Into Jamaal Bowman’s Insurgent Run
Jamaal Bowman: Tonight as we celebrate, we don't just celebrate me as an individual. We celebrate this movement, a movement designed to push back against a system that's literally killing us. It's killin' us mentally, psychologically and spiritually.
Trymaine Lee: On June 23rd in New York State's Democratic primary election, a former middle school principal named Jamaal Bowman claimed victory in his insurgent campaign for Congress. The absentee ballots are still be counted. But Bowman has a substantial over the incumbent, Eliot Engle, a 16-term congressman and chair of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Bowman: Let me tell you somethin' right now. Eliot Engle, and I'll say his name once, used to say that he was a thorn in the side of Donald Trump. But you know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anything else.
Archival Recording: Black man.
Bowman: A Black man with power. (APPLAUSE) That is what Donald Trump is afraid of.
Lee: New York's 16th congressional district is majority Black and Hispanic. It includes the Bronx but also stretches north into some very wealthy white suburbs. In the past Engle who is white and 73 years old has pretty much cruised to reelection. But lately he's taken some heat riding out the coronavirus pandemic at his home in Maryland while his district was hard hit.
And then at a news conference on racism and police brutality Engle was heard on a hot mic appearing to say he wanted to speak only because he was facing a primary challenge, a challenge from Jamaal Bowman. Bowman is Black, in his 40s, and ran on a platform of Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, cancelling student debt, and other issues of racial and economic justice.
I'm Trymaine Lee. This is Into America. Today we're goin' into the life and politics of Jamaal Bowman, a Black progressive Democrat, a newcomer who is a part of a progressive movement taking on the establishment. He's gotten the backing of progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, and the Working Families Party which is now teaming up with the movement for Black lives to form a political action committee. I wanted to know how this former educator came to politics and why he decided to take on one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. Jamaal Bowman, thank you so much for joining us.
Bowman: Of course, brother. Thank you for havin' me.
Lee: You came out of nowhere for a lotta people and shook up the political establishment. But give us a sense of where you came from. How did you arrive here?
Bowman: Yeah, so for the last 20 years I've worked in public education. I started teachin' in the South Bronx in 1999, in a K to four school with 1,500 kids, most of them recently arrived to the country. Did that for about five or six years before becomin' a dean of students at the High School for Arts and Technology.
And part of my job there was to monitor metal detectors as Black and brown kids walked in. So I often say I felt more like a corrections officer than an educator. At that point I decided to organize parents, teachers, and students and write a proposal for a new district public school that we wanted to open in the North Bronx.
We wrote the proposal in 2008. We submitted it in 2009. And in September, 2009, Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School was born. So for the last ten and a half years, I've served as a middle school principal in addition to bein' an education organizer. So yeah, I didn't quite come from nowhere. But (LAUGH) I know for some that may be the case, yeah.
Lee: So when you think back to your formative years, young Jamaal Bowman, and think about where you are now, was there a moment, was there a feeling? Was there something goin' on in your life that you connect now and say, "This is why I do this"?
Bowman: I mean, my mom first and foremost. My mother told me I could be anything I wanted to be. And I believed her. Like, I remember that conversation like it was yesterday, man. I was seven years old. We was sittin' in the dinin' room. I don't remember what we were doing.
But my mother told me that. And I believed her. She was a single mom. I had three sisters. And, you know, she gave us three things. She gave us love, a stable home, and she gave us self-confidence. And that's the springboard to everything I've done in my life.
And on the other side of that, I would say that I got lucky. I was a street kid. I used to always be out in the street playin' with my friends, gettin' into fights, gettin' into trouble at school, all those things. And there are many times where I could have been killed, you know. Like, I was (LAUGH) around shootouts, man. And, you know, thank God, you know, I was able to make it through.
Lee: Was there a moment when you said, "You know what, I gotta get into politics. I gotta get in the race. I have to do something more than what I'm doing"? Was there an actual moment?
Bowman: Yeah, you know, Nelson Mandela has a quote. He says, "You know, education is the most powerful tool that can be used to change the world." So for 20 years, I tried to do that in education. Like, I tried to make my classroom like a revolutionary classroom.
You know, teachin' our kids about history and culture and their unlimited potential and power. But it just felt like I kept bangin' my head against a system that was immovable, you know. Like, it wasn't a system that was responsive to the needs of our kids.
