As a surge of progressive candidates of color see victories in Democratic primaries across the country, we speak with former Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman about his upset victory over New York Congressmember Eliot Engel, the 16-term Foreign Affairs Committee chair. Bowman ran on a Green New Deal, Medicare for All platform and recently joined protests demanding an end to racism and police brutality. He says his upset over Engel came down to mobilizing people who are “disenfranchised and ignored” by the political establishment. “We didn’t just target those who consistently vote in primaries. We targeted everyone,” he says. Looking forward, he describes his support for Palestine, a rent strike and police accountability.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York City, with my co-host Juan González joining from his home in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Hi, Juan.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hi, Amy. And welcome to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, as voters went to the polls Tuesday in Colorado, Utah and Oklahoma, the results from last Tuesday’s primary race in Kentucky came in, and former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath has been declared the winner over progressive state Representative Charles Booker. McGrath outspent Booker by a margin of nearly 10 to 1. Booker’s popularity soared in recent weeks as he took part in Black Lives Matter protests and campaigned with the slogan “From the hood to the holler.” He took a brief lead in votes last week, but McGrath’s campaign pulled ahead Tuesday after the final mail-in ballots were counted.
This comes amidst a surge of victories for progressive candidates of color in congressional primaries, including here in New York, where Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres are poised to become the first two openly gay Black men in Congress, replacing lawmakers who are retiring after decades in Washington.
And in what would be a major upset, Jamaal Bowman has claimed victory over New York Congressmember Eliot Engel, the Foreign Affairs Committee chair who’s served in Congress for more than 30 years. Bowman is currently leading by 25 percentage points, but absentee ballots are still being counted. Bowman ran on a Green New Deal, Medicare for All platform and recently joined protests demanding an end to racism and police brutality. He’s a former Bronx middle school principal who was endorsed by Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The New York Times. In a minute, he’ll join us, but first, this is part of his address to supporters last Tuesday night.
JAMAAL BOWMAN: The impact of poverty on our children, and dealing with issues of institutional racism and sexism and classism and xenophobia and everything that keeps the majority of us oppressed, is what we designed this campaign to fight against. So, tonight, as we celebrate, we don’t just celebrate me as an individual. We celebrate this movement, a movement designed to push back against a system that’s literally killing us. It’s killing Black and Brown bodies disproportionately, but it’s killing all of us. …
Eliot Engel — and I’ll say his name once — used to say that he was a thorn in the side of Donald Trump. But you know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anything else? A Black man with power. That is what Donald Trump is afraid of.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jamaal Bowman addressing supporters on election night. Many have compared his apparent victory to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning defeat of Democrat Joe Crowley just two years ago. Progressive political strategist Karthik Ganapathy said, quote, “A middle school principal with no prior political experience defeating a 20-year incumbent — that is an AOC-level upset.”
Well, Jamaal Bowman joins us now from his home in Yonkers, New York.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Jamaal Bowman. Thank you so much for being with us. And if you could continue to respond, as you did on primary night, this — well, the final results are not in, but it looks like you have such a major lead right now. What do you think did it?
JAMAAL BOWMAN: We connected with the people very early on in this campaign — all people, not just a small segment of the district. We went to Co-op City, We went to Edenwald Projects, Gun Hill Projects. We connected with those who have been — who had been mostly disenfranchised and ignored by Congressman Engel in our political system for decades. We wanted to connect with them first. We didn’t just target those who consistently vote in primaries. We targeted everyone. Those who are registered Democrats but have become disengaged from the system, we wanted to let them know that their voices mattered, that they were important, and we needed their brilliance and experience to help us craft the policy that we’re going to be fighting for in Washington. And we had an amazing team and an amazing field program to help us get that done.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jamaal Bowman, I wanted to delve into how your experience as a public school teacher and an assistant principal helped frame your view of progressive politics when it comes to education. We just heard about the Supreme Court decision that is going to make it easier for religious schools to be able to access scholarships through tax credits, and we know how the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, wants to increasingly provide federal assistance to private education and to religious schools. And in the Bronx, you had to deal with growing charter school chains, which are semi-private, like Success Academy and the KIPP Academy and others. Can you talk about this whole issue of education, privatization, and how this has shaped your view of progressive politics in America?
