Interview and article by Hudson Mu, age 14
It was a sweltering June Saturday in the Bronx, New York. A pop-up table supported boxes of face masks, hand sanitizer and water bottles in front of Van Cortlandt Park. Taped to it were posters that could be spotted all across the Bronx and Westchester of Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old middle school principal attempting to unseat longtime Congressman Eliot Engel. Joining a handful of volunteers, I handed out flyers to people picnicking on the park’s vast green field, when a bright yellow school bus pulled up, and Bowman stepped out to meet his future constituents. Bowman began his stump speech by praising the diversity of his volunteers and supporters, and pledging to fight for them in Washington.
Bowman can easily be compared to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known as AOC, who has become a symbol for progressives after she beat incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District in 2018. Her campaign, like Bowman’s, took no corporate cash and was carried by on-the-ground organizers and volunteers. Many believed that Crowley was a rising star in congressional leadership, but AOC’s victory was such a surprise, Crowley didn’t even have a concession speech prepared on election night.
Bowman received an endorsement from AOC, along with Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, in the month leading up to the primary. Hillary Clinton, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Governor Andrew Cuomo quickly lined up behind Engel. The Intercept reported that $1 million from Republican super PACs were also supporting Engel; one PAC, the Democratic Majority for Israel, funneled $100,000 from Republican organizations to the Engel campaign.
Bowman’s grassroots campaign might have dwindled in the wind of the coronavirus pandemic, especially when it was up against Engel’s massive funding, but instead it went ablaze. “Our field team developed innovative solutions to organize and reach voters and recruit a volunteer army of digital phone-bankers that ultimately made 1.3 million calls to voters in the district.” Bowman said in an interview with IndyKids, also emphasizing that his opinion on policy was only strengthened by the virus: “The pandemic has obliterated any arguments against Medicare for All, and made clear we absolutely need a Green New Deal to not only combat the climate crisis, but to create millions of good new jobs.”
Earlier in the year, it seemed like Senator Bernie Sanders would likely win the Democratic nomination for president, but after former Vice President Joe Biden consolidated support from the right of the party and jumped ahead during Super Tuesday, Sanders dropped out, many lost faith in the possibility of Medicare for All or a Green New Deal, unable to see a progressive future with a Biden presidency.
But Bowman says that the key races will be won in Congress. “When it comes to the general election, there is one rule that we must all remember: The more seats that progressives win in Congress, the more we’ll be able to push forward a progressive agenda that will ultimately bring the change that we need to see in our communities,” he said. “Currently, we have a president in the White House that has shown nothing but carelessness and malice toward Black and Brown communities. This November, we have to vote for Joe Biden.” Bowman emphasizes willingness to work with progressives, citing a long policy recommendation that was written with folks from both the Sanders and Biden campaigns.
“I’m a Black man raised by a single mother in a housing project. That story doesn’t usually end in Congress,” Bowman tweeted in June. When asked what will separate him from other members of Congress, he underscores that he will be a champion of racial justice. “America needs a reckoning, plain and simple. We need to reckon with our history, and with the impact the legacy of slavery and racism still has today on every American institution, especially our education and criminal legal system,” Bowman responded in an email interview with IndyKids. “As a country, the United States was built on racism, so naturally race and class are at the core of everything we do. It’s now time that we, as a nation, come face to face with the reality of race and racism in America, and stop allowing people in power to revise the past.”
Full Interview with Jamaal Bowman:
Hudson: All of our lives have been affected and disrupted by the pandemic, but how has COVID-19 changed your approach to policy and campaigning?
Bowman: The COVID-19 pandemic completely changed every aspect of life as we know it. Our campaign strategy also had to change, because we wanted to make sure we were keeping the community and our campaign team as safe and healthy as possible during these unprecedented times. Pivoting to an all-digital campaign was a challenge, but the biggest challenge was processing and dealing in a healthy way with the emotional stress and trauma of actually living through a pandemic. At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, and still today, there is so much that we don’t fully comprehend about the virus. On top of that, the crisis highlighted the urgent need for change and for care, especially toward people of color, who are now disproportionately dying from this crisis. COVID-19 forced us to stop human interaction, so our campaign focused on bringing that connection to voters online and over the phone. Our field team developed innovative solutions to organize and reach voters and recruit a volunteer army of digital phone-bankers that ultimately made 1.3 million calls to voters in the district. Our approach to policy did not change, as the pandemic made clear that the transformative positions we were running on were absolutely necessary. For instance, the pandemic has obliterated any arguments against Medicare for All and made clear we absolutely need a Green New Deal, to not only combat the climate crisis but to create millions of good new jobs. We also stood alongside frontline workers in calls for more care, and joined rallies held by healthcare workers who were demanding more PPE. We also held listening tours with virtual town halls, and hosted a wide variety of other online events almost daily, including “Getting (Home)Schooled with Jamaal.” Though the campaign looked different than we thought it would, we were still able to reach voters because we got creative and were running on the issues that mattered most to them.
