“I really want to vote for you!” said the driver.
“Appreciate you, brother,” said Bowman, who gently informed the driver that the primary had happened a few days prior, with Bowman getting more than 60 percent of the in-person vote. The 44-year-old middle school principal who’d never run for office before was the prohibitive favorite in the primary race against Rep. Eliot L. Engel, a 31-year congressman who is chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Everyone in the car cheered. Like many other races in New York, though, results may not be official until August due to a massive influx of mail-in ballots because of the pandemic.
The 16th Congressional District is majority black and Latino, with large pockets of white suburbs, covering the northern part of the Bronx and the southern part of Westchester County. And it just so happens to adjoin the 14th Congressional District in the Bronx, where two years ago then-28-year-old bartender Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pulled off the surprise defeat of Joseph Crowley, the No. 4 Democrat in the House.
With two neighboring white male incumbents overthrown by liberal, first-time politicians of color in two years, the upstart left wing of Democrats seems to be proving AOC’s win was not a fluke.
This election cycle, the waves of leftist rabble-rousing influence have boomed out like an earthquake in concentric circles, from Ocasio-Cortez’s district (where she is headed toward reelection despite well-funded primary challengers) to Bowman’s, and — more surprising still — deep into the wealthy suburbs of Westchester along the Metro North. There, another black liberal and first-time candidate, 33-year-old attorney Mondaire Jones, won the hotly contested open seat vacated by 83-year-old Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D) in the even more suburban 17th Congressional District, which is 60 percent white.
New York also may soon claim the first two openly gay black or Latino members of Congress: Jones and Ritchie Torres, a city council member who is black and Puerto Rican and appears to have won the open seat in the 15th Congressional District in the Bronx. What’s more, Bowman, Jones and Torres all grew up in either public or Section 8 housing.
That voters have elevated these voices, in the middle of a pandemic that has disproportionately affected black and brown people and as Black Lives Matter protests have spread across the state, seems to signal that there may be further political changes to come.
As things stand, Bowman has a 25 percentage point lead, but Engel has filed a lawsuit that would allow him to challenge absentee ballots and refuses to concede. Bowman doesn’t have the official green light to celebrate, but Jones does. On Tuesday, the Associated Press declared him the winner with a lead that was too large for his opponents to overcome three weeks after Election Day.
In Yonkers, though, it feels as if Bowman has already won. He’s doing Zoom calls with community leaders to push for an eviction moratorium and rent freezes, and reading a proposal Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) wrote for a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission.
“Watch out!” he shouted.
His wife, Melissa, an elementary school teacher, was pulling into the driveway. He hugged his kids, Maya, 6, and Marcel, 10 (his oldest son, Jelani, 19, is off at college in New Jersey). Soon he was carrying Maya’s pink bike with training wheels and “LOL” stickers into the house.
“During the race, Melissa was angry with me the whole time, until it was like, ‘Yo, you might win.’ Then she started getting friendly,” Jamaal said. “It was just the stress of the whole race and the fact that I turned her life upside down by running for office.”
“Oh, that’s your perception?” Melissa said. “I mean, I was worried. There’s so much uncertainty.” But now? “I’m excited. I’m excited. There’s so much he can do. It’s limitless.”
"Can I curse?" Bowman said when asked why he started hinting to friends years ago that he wanted to run for Congress. "S--- was f---ed up! I mean, I'm a principal on the Bronx side of the district for 10 years. I've got families losing their homes, parents that have been killed, kids self-mutilating because of mental distress, kids being admitted into mental institutions." Thirty-four children in his district died in the 2017-2018 school year, 17 of them from suicide. "No one's talking about the connection between trauma and poverty and bad policy, in the Bronx, in Yonkers, wherever black and brown people are. That is unacceptable. And it's been like that my entire life."
Bowman was raised by a single mother, a postal worker, in public housing in East Harlem before moving in with grandparents in rent-stabilized housing in the Yorkville section of the Upper East Side. He taught and was a guidance counselor for 10 years, then founded a middle school, Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, in the Bronx, while his house is in Yonkers, a working-class inner suburb that is technically its own city (the fourth-biggest in the state) but feels more like an extension of the Bronx.
Like many black men who grew up like he did, Bowman can cite his first beating by a police officer, an incident he said he spent many years trying not to think about. He was 11 and “was simply horseplaying and giving a little back talk,” he said. “That led to me being thrown up against a wall, thrown to the ground, nightstick to the back, face dragged against the floor, and my mother and I felt like we didn’t have any recourse.”
It’s his personal connection to these issues that makes his win less surprising in the Bronx, one of the city’s hardest-hit coronavirus hot spots, and the site of lootings and violent clashes with the police during the protests.
The liberal wave leaned so far left this cycle that Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez in Brooklyn faced a primary challenge from Paperboy Love Prince, a 27-year old rapper whose name appeared exactly like that on the ballot, who prefers “futurist” and “Team Love” to “progressive,” who aimed to be the first non-binary member of Congress, and who walked away with 20 percent of the in-person vote. The wave goes beyond New York, too. In New Jersey, Amy Kennedy — yes, a Kennedy! — won by running as anti-establishment.
Bowman’s and Jones’s presumptive wins in particular reflect a national trend of changing demographics, said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for the Justice Democrats, the liberal political action committee that formed after Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign and backed Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez’s current campaign.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but many of the suburbs in Westchester are majority people of color now,” Shahid said. “What we’re seeing across the country is that working-class people of color are being pushed out of cities because of gentrification and the high cost of rent.”
Like Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman was recruited by the Justice Democrats, which had identified Engel as vulnerable and the 16th Congressional District as ripe for an overhaul. A fellow educator nominated him as a candidate, and Bowman’s campaign benefited from the expertise of two of the staffers who worked on Ocasio-Cortez’s winning campaign.