JAMAAL BOWMAN: Absolutely. You know, I had a front-row seat to the attack on public schools, attack on teachers’ unions, and the privatization of our schools and the taking of resources from public schools and investments in charter schools. I had a front-row seat to that throughout my 20-year career, and particularly throughout my 10 years as a middle school principal. And outside of serving as a principal, I also worked on education organizing, with organizations like AQE, CEJ, NYSAPE, pushing back against charter schools, calling for a national moratorium on charter schools, and pushing back against the overuse of standardized testing, because it’s been used, as you know, as a weapon to call schools and kids and teachers failing, so they can ultimately be closed and reopened as for-profit charter entities. So, it’s something I’ve been fighting for and against throughout my career, but particularly over the last 10 years.
But that privatization is not just happening in public schools. It’s happening in housing. It’s happening in healthcare. It’s happening when you look at utilities and when you look at the impact of fossil fuels on our environments and how we continue to support fossil fuels and not move towards clean, renewable energy. So, the corporatization, the privatization and the wealthy elite are attacking all of our public institutions. And it’s our time. It’s our job right now to fight against that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve also been on record as supporting a reconstruction platform, of supporting of defunding the police. What’s your reaction to the latest results in City Council, where there’s supposedly a $1 billion reduction in the police budget that Mayor de Blasio and the council have supported, but critics are saying this is basically playing with numbers, shifting some services to other agencies but not really affecting the size of the police department, except for one academy class that will not be — will not take place this summer?
JAMAAL BOWMAN: Yes, I agree with the critics. We need a hiring freeze with the NYPD. We need to truly cut $1 billion in NYPD spending, not just shifting that money to the Department of Education, for example, to maintain school safety agents who will act in the same capacity and conduct the same functions that they did prior to the so-called cut.
This requires leadership, and this requires a reimagining of public safety and a restructuring of the way our schools and our NYPD currently conduct themselves. We need investment, true investment, in school counselors, school psychologists, social workers, additional teachers, especially now as we respond or come back from COVID-19. You know, the learning gap that was there before is now growing. And if we don’t invest in more teachers and more infrastructure to make sure we can lower class size and focus on one-on-one instruction and mental health supports, our kids will continue to suffer. So we need a true defunding and a true reinvestment in public health.
AMY GOODMAN: Last month, Eliot Engel was caught on a News 12 mic asking the Bronx Borough president, Rubén Díaz Jr., if he could speak at a rally, after a night of protests against police violence. He then told Díaz that, quote, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” Listen closely.
RUBÉN DÍAZ JR.: Please bear with me. I’ll announce everybody. I appreciate you coming. But then I’ve got to then go down the list, and it’s just too many folks here.
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: If I didn’t have a primary , I wouldn’t care.
RUBÉN DÍAZ JR.: Say that again?
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.
RUBÉN DÍAZ JR.: Don’t do that to me. We’re not going to do this. We’re not going to politicize this. Everybody has a primary, you know? I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to turn to Eliot Engel reacting to AOC’s endorsement of your campaign on a candidate forum.
REP. ELIOT ENGEL: This is not a dictatorship. This is a democracy. We shouldn’t have one person from high, even though she’s a colleague of mine, think that she can anoint whoever is elected to Congress. That’s not what democracy is all about.
AMY GOODMAN: Jamaal Bowman, you got endorsed by AOC, by Senators Sanders and Warren. And Eliot Engel, who is the former chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, was endorsed by Nancy Pelosi, as well as Hillary Clinton. If you can delineate, starting with the Green New Deal, your differences and how you think you’ll challenge even the Democratic leadership in Congress, not just the Republicans, the direction you think they need to be going in that’s different right now?
JAMAAL BOWMAN: Well, number one, I don’t take any corporate PAC money. We are completely supported by grassroots organizations and individuals who support our campaign financially, so we take no corporate PAC money at all. We’re accountable to the people; we’re not accountable to corporations.
Number two, my background as an educator has prepared me and trained me to, first and foremost, serve the people in my district. So, while I’ll also be in Washington fighting for the right policy and resources and pushing a racial justice agenda, I’m also going to be here serving the people and providing exemplary constituent services — something that Congressman Engel was criticized for throughout his campaign.
And then, the third piece — I’ll reiterate, you know, what I said before — racial justice and institutional racism is something that we have to fight very directly, very urgently, and it’s something that lives within every American institution. So part of our reconstruction agenda involves putting together a truth and reconciliation committee to look at the history of racism and slavery, and its impact on us today. We see it in police brutality and mass incarceration, but it’s also in housing and miseducation and health outcomes, as we’ve seen from the COVID-19 epidemic. That’s something that Congressman Engel had not done. He had not been a leader on any of those issues throughout his time in Congress. And that’s why the people have resoundingly voted us in at this point in this race.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Jamaal Bowman, I’d like to ask you about the — in terms of housing, you’ve been in support of the “Cancel the Rent” movement as a result of the economic dislocation that the country is going through from the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics say that that’s not realistic, that landlords also have bills, and especially small landlords, but yet there are over 800,000 rent-stabilized tenants in New York City, many of them suffering because they can’t pay the rent. Talk about the “Cancel the Rent” movement.