Hudson: The Democratic presidential primary is effectively over. Bernie Sanders’s loss was a large setback for progressives, and many people seemed to lose faith in the possibility of things like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, but your victory helps prove that wrong. What do you say to people who can’t imagine a progressive future with a Biden presidency?
Bowman: When it comes to the general election there is one rule that we must all remember: The more seats that progressives win in Congress, the more we’ll be able to push forward a progressive agenda that will ultimately bring the change that we need to see in our communities. Currently, we have a president in the White House that has shown nothing but carelessness and malice toward Black and Brown communities. This November, we have to vote for Joe Biden. Biden has already shown a willingness to adopt progressive ideas when we fight for them. For example, he has worked with the Sanders campaign to unify Democrats and produce a comprehensive, 110-page policy recommendation. While the recommendations don’t include everything we hoped for, it is a huge step in the right direction—and a huge improvement over what he originally ran on in the primary—as it includes a commitment to eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035, increasing funding for universal pre-K, expanding Social Security, raising the national minimum wage, and eliminating cash bail. We’ve come so far already in fighting for progressive values, but we still have a long way to go. But no one can say our movement is not powerful now, and growing in power every day. Even still, we must keep the pressure up and continue to hold our representatives accountable to the people.
Hudson: Besides the mainstream progressive ideas like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, what do you plan to advocate for when you get to Congress? What congressional committees will you join, and what will your stance be on third rail issues like foreign policy?
Bowman: I will be a champion in fighting against racial and economic inequality. America needs a reckoning, plain and simple. We need to reckon with our history, and with the impact the legacy of slavery and racism still has today on every American institution, especially our education and criminal legal system. As a country, the United States was built on racism, so naturally race and class are at the core of everything we do. It’s now time that we, as a nation, come face to face with the reality of race and racism in America, and stop allowing people in power to revise the past. Earlier this year, our campaign released a Reconstruction Agenda that addressed racism and the economic issues that continue to oppress Blacks and Latinos today. Specifically, it pointed to the disproportionate effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on Black and Latino communities across all aspects of life, including healthcare, jobs, access to education, etc. My Reconstruction Agenda pushes for a federal jobs guarantee that gets people back into the workforce in jobs that align with the demands of a Green New Deal. It asks for a deep investment in public schools, free college, and the cancellation of student debt. It calls for our federal government to tax the rich and require them to pay their fair share, like the rest of us. In Congress I hope to be on the Education and Labor, Energy and Commerce, and Small Business Committees. When it comes to our role in the world, I believe our country is ready for a progressive foreign policy vision that is based on our common humanity and shared aspirations. We need to strengthen our global partnerships and alliances through robust diplomacy, apply our shared values of freedom and dignity to our international relations, prioritize diplomacy over war, and question why our government spends more on the military today than it did during the wars in Korea and Vietnam. You can read my full foreign policy platform here.
Hudson: Your campaign won because of all the support from volunteers and small donors, but partially you were able to gain so much support and win by 15 points because, in the end, you were the only major candidate standing against Eliot Engel. Do you think that progressive organizations like Justice Democrats or the DSA should act like the DNC when it comes to picking candidates to challenge incumbents or presumptive nominees?
Bowman: In recent years, groups like Justice Democrats, the DSA and the Working Families Party have been doing a lot of work to elect candidates that make up part of a new wave of progressive Democrats. Unlike the establishment, these progressive groups understand that we need to elect people to office who understand the issues that American people are struggling with on a daily basis. I am so grateful for all of those organizations and think it is amazing how they are transforming the political landscape across the country, and here in New York I know from working with these organizations first hand that they are dedicated to listening to working people and supporting the candidates who will champion bold, transformative policies in office. I think the big difference here is that while the DCCC tries to pick and choose winners from the outset and pressure insurgent candidates not to bother running in the first place, in my race we campaigned for nearly a year alongside another progressive challenger, who only dropped out once it was clear that our campaign had the best chance of defeating the incumbent.