And for me the tippin' point occurred in 2017, 2018 when 34 children died within the K to 12 school system in the Bronx and 17 died via suicide. And as educators and as people of color, we know the connection between trauma, poverty, and bad policy that comes from Washington.
And right here in this district in Co-op City a young girl who was bullied in school, who came from a foster care system, went to the top of a buildin' right after school and jumped off the buildin' and committed suicide. And right here in New Rochelle, two girls got into a fight or got into a argument outside New Rochelle High School during a lunch break.
One pulls out a knife stabs the other and murders here. And I never saw or heard our elected officials really censoring trauma, censoring poverty, and censoring the needs of our most vulnerable in their political discourse or in the policies that they fought for.
So it was that that led me to begin thinking about it. And when we started exploring and talking about Congressman Engle, the number one word we continue to hear was absent. And for me that was just unacceptable. And that's when we decided to get into the race.
Lee: I wanna zero in on that idea of trauma. What is a political response to trauma? What does it actually look like?
Bowman: It centers on wellness and well-being. And it enters on public health in a holistic way. So when we talk about defunding the police, it's not just about taking resources away from a police department that brutalizes us. So we need to just rethink policing and public health overall.
And as we deal with ancestral trauma and generational trauma, there needs to be a period of truth and reconciliation as a country to acknowledge the harms of slavery and institutional racism and how it literally lives in the bones and the DNA of everyone in this country.
But in terms of policy, it's about focusin' on healing the wounds of history that has kept us out of economic opportunity. So policy that provides opportunities to buy homes at well below market rate so that we could begin to build wealth through home ownership.
Policies that invest in minority and women-owned businesses, that allows us to build wealth from the perspective of entrepreneurship. Policies that provide universal health care, policies focused on early childhood. And early childhood is critical. Because early childhood allows us to create nurturing environments in our communities that have most been neglected where ancestral trauma is passed down.
Education, fully funding our public schools and align with the needs of children, not an alignment with property taxes. There are many policies, reparations being the umbrella. But underneath reparations, we have to not just put money in the pockets of people. But make sure we pass policies in the areas where institutional racism still exists.
Lee: So Jamaal, the 16th congressional district begins in the Bronx and goes north, right, to some of the suburbs and cities. Give us a sense of place and what your district actually encompasses and also the different constituency groups that make up that geography.
Bowman: If we were a nation, we would have the eighth worst economic inequality in the world. It's economically unequal. And it's racially unequal, right. So when you're lookin' at the Black and brown people in the district comprised of or concentrated in the North Bronx, Northeast Bronx mostly, as well as Yonkers or Mount Vernon and parts of New Rochelle.
And the "whiter," quote/unquote, parts of the district are everywhere else north on the northern Westchester side of the district. But after the murder and lynching of George Floyd, as we saw Black Lives Matter rallies across the country, we saw Black Lives Matter rallies here in this district in some of the whitest, wealthiest areas of the district where we had 2,000 people turn out.
People are demanding change and they're tired of the institutional racism that persists. And it's younger people. So it's not just people who are white and wealthy, it's younger people driving the ship. And this is the moment for us to be very urgent and very aggressive in taking advantage of all of that.
Lee: When you think about your constituents and on one side you have the Bronx and the other side you have wealthy Westchester County, how do you address the needs of all these different constituency groups?
Bowman: Issues like environmental justice cross and race and class. Issues like universal health care cross race and class. The wealthy in district and across the country believe in the federal minimum wage and believe that everyone should have a right to a job and a right to housing, right. So even though those issues may not impact those people directly, they still believe that others should have those opportunities.
Lee: When we come back, Jamaal Bowman takes us through a thrilling election night. And we'll talk about what he wants to accomplish in D.C. we'll be right back.
Lee: We're back with Jamaal Bowman. Let's talk about your primary against Eliot Engle. First of all, man, what gave you the audacity to challenge a 30 plus year (LAUGH) incumbent? The nerve. What gave you that sense of, "You know what? There's a chance"?
Bowman: My wife would say that I'm crazy. (LAUGHTER) I might be. That might be part of it, man. You know, crazy enough to believe that somethin' like that was possible. You know, I've been so inspired and empowered by my students over the years and what they've been capable of and what they've shown in the classroom and beyond.
And it was a combination of that inspiration. A combination of a gap between what I saw missing from our communities and what elected officials were talking about. And then literally lookin' at the numbers and seein' like, "Well, wait a minute. There are 300,000 registered Democrats in this district.
