The national spotlight is on a few U.S. House Democratic primary races in New York. One is in the 16th District, where longtime Congressman Eliot Engel faces a field of three. Analysts say his greatest threat is from Jamaal Bowman, and call the race an AOC-type election, referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of New York City Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley in 2018. Her race started a wave of primary challenges from those to the left of entrenched congressional Democrats WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne spoke with Bowman about the race.
The 16th Congressional District contains parts of the Bronx and lower Westchester, including New Rochelle, Scarsdale, Rye and Yonkers, where Bowman resides. The former principal for the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (CASA), a public middle school he founded in 2009 in the Bronx, released his policy proposal Monday for a #ReconstructionAgenda, a policy plan and framework to root out institutional racism. His plan calls for a truth and reconciliation commission that creates a reparations plan; transformation of law enforcement and the criminal justice system; and historical levels of economic investment such as in housing programs, the Green New Deal and public education.
Bowman touts endorsements from Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren; Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders; and the New York Times. Regarding the latter, and one week prior, Engel announced he would not seek the New York Times endorsement because of an op-ed the paper published by Republican Senator Tom Cotton.
In 2016, Engel also faced a primary field of three, and garnered nearly 74 percent of the vote.
BOWMAN: Well, I was tired of children suffering in the Bronx and across this country, you know, we're the wealthiest nation on earth. We shouldn't have 10s of millions of families and children living in poverty. And as an educator, I experienced the impact of poverty very intimately, over the course of my 20 year career. And after the 2017-2018 school year, when 34 children died within the K-12 school system, and 17 died, right, the 17 died via suicide and a child committed suicide in Co-op City, another child was murdered outside New Rochelle High School. And Eliot Engel, and not many of our politicians were talking about it, or censoring our children, our families. I decided to explore a run for office.
Overall, what is your message?
We have to deal with racial and economic inequality, very directly and very urgently. The persistence, the persistence of poverty, and the economic oppression of the masses of people in this country is creating a democracy that doesn't work for everyone. Unfortunately, we have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, we have large corporations that don't pay their fair share of federal taxes. And we've had racist policy in current, American history that has created communities of trauma and poverty, and mass incarceration that continues. So that's my message. We have to deal with our country's history in a very direct and urgent and honest way, so we can move forward and build a democracy that works for all.
And building on what you just said, incorporating the protests of late, against systemic racism. How would you address this legislatively in Congress, or how should Congress be addressing this?
Well, there's a lot that needs to be done. We need to stop the transfer of military- style weapons from the federal government to local police forces. We need to end qualified immunity, which allows police to violate the civil rights of individuals without, without repercussion. So we need to stop, we need to end that. We also need to just overall increase accountability and transparency. If there are officers in our police forces that have multiple violations, the public has a right to know about that. And if that officer commits a crime, that officer needs to be held accountable by independent investigation through the DOJ and FBI. Most importantly, however, we need to reallocate resources towards mental health, jobs, housing and education. If we did that, we would need less, less officers to begin with, but we can finally center well-being and public health, as opposed to punitive measures we continue to implement.
If I heard correctly, in your last debate, a question was posed about COVID. And I believe you said reopening was happening “too soon”?
We need door to door testing. We need to increase contact tracing in isolation. And we need to get a better understanding of what's happening, with this pandemic. There are many of us millions of us across the state who have not been tested, and we need to be tested. And that hasn't happened from a door to door perspective. So I'm concerned to see us, you know, opening the economy too quickly. I'm hoping- I'm inspired by the protests, but I'm still concerned with the large crowds. And we'll see what happens as a result of that.
I also just wanted to bring up that House members, it takes many years to build up seniority obviously, and to be named to choice committees. And if, if Congressman Engel is not reelected, might the 16th congressional district lose some clout? Obviously, as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Well, I don't see what that clout has gotten this district. You know, this district has schools that are underfunded by billions of dollars. We have an opioid crisis taking place from the Bronx to Yonkers, to Rye, New York. We need 70,000 affordable homes, we need jobs. We need environmental- To deal with environmental justice, very directly. I don't know what that clout and that experience has gotten this district. We are struggling here and we need someone who's a fighter and the leader and a coalition builder to represent this district and unfortunately, Congressman Engel has not been that.
Would you vote for Nancy Pelosi for House Speaker?
Well, I have to see. I have to see who else is running, I have to see what, you know, what they both represent, which one aligns mostly with my values and the values of the people of this district. Before I make that decision.
Obviously AOC's win has spurred a lot of races such as, such as yours. Did you look at that race in 2018, her race specifically, and say, "I can do this"?
Well, it's not just about the race, it's about her leadership and her values and how she speaks truth to power by centering working class people and people who live in poverty. You know, she represents the people. She doesn't take any corporate PAC money. She's brilliant. She's, she's an amazing leader. And the fact that, the fact that she won, providing a platform to speak about things- As, you know, I hadn't heard elected officials speaking about over the course of my life, not in any urgent, real way. So that I think that was a shift for me, just her leadership on these issues. And for the people that matter most to me, that more than just her winning. It's her values and what she represents.
How much of your competitiveness in this race can you attribute to a race such as hers?
I don't know. That's a good question. I mean, you know, we've been fortunate enough to, you know, gain a lot of support from grassroots organizations and individuals throughout city, state and country. You know, I worked in this district as a middle school principal for 10 years. So I had relationships with kids and families. You know, her win, and her leadership and the fact that she's endorsed us, has been incredibly helpful. I would say it's a combination of all of the above that I think has really helped us out.