Campaign

How a progressive populist appears to have toppled Engel

A trickle of absentee votes counted weeks after last month’s New York primary contest has almost assured that former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman will defeat House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel in what was once seen as a quixotic challenge.

With about 40,000 absentee ballots left to count, Bowman, a first-time candidate, led Engel by 23 percentage points, or just over 10,000 votes. Engel has not conceded the race, though New York Democrats believe his odds of a comeback are almost hopelessly long.

Engel’s campaign has filed suit against elections officials in the Bronx and Westchester County seeking permission to observe absentee ballot counts.

If Bowman’s lead holds out, it will be just the latest sign of an ascendent movement that has already knocked off long-serving incumbents in recent years in New York, Massachusetts, California and Illinois.

In interviews, nearly a dozen top Democrats in New York City and Washington who kept close tabs on the race described a perfect storm that raised Bowman and hurt Engel, who has represented various iterations of the district since 1988, before Bowman was old enough to vote.

Engel would be the second powerful New York Democrat to lose his bid for another term in just two years.

The veteran lawmaker had plenty of warning that he was facing his most significant challenge since 2000, when he fended off an African American New York City councilman by 9 points. 

Senior Democrats had sounded alarms for several members after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) stunned House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D) in the 2018 primary. Justice Democrats, the group behind Ocasio-Cortez’s upset, eyed several other long-serving members who had not faced serious challenges in years or even decades.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who replaced Crowley as caucus chairman, urged fellow incumbents to be prepared and to modernize their campaigns. So did Rep. Gregory Meeks (D), who acts as the unofficial dean of New York City’s delegation to Congress, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which pushed members to hire staff and poll their districts so they would not be caught unaware.

Jeffries’s representatives declined to comment for this story. A spokesman for Meeks did not return a request for comment.

Two other members of New York’s delegation, Reps. José Serrano (D) and Nita Lowey (D), opted to retire instead of risking a primary challenge. Voters in both districts last month picked young progressive candidates of color to replace them.

Others, like Reps. Yvette Clarke (D) — who only narrowly survived her own primary challenge in 2018 — Jerrold Nadler (D) and Carolyn Maloney (D) built more robust campaigns than they had in the past. 

Clarke and Nadler survived spirited challenges this year. Maloney leads her challenger, former Obama administration official Suraj Patel (D), by a scant 1.6 percentage points, a margin of fewer than 900 votes.

Engel, too, appeared to take the potential for a primary challenge seriously — he paid for polls in August, December and May, according to spending records filed with the Federal Election Commission. 

Engel did not provide a comment for this story.

Those early polls did not show Bowman as a rising threat, though insiders say they did show Engel with worryingly low numbers in a district in which a majority of voters are people of color. Demographic data shows the district had been moving away from Engel. Over the last decade, Engel’s constituents have become more diverse, less white and younger, according to the Census Bureau.

“Engel is one of the people who is ground zero for a primary because he is in a situation in which he represents an increasingly diverse urban constituency where it is possible to create a deathly coalition against an older white incumbent, which is progressive, high socio-economic status whites and people of color,” Sean McElwee, who runs the liberal group Data for Progress, said before the votes came in.

Bowman, meanwhile, spent months planting the seeds of his challenge. Recruited by Justice Democrats, Bowman in February won the Working Families Party’s endorsement, a moment strategists called an early sign of his potential. In early June, only weeks before the primary, another candidate challenging Engel, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, dropped out and backed Bowman.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Sen. Charles Schumer, New York’s top Democrats, waited until the week before last month’s primary to back Engel. Bowman, meanwhile, racked up support from progressive icons like Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Events far from Engel’s control also hurt him. In March, New York officials announced that the coronavirus had landed at a synagogue in New Rochelle in Engel’s district. As officials scrambled to contain the spread of the disease, Engel was conspicuously absent.

In May, a reporter for The Atlantic found Engel at his home in Potomac, Md. Engel’s communications director said Engel had not been to his district since March.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him go back to his district during a pandemic,” a Washington Democrat said.

Engel returned to New York in the closing weeks of the race, though one appearance in particular came to embody the charge Bowman had leveled: that Engel, a 32-year incumbent, was out of touch with his district.

Sharing the stage with fellow elected officials, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. told Engel he had a long list of elected officials who were set to address an audience after protests over police brutality, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

“If I didn’t have a primary,” Engel said, “I wouldn’t care.”

The twin shocks of a global pandemic that disproportionately killed Blacks and Hispanics and widespread demonstrations for racial justice gave voters a chance to form new coalitions.

The pandemic undermined trust in government institutions, New York-based strategists said, making a long-time incumbent more a symbol of a broken system than the bearer of popular pork projects. 

The protests, which elevated the Black Lives Matter movement, gave voters another reason to cast a ballot for a young progressive Black man who had told of his own abuse at the hands of police.

Bowman would be the second progressive outsider to oust a Democratic incumbent this year, after marketing executive Marie Newman (D) beat Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) in a Southside Chicago district. He is overwhelmingly likely to win the Yonkers-based district in November. Hillary Clinton carried three-quarters of the vote there in 2016.

In a statement the day after the primary, with a commanding lead but thousands of votes left to count, Bowman declared victory.

“From the very beginning, we anchored our campaign in the fight for racial and economic justice. We spoke the truth — about the police, about systemic racism, about inequality — and it resonated in every part of the district,” Bowman said. “The results show that the people of NY-16 aren’t just ready for change — they’re demanding it.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Andrew Cuomo Bernie Sanders Carolyn Maloney Charles Schumer Chuck Schumer Daniel Lipinski Democratic primary Eliot Engel Elizabeth Warren Gregory Meeks Hakeem Jeffries Hillary Clinton Jamaal Bowman Jerrold Nadler Joe Crowley Jose Serrano New York New York City Nita Lowey progressives Yvette Clarke

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