"Only 30,000 voted in the last primary." And my thinkin' was, "Wow, this person is winning a congressional seat year after year with only 22,000 votes and making decisions, trillion dollar decisions that impact the lives of millions of people," right.
He supported the 1994 crime bill which we are still trying to repeal and replace. He supports policies that favor Wall Street over Main Street. He voted for the Iraq War and against the Iran deal and takes money from weapons manufacturers and corporations.
So this is not a person that we need in Congress to help our communities, communities of color and historically disenfranchised communities. So for me, lookin' at those numbers and lookin' at, you know, everything he has represented, it was like, "Okay, I could probably knock on 30,000 doors myself if I start a year in advance."
But luckily for me, you know, I was nominated to the Justice Democrats. And they endorsed us from the very beginning. And that helped us to organize a progressive grassroots movement throughout the district. So shout-out to the Justice Democrats, shout-out to the Working Families Party. I could be here on and on. 'Cause we were endorsed by 60 grassroots organizations. So it wasn't just me.
Lee: But how much weight and value did the endorsements of, like, AOC, Bernie Sanders, the Squad. How helpful was that in terms of just elevating your stature so quickly and your profile so quickly?
Bowman: Man, it was a tremendous aspect of the crescendo that we hit as a campaign. I mean, we were grindin' and grindin' and grindin' and doing very, very well. And then Congressman Engle had the hot mic moment. So that day our campaign raised $110,000.
Bowman: On average in a day we raise about $2,000, right. The next day Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez endorsed us. We raised another $98,000 that day. And our average from that day to the end of the campaign with the Bernie Sanders endorsement, the Elizabeth Warren endorsement helped us to bring the campaign home in the end.
Lee: So take us to June 23rd. Goin' into that night, I'm sure you thought you had a chance. But did you think you would win? And was there a moment where you said, "I think we got this"?
Bowman: Listen, I didn't allow us. We didn't allow ourselves to believe that we got it at any moment throughout the campaign. But on election day, as we did our bus tour, we went to places in the district where I didn't even canvass. You know, and I'm embarrassed to say that.
You can't get everywhere. And in one area, one place, there was this long line for people to vote. And I just walked by just to say hello and introduce myself. And the way people turned toward me and took out their phones and started recording and just how they were listening, I was like, "Hold up. Okay."
Like, "This is really good. Like, if were gettin' this kind of reception in places we didn't even canvass." And then that day everywhere we went there was this energy and this excitement of people who were either goin' to vote for us or had already voted for us.
My campaign manager showed me the early voting comin' in. And again, like, I still didn't want to allow (LAUGH) myself to believe the early numbers. But we were destroying him in the Bronx. It was the Bronx numbers. And then when the Westchester numbers started comin' in, it was like we were winning areas like Hartsdale. I'm like, "Okay, if we're winning in Hartsdale, this might be big, you know." And they're still counting absentee ballots. But the early results are consistent with what we saw at the polls.
Lee: When you think about that excitement from corners of the district that, you know, felt forgotten for a long time. And here they are calling your name, unseating a 30 plus year incumbent. And you think about the other progressive candidates who are winning elections across the country, what do you think your race says about the shifting dynamics that we're seeing from, you know, an older guard to something new?
Bowman: Yeah. I mean, I would go back to 2016, you know, and Senator Bernie Sanders callin' out economic injustice in all its forms. You know, that galvanized a new group of politically engaged people in the overall democratic process. And then that spawned the creation of the Justice Democrats which led to support of and then the elections of the Squad in 2018.
So we're just a part of that movement and continuing that wave. If it weren't for them, particularly the Squad, I mean, we're talkin' about four women of color goin' up against the white supremacist patriarchy of our country from inside the system speaking truth to power, calling it out and destroying it in all its forms. (LAUGH)
So we're following the footsteps of those four amazing women of color and following, standing on the shoulders of our ancestors in doin' this work. So it feels like America is ready and the world is ready for this transformative change that we are part of.
But as we know we gotta continue to do the work. Like, personally I didn't run for office just to get in the office. If I get into office and I don't do anything, then I might as well have stayed behind at home and not tried to be part of this. But now that I'm in office, as I said during my speech on election night, you know, it's time to cause some trouble. It's time to speak truth to power and bring attention to the issues that matter most. And I look forward to doin' that.
