If you heard KRS-One and Cardi B ringing through the Bronx and Westchester last night, it wasn’t just coming from AOC’s re-election party. Congressman-elect Jamaal Bowman is also headed to Congress after defeating Rep. Eliot Engel in the NY-16 Democratic primary.
A new generation of leaders is transforming the Democratic Party, turning the hope and anger of the black, brown, young, and working-class Americans marching through the streets into victory at the ballot box.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Engel. In the past few weeks, the foreign-policy hawks backing his campaign spent millions of dollars trying to smear an award-winning public school principal turned first-time candidate Jamaal Bowman—an ugly, eleventh-hour attempt to stop the grassroots momentum growing behind him.
Despite Engel’s war chest, dark money groups, and his ties to an alarmed party establishment, Jamaal Bowman and the Justice Democrats won.
Once insurgent candidates pick up big endorsements and start leading the field in a few polls, as Bowman did in the final months, the media picks up their stories, framing the incumbent as “vulnerable” to the party’s “emboldened left wing.” But winning a primary as a progressive is no easy task. Challengers like Bowman face millions of corporate dollars in ad spending and a party infrastructure built by hostile insiders. We won because Jamaal Bowman dedicated his life to serving his community, and because the progressive movement, from Justice Democrats to the Sunrise Movement, went all-in.
However, no amount of infrastructure on either side can turn the tide of history. And these past few months, Bowman’s progressive vision matched the historic moment. The COVID-19 pandemic, and its disproportionate impact on communities of color, spotlighted deeply unjust inequalities in America, and affirmed that transformative policies are needed to end structural racism. When millions of people lost their jobs and their employer-provided healthcare overnight, demands for Medicare-for-All grew louder and voters stopped hearing establishment Democrats talk about how much Americans love their private insurance..”
Then, millions of people took to the streets, putting their bodies on the line to say “Black Lives Matter.”
These crises and uprisings changed our politics. They revealed just how dangerous it is when the law is written and enforced by people who don’t represent our communities, and just how urgently we need new elected officials.
Jamaal Bowman was ready for this moment, and a majority of voters were ready for his vision. He’s the first candidate swept into Congress by this generation’s civil rights movement, but he won’t be the last.
When we founded Justice Democrats in 2017 with the goal of electing a new, diverse generation of progressive leaders, Jamaal was exactly the type of candidate we dreamt of.
By the time AOC was introducing the Green New Deal into Congress, we were already soliciting nominations for the 2020 class of Justice Democrats. After reviewing over a hundred potential candidates in NYC, a longtime public-education advocate submitted a glowing nomination for Mr. Bowman, saying he was “widely respected” among parents, and students, and predicting that “there would be a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for Jamaal’s candidacy.” Within a week we were discussing strategy for his campaign.
Jamaal earned his reputation through 20 years of serving families in New York City’s public schools, most recently as the founding principal of a middle school in the Bronx. His campaign’s foundation is a vision for investment in jobs and education, instead of bombs and incarceration—a photo negative of the incumbent, Eliot Engel, a notoriously hawkish Democrat.
While NY-16, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester, became an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, Eliot Engel stayed far away, hunkering down in his Maryland residence while most other senior congressional leaders went home. Engel got caught lying about his whereabouts, but the Democratic establishment still had his back. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer put resources behind Engel, and he received Hillary Clinton’s first congressional endorsement of the cycle. The DCCC even threatened to blacklist any Democratic consultants and operatives who worked on Jamaal’s campaign.
Washington insiders said Jamaal couldn’t win over a majority of voters in this diverse district because there was no progressive coalition that crossed affluent Westchester towns, low-income NYCHA housing, and many areas in between, but Jamaal built one anyway. He campaigned for a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and those values resonated with voters in both the Bronx and Westchester on Tuesday. The divide between Engel and Bowman is the same divide we see nationally; older white voters reliably vote business-as-usual, but a multiracial base is starting to edge them out. It’s not just young white progressives.
Jamaal won for the same reason AOC won, and the same reason Bernie Sanders remains such a potent force in the party: Young voters of color are demanding transformative policies. Progressives can forge an electoral majority that’s not too different from the ‘Obama coalition’: people of color, young people, union households, and older white liberals.
The same pundits who said Engel was unbeatable will now diminish this victory.
But last night’s results sent a very clear message: the elections of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib weren’t flukes—they were just the beginning. Despite the caution that some Democratic strategists have argued for, now is the time to push big progressive ideas. Democrats don’t need to play it safe, triangulate with an increasingly fascist GOP, and push the same donor-approved policies that have led voters to lose faith in our democracy this past decade.
In this political moment, working families like Jamaal’s don’t have to be content with incremental change; we don’t have to defer to conservative, well-funded incumbents—especially when they fail to represent our interests in Congress.
Jamaal won because he did the hard work. He spent decades in the community as a teacher, principal, and advocate. He asked people face-to-face—first on their doorstep, then over Zoom—what would make their life better. One conversation at a time, he heard what kept his neighbors up at night: skyrocketing healthcare costs, a lack of affordable housing, inequitable public schools, a racist criminal justice system, the climate crisis. He discussed how his policy platform would help them, explaining how progressive policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal—policies the establishment labels electorally toxic—will help working families.
Jamaal’s grassroots approach worked. They stacked the deck against him with money, smears, and all the privileges of incumbency, but he still won.
We know generation-defining victories like the New Deal and the Civil and Voting Rights Acts don’t happen overnight. We also know Jamaal Bowman, the Squad, and Justice Democrats aren’t a new phenomenon in American politics. In times of crisis, social movements help lead political parties out of the wilderness with bold vision—abolitionists gave Lincoln’s Republicans emancipation, labor unions gave Roosevelt the New Deal, civil rights leaders gave Johnson the Great Society, and right-wing reactionaries gave Reagan “trickle-down economics.”
Since the Reagan revolution, too many in the Democratic Party have capitulated to conservative ideology and mimicked many Republican talking points. New leaders aren’t hurting the Democratic Party—they’re bringing the party into the future, saving it from habits of a bygone era.
Justice Democrats like AOC and Jamaal will win more elections in the coming decade. The constituencies now leading grassroots movements will only become more essential to the Democratic Party’s future. The presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, has already begun to recognize the party changing beneath him, appointing movement leaders and progressives to a slate of “Biden-Sanders unity task forces.” He knows that if he enters the White House in 2021 he won’t be governing with the Congress from 2009. The Squad is here to stay, and it’s growing.
Alexandra Rojas is the executive director of Justice Democrats.
Waleed Shahid is the communications director of Justice Democrats.