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Middle school principal Jamaal Bowman unseats Eliot Engel in New York

Eliot Engel has lost his seat in Congress despite the Democratic establishment’s efforts to save him.

Jamaal Bowman campaigning in a park.
Jamaal Bowman campaigning in the Bronx, New York, on June 22.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Middle school principal Jamaal Bowman is very likely headed to Capitol Hill after unseating New York’s longest-serving Congress member, Rep. Eliot Engel, in the state’s June primary elections.

Bowman, 44, mounted an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-like campaign to unseat Engel, 73, in New York’s 16th Congressional District. Recruited by Justice Democrats to run in 2019, he consolidated progressive support at the national and local levels, picking up endorsements from figures such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. The Democratic establishment rallied behind Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to try to help save his seat but was ultimately unsuccessful.

“Eliot Engel — and I’ll say his name once — used to say he was a thorn in the side of Donald Trump,” Bowman said in a speech on the night of the election. “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.”

He later added that he “cannot wait to get to Congress and cause problems.”

Engel, who has served in Congress since 1989, is also a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and is pretty hawkish on foreign policy. He’s been successful over the years in bringing money and resources into his district. But he was unable to overcome the perception that he had become disconnected from his district, which contains parts of the Bronx and Westchester County. The area is a diverse one — less than half of its residents are white, one-third are Black, and one-quarter are Hispanic. And during the coronavirus crisis and then the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the narrative that the Congress member was not attentive enough to his district — one he denied — took even stronger hold.

New Rochelle, which is in the 16th district, was an early hot spot for Covid-19, and Engel was criticized for not going home during the crisis, which most members of Congress did. Edward-Isaac Dovere at the Atlantic went to Engel’s Maryland home in mid-May and asked him where he’d been. Engel’s response was confusing: “I’m in both places.”

But his big gaffe took place in June at Bronx press conference about civil unrest. In an attempt to get speaking time at the event, he was caught on a hot mic twice saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”

Engel later explained that he was trying to emphasize that he thought it was “important for people to know where I stand” in the context of running for reelection. But the damage was done.

Given how Democratic-leaning the district is — Hillary Clinton won there overwhelmingly in 2016 — it is highly likely Bowman will be headed to Washington, DC, come the next Congress.

Bowman, who lives in Yonkers with his wife and three children, is the founding principal at Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School in the Bronx. He has spent most of his career in education and has been heavily involved in education activism in the city. He supports Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal, and the policy areas he’s focused on include education, housing, and racial and economic inequality.

“It will be our job to hold Donald Trump accountable and to hold every elected official accountable that continues to be beholden to corporate interests, that continues to be beholden to the wealthy, that is not fighting for the poor and is not fighting for the working class in our country,” Bowman said in his election night speech.

When he spoke with Vox in 2019, he spoke about the “urgency” he feels is lacking from elected leaders — urgency he’s now responsible for bringing himself.