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Jamaal Bowman is an award-winning Bronx middle school principal living in Yonkers, and running for the NY 16 Congressional District. Source: Jamal For Congress.
Jamaal Bowman is an award-winning Bronx middle school principal living in Yonkers and running for the NY 16 Congressional District. Source: Jamal For Congress.

Who is Jamaal Bowman, and why you should pay attention to his campaign

The media describes him as "the next AOC" and some Democrats would prefer that he not be elected. Who is Jamaal Bowman?

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Earlier this week the media announced, not without a slight hint of alarm, the decision of former defense secretary and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to give her first Democratic primary endorsement in the race for a House seat in 2020.

The also former first lady was giving her support to Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, who has represented the 16th district of the Bronx and Westchester County since 1989, and who has been heavily criticized for his passivity and absence during the coronavirus pandemic, which deeply affected his district.

"If I didn't have a primary, I wouldn't care," Engel said twice in leaked audio of a press conference in early June.

All eyes are on a middle school principal

Just as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortéz (AOC) beat incumbent Representative Joseph Crowley in 2018, a young progressive contender has launched a grassroots political campaign that has earned him the title of "the next AOC.”

Born and raised in New York City, Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old teacher, seems to have the same story as many other African Americans and people of color in communities where, as AOC said in her campaign, "your zip code determines your destiny.”

Bowman's first job came in an area of high need: District 9 in the South Bronx. He worked as a fourth-grade crisis intervention teacher at Public School 90, which at the time was embroiled in a cheating scandal, as reported at the time by the Amsterdam News.

“When I was there, it had four principles in five years,” said Bowman. “You could almost sense the apathy and despair amongst the staff. It was sort of a depressing work environment. I was young and naive and passionate about working with children. I think it should be like military service you should work with children. It’s good for the spirit and the soul of all of us.”

For Bowman, there was much more to learn than to teach at that point in his life:

“When you become a teacher, you’re a learner first,” Bowman told the AmNews. “It was mostly positive, to be honest. I think the negativity if there is one, is what the system does in focusing a lot of your worth on a single standardized test at the end of the school year, and there’s much more nuance and complexity to what happens to students and teachers in this space. [There are] multiple measures and ways that display the work that teachers do.”

It was because of his experience as a teacher that Bowman decided to found a public high school in the South Bronx in 2009, the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (CASA), which would be his trench for standardized testing and against the perpetuation of inequalities.

“It was a great experience to be a founding principal because I was allowed to hire my own staff and hire a staff that shares our philosophy for education and believed in what we were trying to do with children,” said Bowman. “High expectations. They believe in innovation and creativity so it’s not just learning in an abstract sense, they learn by doing and creating things. They believe in meeting students where they are and honoring their social capital.”

Beginning in 2009, Bowman implemented "a model of restorative justice" at his school, in order to "fight the pipeline from school to prison," according to a Justice Democrats news release.

Turning the tables inside the Party

Knowing that the system does not work for the community, even under Democratic leadership, Bowman announced his candidacy for the position of representative of New York's 16th District, and against Engel, who has been in office for 31 years, one year before George Floyd's death.

The focus of his campaign has been racial injustice and human rights.

"We were unapologetic about that from the very beginning," Bowman told NBC News in a phone interview. "Coming into the campaign, we felt that structural racism, institutional racism, institutional classism, institutional sexism, and militarism are the evils that continue to plague American society generally."

Once Floyd's death triggered the street demonstrations, Bowman joined them, again marking a major contrast to Engel.

As NBC explained, the area in which both candidates are competing is a kind of "unicorn.”

It is a mostly minority district that includes parts of the diverse, mostly white, working-class Bronx and parts of Westchester, as well as suburban areas like Mount Vernon, Yonkers, and New Rochelle.

"When you look at this district, what you see is a tale of two districts," Bowman said. "In one part of the district, you have incredible wealth. In the other part of the district, you have the highest number of WIC recipients of any congressional district in the country," he added, referring to a federal nutrition assistance program.

To close that gap, Bowman hopes to get "massive economic investment" throughout the district but particularly in areas where poverty is concentrated. His agenda includes a federal guarantee of jobs, up to 70,000 new affordable homes in the district, federal aid to improve existing public housing, and boosting public school budgets and universal health care through Medicare for All, among others.

Another champion for the progressive wing

As the New York Times explains, the outcome of the 2019 primaries was "a visceral warning" to Democratic leaders, who must begin to realize the urgency of progressive change, and who must learn not to "underestimate" the candidates behind it.

While Clinton embodied the party's dinosaurs and joined voices with other House Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi, James E. Clyburn, and Hakeem Jeffries, Bowman received massive support from the progressive wing, including such big names as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Ayanna Pressley, and AOC herself.

Similarly, while Engel has been known to receive less than 1% of his funds from independent donors, Bowman has made use of the grassroots policy formula and has the unconditional support of liberal groups like the Working Families Party and political action committees like the Justice Democrats, who have promised to invest more than $500,000 to get Engel out of office.

Bowman began this campaign last June, with several other candidates, including a lawyer, Chris Fink; Sammy Ravelo, a retired police lieutenant; and Andom Ghebreghiorgis, who retired earlier this month and supported Bowman, solidifying his support among progressives.

“We’ve anchored our race in fighting for racial and economic justice from the very beginning,” Bowman said in an interview. “And what COVID and now these protests are revealing is, to the rest of the country, is how broken our system is.”

On Tuesday, the 44-year-old former middle-school principal toppled longtime Democratic stalwart Eliot Engel in the party’s primary for New York’s 16th District.

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