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Jamaal Bowman on how he rocketed past Engel, and how the Democratic establishment should understand his likely victory

Jamaal Bowman, who ran against Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), speaks during his primary night party Tuesday in New York. (Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP)

Jamaal Bowman, a longtime educator, is on track to oust an incumbent in New York’s 16th Congressional District, putting him on a path to becoming a member of Congress in the safe Democratic seat.

Bowman has declared victory, though the race has not officially been called as mail-in ballots are still being counted, and he holds a big lead. He aligns with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party — he’s a member of the New York state chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and was supported by both Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). He challenged Rep. Eliot L. Engel, who has served in Congress for more than 30 years and is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Fix spoke to Bowman about his likely win and goals as he prepares to go to Washington. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Eugene Scott: What was your reaction to probably beating Engel, the incumbent and a longtime member of Congress?

Bowman: It was tempered because there are still votes to be counted, followed by excitement as my team gave me permission to let it sink in and accept it. It was tremendous. We did a bus tour throughout the district just connecting with voters during the early voting period and on Election Day. The excitement, the enthusiasm, the engagement of all parts of the district — the African American community, white, wealthy, lower income. Everyone seemed to be really excited about this election and me as a candidate. When it was 10 o’clock at night and I saw people still standing in line, I knew that we had a chance not just to win, but to have a really strong showing. It’s just humbling.

Waiting in line until 10 o’clock?

It’s deplorable, and it’s unacceptable. We boast about our wealth as a country but we can’t get Election Day right. We had not just long lines, we had locations where the residents’ names weren’t on the voter roll for whatever reason without explanation when they had been Democrats their entire lives. The bottom line is it’s just voter suppression, and this is something I can’t wait to get to work on with my colleagues to get that fixed.

Late openings, long lines at New York polling sites

Kentucky and New York held primary elections on June 23, but a limited number of polling stations and a huge influx of mail-in ballots delayed final results. (Video: The Washington Post)

Why do you think voters appear to have decided to go in a different direction from Engel?

I’ve worked in the district for 10 years as a middle school principal, so I’ve been able to develop thousands of pretty good relationships with kids and families throughout the district. I’ve also been an organizer, not just in the district, but across the state and country fighting for educational justice issues. So that authenticity was present as we launched our campaign and throughout the campaign, we made it a point to build authentic, deep relationships with every voter in the district and in every town regardless of race, class or religion — and we started with communities that have been historically ignored and marginalized, and they liked that and appreciated that there was finally someone coming to engage everyone as part of our democracy. And that’s what led to the excitement.

Congressman Engel had a reputation quite frankly for being absent from the community, being disengaged and not being a leader or fighter on the issues that matter most, and that’s not just rhetoric. People saw the contrast, and I think that’s why they chose to go with us.

What impact do you think national conversations about racism and police violence had on your race?

I think it has caused millions of people across the country to lean into this race and me as a candidate because I’ve been very transparent as a black man in America about my experience with police brutality and institutional racism. Our campaign from the very beginning has centered on racial inequality and economic inequality. We released an agenda so that we can become that post-racial society that we say we want to be, a reallocation of resources from mass incarceration and forever wars toward public health, housing, environmental justice and just giving everyone in this country regardless of race or class the opportunity for self-determination. And that’s what I’m going to Washington to do — fight against and fight for — in terms of making this country a democracy that works for everyone.

What’s your position on “defund the police”?

I support defunding the police — particularly the militarization of our police force and reallocating those resources toward public health. And not just health care but mental health support, affordable housing, education, alternatives to incarceration, non-emergency responses to those who might be in mental distress.

When we’re focusing on public health, we’re routing our policy toward empathy and compassion to the people most harmed or othered in our society. That’s what we need to focus on when we talk about defunding the police.

Do you endorse former vice president Joe Biden in the 2020 campaign for president?

I am endorsing Joe Biden. He has to be our president. Donald Trump is a racist and a fascist, and we have to do everything in our power to make sure Joe Biden wins. But what we also have to do is work with him and hold him accountable and make sure he’s doing what he needs to do to meet the needs of the working class in this country.

There’s polling showing that Biden is not doing as well with young voters, a group you worked hard to connect with, as he is with older voters. How could he improve his standing with this bloc?

Go to the park and shoot some hoops with young people out there. Go to their community gatherings, listen to them, engage with them. I remember being a young black kid in high school, I didn’t think the establishment or the political system was for me. I didn’t think the system was for me, and I know a lot of kids feel that way. We in the party are so beholden to our corporate interests and our wealthy donors that we lose sight of the people we are supposed to serve. Being a candidate who doesn’t take corporate PAC money forced me to be accountable to the people I serve and to meet them where they are.

What message do you think you leading sends the Democratic establishment?

It sends them the message that we need to be an establishment that connects with everyone in this country — black, white, young, old, rich, poor. We have to go to the people and engage them authentically and honestly — listen to their concerns and remind them of how important it is for them to be a part of our democracy and use their voice to draft and enact policies that we need to move this country forward. No longer can machine politics work. It’s unacceptable, and it marginalizes too many people in our society, and this win is an example of why that’s so important.