opposition to standardized testing, Shahid praises his “organizing and activism to fight on behalf of working people in the district.”
Ghebreghiorgis, Shahid adds, is “a good guy and a great candidate. But with Jamaal, we thought he had the networks in the district and the track record to win.”
On foreign policy, both Bowman and Ghebreghiorgis are portraying themselves as doves to Engel’s hawk. “I want America to take a more humanitarian approach, as opposed to the more militaristic approach we continue to take,” Bowman tells Gothamist. In announcing his candidacy, Ghebreghiorgis denounced Engel’s “hawkish record.”
Bowman’s list of priorities if elected is wide-ranging and ambitious. “Number one would be a transformation of public education that focuses on community schools and educating the whole child from the prenatal stage all the way through careers,” he says. He also speaks about the pressing need to address economic inequality, in part by investing in public housing and creating enough affordable housing “to make sure people are never priced out of their apartments, ever.”
Like Ocasio-Cortez and other Justice Democrats-backed candidates, Bowman also supports single-payer health care (Medicare For All), criminal justice reform, “immigration reform that is rooted in humanitarian efforts,” and a Green New Deal that includes a federal jobs guarantee. A spokesperson for Engel notes that he was a founding member of the Medicare For All Caucus and has cosponsored the bill every year since 2004. He is also a cosponsor of AOC’s Green New Deal.
Although he acknowledges that the policies he supports are “absolutely aligned” with democratic socialist policies, Bowman does not call himself a democratic socialist.
“I look at the world from the perspective of an educator, of a father, of a husband…it’s our responsibility as a nation to make sure that we are meeting the needs of every woman, man and child in this country. And if we’re not doing that, then we are running an unjust nation.”