Duane Townsend

In These Times - June 24, 2020

Two years ago, New York City was the site of a stunning victory for the U.S. Left that propelled a transformative candidate into office. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary to represent New York’s 14th District in 2018, defeating longtime Democratic incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, she shocked the political establishment by showing that a left-wing challenger can run on a bold agenda, lift up movement demands, and win.  

After Tuesday night, it appears New York will again be home to an electoral upset jolting the Democratic Party’s centrist wing, as Jamaal Bowman holds a dominant lead over 16-term incumbent Eliot Engel in New York’s 16th District. Engel, the hawkish House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman who has held the seat since 1989 and saw mainstream Democrats rally around him in the waning days of the campaign, ended the night losing to Bowman by nearly 25 points. If Bowman holds onto his lead as mail-in and absentee ballots are counted in the coming days, he will almost assuredly be the next Congressional representative of the deep-blue district.

Bowman, a Black former public school principal, had the backing of a broad array of progressive groups in the state, including Justice Democrats, the Working Families Party and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of which Bowman is a member. He was also endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez as well as Bernie Sanders, whom Bowman cites as first inspiring him to run for office.  

With protests over the police killing of George Floyd spreading across New York in recent weeks, Bowman has embraced the growing movement for racial justice—including the demand to redistribute funding from police departments into social programs, telling In These Times earlier this month, “We need to end the militarization of the police and transfer significant portions of the funding funneled to police forces into our schools and our healthcare facilities.” In a speech to supporters Tuesday night, Bowman referenced President Trump’s antipathy toward the protests, saying “You know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anything else? A Black man with power.”

Throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bowman transformed his campaign into a vehicle to help residents access food and services while calling on the federal government to cover workers’ wages and enact a moratorium on evictions, as well as mortgage, rent and debt payments during the crisis. His platform also includes key redistributive policies such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, free college, cancelling student debt, a wealth tax and major investments in affordable housing and public education.

“I cannot wait to get to Congress and cause problems,” Bowman said Tuesday night, singling out “institutional racism and sexism and classism and xenophobia” as “what we designed this campaign to fight against.”

The remarks evoked Ocasio-Cortez’s entrance to Congress in 2018 when she famously participated in a sit-in protest outside of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office organized by the climate group Sunrise Movement to demand the passage of a Green New Deal. This confrontational approach to advocating for policies within Ocasio-Cortez’s own party has been criticized by some Democrats, including those such as former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill who’ve been upset by her endorsement of primary challengers.

But Tuesday showed that this strategy can work, as not only does Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsed candidate look poised to topple the incumbent Engel, but she herself won a resounding primary victory in her own district, stating on Twitter: “Tonight we are proving that the people’s movement in NY isn’t an accident. It’s a mandate.”

Indeed, in the last cycle, Ocasio-Cortez was widely dismissed as being a serious threat to the establishment, and her opponent Crowley hardly campaigned in the primary. This time, she faced a well-funded challenger in CNBC contributor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who attempted to smear her democratic socialist rival by claiming “I am a real Democrat.” In the end, Ocasio-Cortez won by over 50 points.

A similar dynamic also played out in Bowman’s race, where Engel sensed his fortunes falling after a string of gaffes—including when he was caught on a hot mic saying, “If I didn’t have a primary I wouldn’t care” at a press event addressing recent protests. Democratic establishment heavyweights including Hillary Clinton, Sen. Chuck Schumer and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sought to revive his campaign with their support. Engel also received over $1.5 million in financial support from the pro-Israel PAC Democratic Majority for Israel to fund his reelection, along with other big-money donations from lobbying groups. And he attempted to slam Bowman personally by claiming “he’s not really a Democrat.”

But in the end, these big-name endorsements, PAC contributions and attacks weren’t enough to hold off Bowman’s challenge—a testament to both the insurgent’s political skills, as well as to the growth of a vibrant left-wing electoral infrastructure in the United States.

In July 2019, Fox News reporter Brooke Singman quoted a senior Democratic source as saying of the Justice Democrats: “No one is afraid of those nerds. They don't have the ability to primary anyone.” Bowman isn’t the only example of how this sentiment has been proven wrong. In March, progressive challenger Marie Newman—also a member of the Justice Democrats—ousted right-wing Democratic incumbent Dan Lipinski in Illinois.

The Working Families Party, which also endorsed Bowman, saw other successes on Tuesday, including the likely victory of progressive Mondaire Jones in the primary to represent New York’s 17th District in Congress. Jones is set to join probable 15th District winner Ritchie Torres in becoming the first openly gay, Black men in Congress.  

DSA similarly flexed its electoral muscle on Tuesday, as multiple endorsed candidates either won their races or took the lead in New York. Besides Ocasio-Cortez and Bowman, incumbent State Sen. Julia Salazar won her primary by a massive margin. On a video call ahead of the results, Salazar said, “What’s really exciting to me is that we’re going to elect more democratic socialists tonight…and with that power we’re going to grow the working-class movement.”   

She could soon be proven right, as public school teacher and DSA member Jabari Brisport appears likely to defeat machine-backed candidate Tremaine S. Wright to take a State Senate seat in Brooklyn. And Zohran Kwame Mamdani, another DSA-backed candidate, holds a lead in his race for State Assembly in Queens.

In 2018, mainstream media pundits and establishment Democrats—including Gov. Cuomo—attempted to write off Ocasio-Cortez’s shock win as a “fluke.” But Tuesday’s results are an indication that, at least in New York, the left-wing is a serious force to be reckoned with, capable of delivering votes, ousting powerful incumbents and advancing the demands of grassroots social movements.  

As the likely 15th District winner Torres told the Washington Post ahead of the elections, “It’s like B.C. and A.D.—before AOC and after AOC…In the post-AOC world, incumbency is no longer an entitlement, no longer a guarantee of elected office.”

(The author is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.)

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