“He had a record of leadership in the district that was really impressive,” Shahid said. Not only had he been in education for 20 years, “he’d been an organizer in the fight for public schools and racial and economic justice. So many families knew him. Activists knew him.”
And they didn’t just know his name. They knew him, had been students of his or had kids in his classes. Bowman kept his job as a principal through all of 2019, resigning only in January. In the last stretch of the campaign, he toured the district in a yellow school bus with a megaphone attached.
Being a principal of a public middle school in the Bronx earned him instant respect, said Luke Hayes, Bowman’s campaign manager: “People with kids or teachers are like, ‘Yeah, that’s a tough age to have to be an educator in.’ ” As the hosts of “Desus & Mero” pointed out when Bowman came on their talk show, handling Congress or the press corps would be easy compared with keeping the attention of a roomful of tweens.
Yet as late as May, Bowman’s own internal poll from Data for Progress showed him trailing Engel by 30 percentage points. Then the Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere published an article saying that Engel had been sheltering in place in Maryland and hadn’t set foot in the Bronx during the entire pandemic. “I’m in both places,” Engel replied when Dovere confronted him about being in Maryland while his presence was being touted at events in New York.
Three weeks before the election, days into the protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd, Engel did show up at a Bronx event calling for peace amid looting. When informed there wasn’t time for him to speak, Engel said, twice, into a hot mic: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
A day later, Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Bowman, followed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Eleventh-hour endorsements from establishment Democrats, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Clinton, and from members of the Congressional Black Caucus came in for Engel.
“The Clinton endorsement led to our second-biggest fundraising day of the campaign,” said Bowman — second only to the hot-mic moment day. “So, thanks! It gave us another hundred grand to put toward more advertising.”
If Bowman ran largely on his record as a principal, Mondaire Jones earned his votes more through the hope and generational change he represented. His district is divided by the Hudson River. To the east is Westchester County, which has one of the highest concentrations of wealthy communities in the country. To the west is Rockland County, a nirvana of greenery with pockets of deep poverty, where Jones grew up and now lives.
He was Lowey’s first primary challenger since she took her seat in 1988, which may have led to her announcing her retirement in October. Now he’ll probably be the first African American or person of color to hold that seat, having triumphed over a formidable seven-person field — including a pharmaceuticals heir who spent $4 million of his own money.
“We need more politicians for whom policy is personal,” is one of Jones’s frequent mantras. He was raised on food stamps by a single mother. He made it out of a declining public school to Stanford University, Harvard Law, and a stint with the Obama administration. He argued for canceling the student debt that led him to work in corporate law before he wound up at Westchester County’s Law Department. He called climate change an existential crisis in river towns where people regularly bail water out of their basements. He was the one candidate advocating for Medicare-for-all during a pandemic when people had lost their health-care coverage along with their jobs, and the one candidate who had criminal justice reform in his platform before George Floyd was killed.
Sitting outside his apartment complex in Nyack, Jones said he’d told Bernie Sanders, who endorsed him, that he owed his election to the frustrations young liberals had over the presidential primary.
“I am so grateful to them for channeling that hurt, that pain into down-ballot races like mine,” he said. At one polling place in a majority-white precinct, Jones’s staff members talked to people who were still in line at 11 p.m. “They said, ‘My kid is going to kill me if I don’t stay in this line and vote for Mondaire Jones,’ ” Jones said.
Bowman, too, benefited from appealing to younger voters ready for change. Back in Yonkers, he’d switched into a more recognizable face mask. It was his signature in the home stretch of the campaign, with the bright yellow logo of his favorite hip-hop group, the Wu Tang Clan.
It’s a conversation starter for anyone his age group.
“They know where I’m coming from without even saying anything,” he said. “Hip-hop is the culture that raised me along with my mother.”
For him, Wu Tang, who rose out of the projects in Staten Island, aren’t just about the music. They’re an ethos, an inspiration.
“Hip-hop is a culture that is created by teenagers who were forgotten about,” he said, “and because they were forgotten about, they were forced to come together and create something beautiful.”
He spent the day driving around thanking supporters: from Janice Simpson at the Caribbean American-owned shop Lloyd’s Carrot Cake to Melissa Meshulum, an organizer in Riverdale, a predominantly white and Jewish neighborhood home to two of the city’s most elite private schools.
Bowman appears to have carried Riverdale despite the Democratic Majority for Israel spending more than $1.3 million backing Engel.
“To me,” Bowman said, “if we have a system that allows black women to die at a disproportionate rate at a time in their lives that is supposed to be the most joyous and celebratory, then we’re sick as a society, right?”
The final stop was in a predominantly minority-occupied affordable housing development called Co-op City, where Lorraine Fairley, 63, another educator, had organized many of the residents to vote for Bowman. She’d actually tried to discourage him from running. “Those kids love him. I didn’t want him to leave the school!” she said.
With Bowman and Jones, it’s hard to separate their hard-fought, shrewdly strategic wins from the momentum gained by being the right candidates for this moment of pandemic and protests. But Jones at least feels like they’re imminently easy to separate: “There is this narrative that is actually condescending that, you know, my victory is owed to that fact that we are experiencing racial unrest.”
What it comes down to, he said, is “people want to be inspired by their member of Congress and they certainly don’t want to be told what we can and cannot do.”
In his race he was the only candidate who, as Bowman had said in more colorful language, called for tearing down broken, inequitable systems.
“And,” Jones said, “I think that really struck a nerve with a Democratic electorate that understands that the status quo was unacceptable even before Donald Trump was elected.”