JEENAH MOON/GETTY IMAGES Jamaal Bowman’s presence in New York City during the COVID-19 pandemic marked a sharp contrast with Rep. Eliot Engel, who weathered the early days of the outbreak in the Washington suburbs.

(BROOKLYN, New York): The veteran congressman’s defeat is a big win for the progressive left and a crushing blow for the Democratic establishment. Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman ousted New York Rep. Eliot Engel in a June primary, landing a major win for the activist left and a stunning defeat for the Democratic establishment.

Due to the unprecedented volume of absentee ballots, local election authorities didn’t certify the result until some weeks after Election Day. Bowman had declared victory after the polls closed on June 23, having amassed a 25-percentage-point lead over Engel in in-person votes. “I’m ready to get to work,” Bowman said Friday in a statement. “I cannot wait to get to Washington and cause problems for the people maintaining the status quo.”


Congressman Elito L. Engel

Engel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, has represented parts of the Bronx and lower Westchester County since 1989. His defeat at the hands of a first-time candidate likely marks the end of a congressional career that began 32 years ago with his own successful primary challenge against a longtime incumbent.

“Engel’s lack of presence in his district was noticed by voters,” said Christina Greer, a Fordham University political science professor. “Even though he’s been an incumbent, his district wanted a change.”

Engel’s loss, which came despite the support of Democratic Party leaders, shows that the traditional incumbent advantages ― cash, name recognition and high-profile endorsements ― don’t inoculate party veterans against the challenge of a left insurgency. That’s particularly true in New York City, which was also the site of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s landmark primary win in 2018. That Bowman, an unabashedly left-wing Black candidate, was able to prevail in a district that includes predominantly white, affluent suburbs is, in some ways, even more remarkable.

Greater awareness of racism following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police appears to have increased the appeal of Bowman’s candidacy as well. Bowman spoke personally about the impact of racist policing practices on his life, including a violent arrest he endured at age 11.

Progressives across the country had seized on Bowman’s race as a potential silver lining in an otherwise disappointing election cycle. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the left’s preferred presidential candidates, both lost that primary race. And before Bowman’s win, progressives had succeeded in unseating just one incumbent congressional Democrat this cycle, Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski. (Lipinski’s opposition to abortion rights and other conservative social views earned him the opposition of mainstream liberal groups as well.)

Engel had elicited particular disdain from the left for his hawkish foreign policy record. He voted for the Iraq War, opposed then-President Barack Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran and applauded President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

But Bowman sought to make the race about the veteran congressman’s lack of connection to the economically polarized 16th Congressional District, which is now home to more Black and Latino residents than white residents. As a Black educator living in Yonkers and working in the heart of the Bronx, Bowman was exactly the kind of candidate who activists hoped could gain traction among working-class voters of color, who are often reluctant to abandon establishment politicians with whom they have existing relationships.politics ne

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