New York educator Jamaal Bowman’s Democratic primary challenge to 16-term Representative Eliot Engel is a fight over the direction of the party that has the potential to upend another veteran congressman, just as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did two years ago when she defeated New York Democrat Joe Crowley.
AOC is backing Bowman’s bid, as is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who endorsed the challenger on Tuesday. Bowman has also attracted support from a number of progressive elected officials in New York, such as New York Public Advocate Jumanne Williams and state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, and groups such as the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats, which are highlighting their support for Bowman’s progressive message on issues ranging from ending police brutality to enacting Medicare for All health care reform and developing a Green New Deal.
Bowman is running a grassroots campaign that speaks to the issues on the ground in New York’s 16th congressional district, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester, and that challenges Engel’s much-discussed neglect of the district as the senior Democrat has concentrated on his role as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“My opponent accepts donations from corporations and arms manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon. He supports a hawkish and costly foreign policy agenda instead of focusing on the communities in our district that have been neglected for far too long,” says the middle school principal, who frequently mentions that the incumbent has “taken more money from weapons manufacturers than 144 Republicans in the House.”
Bowman’s campaign has called out the 16-term incumbent for supporting the authorization of the use of military force that empowered George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to launch the Iraq War, and for initially opposing Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
“My opponent, Representative Eliot Engel, and I do not share the same foreign policy vision,” explains Bowman, who observers suggest is closing the gap in his race against the incumbent, especially since a third candidate who also differed with the incumbent on domestic and foreign policy issues, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, quit the competition last week and endorsed Bowman.
From the beginning of his bid, Bowman has integrated into his campaigning a message about the need for a progressive foreign policy. In doing so, he has distinguished himself from Engel. “He went on CNN this past year and said he didn’t want to tie Trump’s hands when it came to strikes on Iran,” Bowman says of the incumbent. “He was one of only 16 House Democrats in 2016 to vote against an amendment that blocked the transfer of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, which has been relentlessly dropping them on Yemeni civilians.”
Primary challengers to D.C.-bound incumbents don’t always place a big emphasis on foreign policy. They tend to amplify grievances that are closer to home. Bowman has done that, with a campaign that has kept a steady focus on education, hunger, housing, and health care issues. He’s come up with specific proposals that respond to the crises of the moment, such as his call for “a new non-police first responder agency to respond to issues of mental illness or addiction.”
Yet Bowman has also made the connection between the deference of hawkish Democrats such as Engel to the Pentagon and military contractors with the neglect of human needs at home. As part of a campaign that has placed a heavy emphasis on policy, the challenger has outlined support for a host of proposals to restructure trade policy to support workers, not CEOs and Wall Street; to reform the World Bank and the IMF “to address the ways many nations around the world, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, have faced disinvestment, exploitation, and unfair debt arrangements”; to open up “honest conversations about our government’s role in enabling the continued occupation of the Palestinian people”; and to “dramatically reduce the Pentagon’s budget over the next ten years, end the forever wars, and rebuild a diplomacy-first approach through the State Department.”
Engel has pushed back, arguing that he has adjusted his policies over the years. But Bowman argues that what’s needed is a clear vision that gets things right from the start. “In our district, we need someone focused not on finding money for bombs and bullets, but for schools, health care, and jobs. Some politicians want to cut our spending on schools, health care, and social services,” he explains. “Our nation will spend more than $700 billion on defense spending just this year. That doesn’t align with the values of our district, especially when we have so many in need.”
That’s a potent political message, which savvy candidates have begun to recognize. Even if you are not running against the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it’s important to talk about getting budget priorities right. When your primary opponent is the hawkish chairman of that particular committee, it’s essential—because if Democrats don’t focus on “building a progressive foreign policy vision based on our common humanity and shared aspirations,” as Jamaal Bowman does, then change will never come.
This article has been updated to include new endorsements of Jamaal Bowman, including Bernie Sanders’s.