When it comes to beating an incumbent member of Congress in a primary, many have tried and many have failed. But Jamaal Bowman is an exception. In his first campaign for office this year, the principal at a middle school in the Eastchester section of the Bronx knocked off veteran Rep. Eliot Engel. With a progressive platform and the backing of several left-wing groups, the 44-year-old political novice pulled off the biggest upset in New York since a certain bartender in the Bronx beat then-Rep. Joe Crowley. Bowman lives in Yonkers in the heart of a diverse district that includes parts of the North Bronx and southern Westchester.
With an overwhelming Democratic advantage in the district, Bowman is likely headed to Washington, D.C, this fall. Representing parts of New York City’s poorest borough during a pandemic and recession will surely pose plenty of challenges. But for liberals with big ambitions to expand the social safety net, it may also present an opportunity – especially if public disgust over the lackadaisical response to the coronavirus from President Donald Trump and the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate creates unified Democratic control in Washington.
City & State caught up with Bowman by phone to ask how he won and what he hopes to do for his district and the country next year. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
There were a lot of congressional challengers this year and you were the only one to knock off an incumbent in primary in New York. How did you pull that off? How do you run a successful insurgent campaign in the pandemic when you can’t knock on doors?
I always point to the amazing team and staff that we were able to put together – not just in terms of the Justice Democrats, as the initial endorsers and their infrastructure support that they had in place, but also New Deal Strategies, (Campaign Manager) Luke Hayes, (Finance Director) Jesse Guy-Herman and just the overall team. And then we also had hundreds of volunteers supporting the campaign from the very beginning. So that helped with our field operations, right out of the gate. We were knocking on doors all across the district very early on, specifically targeting communities of color and communities that have been historically neglected like Co-op City, Yonkers, Mount Vernon, Baychester, Edenwald and parts of New Rochelle. So we did that early and often. And this was not a transactional political race. This was about deep, authentic relationships, and really listening and learning from the people across the district. And their words and their experiences helped us to craft the proper policy platforms throughout the campaign. And when COVID hit, we pivoted very efficiently to a virtual campaign. But then that gave us even more of an opportunity to center the wellbeing of the constituents in this district – so before even getting into who I was and why I'm running for office and why you should vote for me, we were having conversations around people's needs, asking people, how are they doing? How are they coping? How are they holding up? What are their needs? And how can we support their needs? And it's just helped us to connect on a more human level, in a way that my opponent didn't, unfortunately for him.
How does a candidate who never has run before become the person who gets New Deal Strategies, Luke Hayes and Justice Democrats behind him?
I've been doing education organizing work for about a decade as a middle school principal. And I've been very vocal within education justice spaces for 20 years. … When I started exploring a run for office, and people started talking to each other about it, I got nominated to the Justice Democrats. And the nomination process obviously went well enough for them to choose to endorse us, which led to other relationships that came about during the campaign. So it was just my background, and my story helped me to kind of hit the ground running on my own.
When you go to Congress, what are your main priorities for the district and especially the Bronx parts of it?
What we were hearing from voters throughout the district? Housing needs are huge. And on the Bronx side of the district, there are four NYCHA developments there. NYCHA has been disinvested in for 30 years, and over the last 10 years NYCHA hasn't received a dime from the federal government. So, NYCHA needs to be renovated. We need to build new social housing as well. And we need affordable housing overall. So that's a major need. Our schools on the Bronx side of the district are underfunded, chronically underfunded, and education funding is going to continue to be a huge issue. And then the third thing I would highlight is jobs, jobs, green jobs and alignment with our mission of net-zero carbon emissions within the next 10 years. Also growing jobs within the care economy. So universal childcare too, nurses in long-term care providers – as well as infrastructure, so building and retrofitting homes and schools in alignment with the demands of 21st century green technology.
In terms of schools being underfunded, you actually wrote an op ed for City & State in 2016 criticizing Cuomo for not fully funding Foundation Aid for schools in disadvantaged districts. Now that we have this huge budget deficit at the state level, can schools be fully funded from the state? Is there anything you plan to do from your position in Congress on that issue?
At the state level, if Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo puts forward legislation that taxes the wealthy and ensures that the wealthy pay their fair share, we could generate the revenue needed to fully fund our schools, fully fund our health care system, and get our economy going here in New York state. At the congressional level, we're calling for the quadrupling of Title I funds and fully funding IDEA, which is the special education law, to ensure that our schools and our students with the highest needs receive the funding that they deserve. And whether it's a competitive block grant related to COVID or incentivizing new approaches to education, there are spaces for the federal government to step in and provide resources.
Have you endorsed Joe Biden for president?
Yes. Whenever I'm asked about it, I reiterate that I have endorsed Joe Biden. I don't know if I put out a tweet yet. But Joe Biden has my full support, full endorsement. And if my wife allows me, I'm going to travel all over the country to canvass for Joe Biden and make sure he beats Donald Trump so that we can work together and so that we can call Joe Biden accountable.
Why were you a registered independent, rather than Democrat, until relatively recently? And did you support Democratic candidates for president?
I always voted for Democratic candidates for president. I always did throughout my life. I was registered as an independent because, you know, there was a time where I felt like neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party really spoke to my needs personally or the needs of my community. So I was disenchanted with both parties in my younger adult years, before becoming a Democrat in the last few years, and which also gave me the opportunity to participate in primaries, which is something that due to New York state’s closed election laws I wasn't able to do, unfortunately.
