On June 23, 2020, Jamaal Bowman made history by winning the Democratic Party primary in New York State’s 16th Congressional District. His victory is very significant.
Bowman beat Eliot Engel, a 16-term incumbent Congressman who served as chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and had the backing of nearly the entire Democratic Party establishment, including former secretary of state Hilary Clinton. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and ran on an unabashedly progressive platform that included support for Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. He was outspent by a margin of two to one. And because Bowman had taken positions calling for justice for Palestinians, “dark money” pro-Israel super-PAC’s spent an additional $2,000,000 in independent expenditures in an effort to tear down his character and defeat him. Despite all of these challenges, Jamaal Bowman won, sending the message that change is on the way.
Bowman’s victory against an entrenched incumbent came on the heels of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 unseating of 10-term Congressman Joseph Crowley in the nearby 14th District of New York. There were similarities between the two races and some important differences.
Both Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman are young people of colour who defeated older white men whose constituents in their congressional districts are majority minority voters. And because both of the young winners were community activists who had developed strong grass roots networks and the incumbent members of congress they were challenging had grown lazy and entitled, Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez represented both generational change and the importance of maintaining direct contact with the voters one seeks to represent.
Both of these them were members of the DSA, running on a progressive agenda that promoted universal health care, a quality education, a decent job, a clean environment, and affordable housing as fundamental human rights. Both were endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders (Bowman was also endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren), while Crowley and Engel had the support of the Democratic leadership in the Senate and House of Representatives. As such, they represent the insurgent left’s victories over the party’s centrist establishment.
While both of the defeated candidates relied largely on large donations from big donors or political action committees to fund their campaigns, Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez raised their campaign funds from individual small donors. Their wins were victories for campaign finance reform.
These similarities aside, there were two fundamental differences between the Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman victories that make the Bowman win historic. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was a shock that caught both Crowley and the Democratic establishment by surprise. Determined that it wouldn’t happen again, New York state’s governor, its two senators, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and Clinton (in her only endorsement of the 2020 election) all lined up behind Engel. By winning against this formidable line-up, Bowman demonstrated that the progressive wave isn’t a fluke.
And then there’s the role played by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Ocasio-Cortez’s position on justice for Palestinians matches those of Bowman, it never became much of a factor in 2018. She didn’t come under attack from pro-Israel groups until she was in Congress and came to the defence of her sister freshmen members, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.
Because Bowman was running against the very pro-Israel chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the pro-Israel lobby didn’t want a replay of the Ocasio-Cortez win, they invested heavily in the effort to defeat Bowman.
Protecting Engel was important. One AIPAC-allied group, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMI), spent more than $1.5 million in the Engel/Bowman race. Their ads were largely personal attacks on Bowman’s character.
Despite the money spent against him, Bowman never wavered. In the end, not only did he win, he won by a decisive margin carrying all areas of his district and all major demographic groups.
Interestingly, from vote tallies I’ve seen, he also beat Engel in precincts that were heavily Jewish.
This is yet another reason why Jamaal Bowman’s victory was historic.