JAMAAL BOWMAN: Yeah. If people don’t have jobs and they can’t pay their rent, how are we going to hold them accountable by taking them to eviction? And in terms of the small landlords, we support, you know, a moratorium on mortgages regarding small landlords, because they are small and they do have their struggles. But we’re talking about larger real estate corporations and the real estate lobby that has been dictating how we do housing policy in New York state for decades.
We need a cancellation of rent. We need a cancellation of small mortgages. We need a cancellation of utilities. We need to end evictions. We need a blockade on evictions, as that runs out today in New York state and across the country. We need to invest in the people, the working-class people of our city, state and country. It was very easy for us to write trillions of dollars — write a $1.5 trillion check for Wall Street, very easy for us to bail out the airline industry and the cruise industry. We need to bail out the working-class people of this country. And that’s what the cancellation of rent is all about. Let’s focus on the people. Let’s invest in the people. And let’s uplift the people.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Jamaal Bowman, do you think Governor Cuomo didn’t go far enough? He just signed this measure yesterday to prevent tenants from being evicted for nonpayment of rent during this period of the coronavirus. But, of course, they will have to pay that full rent soon.
JAMAAL BOWMAN: It needs to be canceled. As we deal with this coronavirus and we get a handle on it and people endure what’s happening in their lives, it needs to be canceled outright, not a moratorium, because they’re going to be held accountable for that on the backend, which is something we’re against.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about a challenge you got about a week before the primary election by Rabbi Avi Weiss in your district, when he wrote an open letter in the Riverdale Press condemning what he called your anti-Israel views. You replied to him in your own open letter. I want to read a part of it. You wrote, “The uprising across the country against police violence also makes me empathize with the everyday experience and fear that comes with living under occupation. Just as the police force is an intimidating force in so many black communities, I can connect to what it feels like for Palestinians to feel the presence of the military in their daily lives in the West Bank. I can also understand the crushing poverty and deprivation in the Gaza strip. I believe Palestinians have the same rights to freedom and dignity as my Jewish brothers and sisters. I will fight for their liberation just as hard as I will fight for yours,” you wrote.
I was wondering if you could expand on that and then comment on the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex the occupied West Bank, parts of the occupied West Bank — he has put it off for today — and the letter that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote, that was supported by Senator Sanders and others, saying that if he moves forward, the U.S. should cut military aid to Israel.
JAMAAL BOWMAN: Yes. So, first of all, I’m a Black man in America, and I know what it feels like to feel inferior because of the color of your skin or because of who you are, and to feel like you’re constantly under attack because of your race. I understand the history of this country completely, and I know what my ancestors have gone through in this country. In that understanding, you know, I can connect with Palestinian suffering, not just in Israel-Palestine, but across the world, and I can connect with Jewish suffering in terms of their safety and security in their history.
What I’ve talked about from the very beginning of this campaign is our common trauma and our common humanity. And that’s something — that’s what I’m trying to bridge — that’s how I’m trying to bridge these gaps and open doors to new understanding and new conversation amongst the Black community, the Jewish community, the Palestinian community and all communities, and everyone who’s felt oppressed in this country or throughout the world.
In terms of the annexation, it’s something we’ve been very critical of throughout our campaign — the annexation, the occupation and the detaining of Palestinian children. Palestinian people have the right to self-determination, to safety and security, and to their own country, which is why we support a two-state solution. And the annexation undermines us getting to a two-state solution, which is why we’ve been critical of it throughout our campaign.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Jamaal Bowman, when do you expect the final results to be in, in your primary race, though you are many points ahead?
JAMAAL BOWMAN: We’ve heard next Wednesday or Thursday, so hopefully we’ll get the results then.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Jamaal Bowman claimed victory last week in the Democratic Party’s nomination for the 16th Congressional District in Westchester County and the Bronx over 16-term Congressmember Eliot Engel, who is the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Jamaal Bowman has been endorsed by Senators Warren and Sanders, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and The New York Times. Former Bronx middle school principal.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the man who predicted the pandemic two years ago, Atlantic writer Ed Yong. Stay with us.
Note: This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for publication on Truthout.