Lee: Now you brought up the Squad which has inspired a lot of people across the country. But again, they have taken some shots even from with inside the democratic machine. If and when you get to Washington with this grassroots support. With this super progressive kind of agenda, how does that translate into the big, you know, political process and the big-D Democrats? And how do you actually navigate those spaces coming on the wins of that very aggressive, progressive push?
Bowman: To quote 50 Cent, "Yo, got a purple heart for war and I ain't never left the city." (LAUGH) We're pretty strong. You know, we're Bible-tested. You know, we understand that there will be pushback. But we also know there are many in the House and many in the Senate.
And most importantly, voters throughout the country who agree with the policies that we are pushin' forth. Poll after poll after poll show support for Medicare for All. Poll after poll show support for a Green New Deal. And particularly now we're in the biggest crisis since the Great Depression.
And what happened during the Great Depression, FDR implemented the New Deal and the Workers Progress Administration and the Federal Jobs Guarantee creating millions of union jobs. That's exactly what we need right now. So there are people who will continue to push back. But we have the majority of the people in this country behind us and on our side.
Lee: As an education expert and with your history, I wonder what you think about the children of our communities who have been out of school, who have been impacted by all of this in ways that we won't see for years and the trauma? How do we get them back into classrooms? And how do we get them whole from everything that's been chipped away?
Bowman: We need the full resources of the federal government to be brought to bear to make sure our children can return to school safely and in environments where we can accelerate their learning. Number one, we need to hire more teachers. Because in order to lower class size, we need more teachers to teach smaller groups of students.
Number two, we need to be innovative and creative in the spaces that we are using as classrooms and learning spaces. So right now here in New York City, we have theatres and convention centers and corporate offices that aren't being used because of the pandemic.
Those need to be retrofitted and created as learning spaces. So we could give kids as much face time with an adult teaching them as possible. The online learning platforms are inadequate. They don't meet the needs of the majority of our kids, particularly children with special needs.
So when I say resources from the federal government, I mean money directly to school districts so that they can retrofit spaces to be in alignment with CDC recommendations which is increased ventilation, cleaning, mask, gloves, and everything that's needed there. That's the only way parents and grandparents and others are going to feel safe sending their children to school.
Lee: Obviously these are really tough times. What does Jamaal Bowman do to stay hopeful, to stay sane, to stay grounded? What's your regimen? And how do you do it? (LAUGH) If you're doin' it? (LAUGH)
Bowman: Another great question, man. I am lucky. I've been blessed to have an amazing partner in my wife Melissa Oppenheimer Bowman. We've been married for several years, I think five. Don't tell her that I--
Lee: You'll get in trouble, man.
Bowman: I'll get in trouble.
Lee: Don't get in trouble. (LAUGH)
Bowman: But we've been together for several years. We've been married for several years. We have two children. We have a home. We're very lucky to just have this stable environment here. Number two, I try to do the best I can to eat right and exercise on a consistent basis, man.
I mean, it sounds small. But in terms of remaining balanced and in terms of my own sort of mental health and energy, eating right and exercising on a consistent basis. And really paying attention to diet and those particular habits. And doing everything I can in terms of prayer and meditation. And just staying centered spiritually, to just help deal with everything that's happening in the world. And transition to this new responsibility I have, you know, as a member of Congress.
Lee: I have one last pretty serious question, man. When you get to Washington, do you become part of the Squad? (LAUGH) Like, an honorary member? (LAUGH) Do you get to hang out? Do you get a pin, a lapel pin or somethin' there?
Bowman: Listen. I'm hopin' for a pin, a tee-shirt, (LAUGH) and I'm hopin' to be not an honorary member, but an actual member of the Squad, you know. So I'm gonna start. As soon as they count the final vote, I'm gonna start lobbying to be a part of the Squad (LAUGH) as soon as they're done.
Lee: Jamaal Bowman, thank you, good brother for your time. Really appreciate it. This was fantastic, man. Thank you.
Bowman: Awesome. Thank you.
Lee: That was Jamaal Bowman, the Democrat running to serve the 16th congressional district of New York. And a separate news update before we go. Last week we reported on the Justice Department's plan to resume federal executions for the first time in 17 years.
The first of four scheduled executions was supposed to be today in Indiana. But with just hours to spare, a judge blocked all federal executions for now saying the method of lethal injection may be unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment. The Justice Department is appealing the decision.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Wednesday.