What do you want to see happen in terms of COVID policy? Your district has hard-hit areas. There isn't national funding for testing, contact tracing and quarantining right now. Do you have proposals for combating the pandemic?
From the very beginning, we called on the president to activate the Defense Production Act – urgently from the very beginning – bringing the full resources of the federal government to bear to support testing and content tracing in the most efficient manner possible. That's something that is still haphazard across the country, which is why we continue to see the numbers grow in certain states and deaths continue to rise. So that's one thing we've called for. We also called for a federal ban on rent, cancellation of rent, and a blockade on evictions, so that people cannot be evicted from their homes when they're not able to pay rent. And rent should be canceled during the duration of the pandemic. And we've called for $2,000 per month for those who have lost their jobs during the duration of the pandemic, as well as continuing unemployment insurance at $600 per week. The HEROES Act does a block grant, there's a lot of this, so we support the heroes that the House passed on. Now, I think it's been two months already. And the Republicans are finally just responding.
You would cancel rent even for people who haven't lost a job?
If people are able to afford rent and they can pay rent, then they should be paying rent, which they are. But if people have lost their jobs, and they can't afford rent, that needs to be canceled, and the federal government needs to step in to help people still pay for food and utilities and other things that they need. We also called for the cancellation of utilities and mom-and-pop mortgages because we know that, you know, some small landlords need support and paying their mortgages as well.
What do you think about how Gov. Andrew Cuomo has handled COVID-19?
I think his general handling of COVID has been pretty good, in terms of flattening the curve, and then bringing the numbers down to where they are. You know, pausing the state was a very smart move, and it really helped to bring the numbers to where they are. But there's the other side of that, the other side of that includes the cancellation of rent, the blockades on evictions. That’s the other side of it that’s not really happening at the rate I would like to see it happen.
We did a story recently about how you, Jackie Gordon and Mondaire Jones all won Democratic primaries in districts that are largely suburban. Your district’s a little bit different, because it's actually mostly Black and Latino. But the others are majority-white, and you certainly have some majority-white suburbs in your district. Until (Rep. Antonio) Delgado, there were no Black or Latino members of Congress in New York state from outside New York City. Now there could be four. So, that's quite a change. Do you have any thoughts on how and why that change has come about so suddenly?
Our elected officials are becoming more representative of the country overall. … The constituents are voting for more diverse candidates because we're a more diverse country. It’s as simple as that. It’s great to see. And, you know, the issues matter, more so than a person's identity. I think that's important as well. We never felt uncomfortable in the whiter suburban parts of the district.
All the additional funding for housing and education and green jobs that you talk about would cost money. Do you also have a tax on the wealthy, or on everyone, proposal at the federal level?
Absolutely. The wealthy elite, the 1/10 of 1%, needs to pay their fair share in taxes. That's not happening. We need to tax capital gains and Wall Street and its transactions more than we currently do. And large corporations also need to pay their fair share of taxes as well, which currently doesn't happen. That will help to offset the cost of some of the programs that I'm referring to. I think in addition, we also need to understand that our values and priorities drive our policy, and, you know, policy comes before costs.
What do you say to the counter-argument to raising taxes during a recession, that you would inhibit economic recovery? Also, at the state level, some argue that rich people would flee the state.
Yeah, that's bullshit. It's bullshit because, No. 1, New York is the greatest city in the world. No one is leaving New York for asking them to pay 2% more tax. No. 2: Trickle-down economics has not worked for 40 years. We have a system where three individuals own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the country. We have a system where Jeff Bezos made $13 billion in one day last week, and the millionaire and billionaire classes have grown, while 150,000 people have died from the pandemic. Our system is rotten and broken. And there's no way democracy can flourish with this level of economic inequality. So we have to take a different approach. And that different approach involves everyone paying their share, and the government focused on policy that uplifts people in communities that have been neglected for decades – and not even decades, for centuries. Just look at something like how the Homestead Act helped white America build wealth, while the formerly enslaved never received the land that was promised to them. As a result, they haven't been able to build wealth. This is historical and we have to right the wrongs of history through federal investment.
Rep. Eliot Engel, who was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was relatively hawkish for a Democrat and very supportive of Israel. How are you going to be different on foreign policy?
I'm more dovish when it comes to foreign policy. Overall, I believe America needs to be a humanitarian leader when it comes to foreign policy, and we need to focus our resources more on dealing with issues of climate change and the immigration crisis and the refugee crisis that's happening all over the world, because our military has been a part of causing these crises to occur. I support decreasing our military budget, there's absolutely no reason for us to spend as much as the next seven countries combined. I support a 21st century Marshall Plan to rebuild the political and economic systems we've broken in South America, Africa, the Middle East and other places. And again, as a humanitarian leader, we need to be more involved to say more about what's happening in Kashmir, what's happening in China with the Uighur Muslims and what's happening in Palestine with the Palestinians. One stark contrast between myself and Congressman Engel is I've been critical of occupation, annexation and detaining Palestinian children – where Congressman Engel has not. And it doesn't mean that, you know, I'm not pro-Israel. I am in full support of Israel. I'm also in full support of the human rights of the Palestinian people. And it's important for us to continue to uplift human rights in the Middle East and all over the world. And that's what America should be leading on. And unfortunately, we just haven't been for far too long.