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Jamaal Bowman takes on 16-term Rep. Engel in heated primary with AOC, Bernie Sanders on his side

Bowman has nabbed the support of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Image: Jamaal Bowman
Jamaal Bowman, 44, is a candidate for New York's 16th Congressional District in the June 23 primary. Courtesy of Jamaal Bowman campaign

Jamaal Bowman said he is not afraid to make people uncomfortable.

A year before George Floyd’s death ignited a global reckoning over racial discrimination and police brutality, Bowman, who is Black, launched his campaign for Congress centered on racial injustice and human rights.

"We were unapologetic about that from the very beginning," Bowman, a 44-year-old father of three and middle school principal, told NBC News in a phone interview. "Coming into the campaign, we felt that structural racism, institutional racism, institutional classism, institutional sexism and militarism are the evils that continue to plague American society generally."

That's why, in the days following Floyd's death, Bowman joined protesters in Yonkers decrying police brutality and racial injustice.

"It's great to be out here in Yonkers, it's great to see this response," he said in one video posted to his official YouTube page over vigorous chants of "I can't breathe."

His visibility at the recent protests puts him in contrast to Rep. Eliot Engel, the longtime Democrat incumbent he hopes to unseat in the June 23 contest. Engel, 73, who was first elected to Congress in 1988, has in recent months faced an onslaught of criticism for being chronically absent from his district. Those concerns mounted after Engel was caught on a hot mic at an event responding to unrest in his district related to Floyd’s death, saying he "wouldn’t care" about speaking to the crowd if he didn’t face a primary. His office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

The area they are fighting for — New York’s 16th Congressional District — is something of a unicorn. It is a majority-minority district that includes portions of the diverse, working-class Bronx and mostly white, wealthy areas of Westchester, as well as suburban areas like Mount Vernon, Yonkers and New Rochelle.

"When you look at this district, what you see is a tale of two districts," Bowman said. "In one part of the district, you have incredible wealth. In the other part of the district, you have the highest number of WIC recipients of any congressional district in the country," he added, referring to a federal nutrition assistance program.

To close that gap, he wants to see a "massive economic investment" across the district, but particularly in areas where poverty is concentrated. His agenda includes a federal jobs guarantee, up to 70,000 new affordable homes in the district, federal aid to upgrade existing public housing and boost public school budgets and universal health care through Medicare for All, among other areas.

First, he has to topple Engel, the powerful chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Engel, who hasn't faced a major primary challenger in decades, has been endorsed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; and the Congressional Black Caucus. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is the House Democrats’ political arm, has signaled it is also putting its full weight behind incumbents.

But Engel's hot mic comments threw fire on the already competitive race, which Dave Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook Political Report and an NBC News contributor, recently said Engel is "in serious danger of losing."

Bowman's campaign says it received over 1,000 donations following the incident. Then, Democratic N.Y. state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a progressive, whose grandfather — then-U.S. Rep. Mario Biaggi — was defeated by Engel in the 1988 Democratic primary, withdrew her endorsement of Engel and threw support behind Bowman.

Bowman is also backed by Justice Democrats, the grassroots group that backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's 2018 upstart campaign. Ocasio-Cortez, whose district neighbors Engel’s, also recently endorsed Bowman, as did Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Engel responded this week by sending out mailings questioning Bowman's voting history and abilities as an educator. Bowman's campaign dismissed the offensive as "desperate, last-minute attacks."

Whoever wins the primary is all but certain to win the general election in the solidly Democratic district.

Bowman said the endorsements are important, but what should drive policy change is not politicians but who they represent, which is why he has been helping out at food pantries and joining the anti-racism protests in the Bronx and elsewhere in the city.

"Protests compel elected officials to do the right thing for its people," Bowman said. "It's the people's rallying cry against the system that's not working for them."

It's a lesson he learned as a middle school principal at Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in the Bronx, which he helped found over a decade ago, a job that was the catalyst for his run for Congress. He has been an educator for roughly 20 years, 17 of which were spent in the Bronx, he said.

"I was tired of children suffering and no one doing anything about it," Bowman said, noting the stark health and economic disparities in the Bronx. "But that's not a result of the lack of work ethic, or lack of passion, or lack of ability of our kids and our families. It's because of neglect from our federal government."

While campaigning with virtual meetings due to the pandemic and now amid anti-racism protests, Bowman said he has made deeper connections with voters, some of whom say they feel neglected by Engel.

"You have the collective trauma of the coronavirus pandemic and then you have the collective trauma of George Floyd being killed, and we're going through those things simultaneously, so everyone's feeling these very strong emotions at the same time," he said. "And when you're not here and you don't feel it, you do not have the requisite empathy and compassion that is needed to govern effectively."

Activists in New York who have been marching across the city and state for weeks also said this could be a pivotal moment for politics.

"We now have all 50 states paying attention," Chelsea Miller, the founder of Freedom March NYC, said at a recent protest in Times Square. "So now the question is how do we push even further past conversations about the police’s use of chokeholds and think about the system as a whole."

The Greater New York Black Lives Matter group recently proposed a list of 24 policies and reforms, known as "The Blueprint," including the defunding police departments, which Bowman has said he supports. As a Black man in New York City, he said he has experienced racial discrimination by the police first-hand.

In 2004, he was pulled over and arrested by police in New York for allegedly driving with suspended insurance while on his way to pick up his then-3-year-old son. He was also arrested by police the year earlier for illegal parking. Bowman, who denies the allegations and was released in both instances without being charged, referred to the arrests as part of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg's "assault on Black lives."

He said his oldest son, who is 19, is happy Bowman has "a platform to speak truth to power and to speak about institutional racism."

Bowman said he tries to keep his two younger children, who are 6 and 10, "away from this stuff, because it's a lot of trauma and very stressful."

But he added, "I always do everything in my power to make sure they love their brown skin and their kinky hair, and they love how they look and who they are and everything they represent."