With an abnormally large number of absentee ballots still being counted, Bowman sits above 60 percent while Engel’s vote tally hovers at just 35 percent, and as Bowman said in a presumptive victory speech Tuesday night in Yonkers, he is set “to get to Congress and cause problems for the people in there that have been maintaining a status quo that has literally been killing our children.”
It’s that focus on children and his own accessible boldness that have characterized the 44-year-old Bowman’s come-from-nowhere campaign that began last year with the intent to push Engel to the left on a number of issues including healthcare, public housing, foreign policy, and Bowman’s wheelhouse—education. New York politicos were skeptical of his chances to push out the man who has all but owned that Bronx seat on Capitol Hill.
But back in February, the trajectory of the campaign changed when Bowman quit his job as a principal at the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action (CASA), the middle school he founded in the Bronx. After that, pushing Engel to the left became less of a reality than pushing him out completely.
The Daily Beast caught up with him just days after he quit his job to campaign full-time. He took a minute to breathe on the lower level of campaign manager Luke Hayes’ childhood home in the Bronx, a serene view of the Hudson River on a frigid Saturday morning just behind him.
“I miss them so much,” the Yonkers resident says about the kids at CASA.. There is a tinge of sadness in his voice that quickly turns to resolve, “but I’m trying to make the district a better place for them and all children.”
Bowman had just gotten through a meet and greet with Hayes’ parents and their friends over bagels and coffee, the politically engaged senior citizens peppering him with policy questions on everything from public schools and housing to his stance on Israel and Palestine. He is to the left of Engel on practically everything.
But it seemed to be his reason for entering politics that people found the most compelling. Bowman talked about his time as the Dean of Students at the High School for Arts and Technology.
“Part of my job was to monitor the metal detectors students walked into school. So I'm a Black man in America, very aware of what that means in a history connected to that, and now was the dean of students contributing to the criminalization of other black and brown children,” Bowman said. “My principal gave me the job to capture—that was the word they used—to capture my students who were late for first period in the cafeteria, so they wouldn't go upstairs [to class]. So now not only was I monitoring the metal detectors, I was capturing Black and brown students.”
It was an “infuriating” turning point, he said, and it was also what eventually led him to found his own school that operated on policies more cognizant of families’ socio-economic situations and on the student as a person. Eventually Bowman saw that “education is a microcosm of America and all the issues we deal with sort of intersect there,” including combating poverty, racism, or unfair criminalization, and policing.
That was back in February, before the chaos and isolation of the coronavirus pandemic forced candidates like Bowman to campaign virtually. It was before the Bronx with its working class population of essential workers became one of the places COVID-19 hit the hardest. And it was before George Floyd’s murder at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked worldwide protests.
Back then, Bowman’s chances of winning were slim. He had no previous political experience beyond appearances in Albany to speak on behalf of educators in the state on issues like abolishing mandatory standardized testing. And he is running in a district with massive demographic and income differences between the Bronx, which lies in New York City, and the wealthier, whiter parts of southern Westchester County.
But Bowman never seemed to let any of that bother him, shrugging it off as just another thing he had to deal with as a Black man in America. He had an excitement about him as he talked about his children’s roles in the campaign. Jelani, 18, is a “big Bernie Sanders fan” who serves as his father’s “youth consultant” and advises him on how to use social media. Marcellus, 10, is just learning about what it means to run for office and how to canvass. Maya, five, knows her father has to do call time but makes sure he does play time, too.
It was months before the relatively unknown, energetic husband and father of three would film himself driving around the Bronx with a big smile on his face, bopping to Wayne Wonder’s “No Letting Go” after the news of endorsements from the likes of Senator Elizabeth Warren and fellow Bronxite Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Bowman, who provides a complete contrast to the staid and seemingly Washington-weary Engel, even hit the $1 million milestone in fundraising during the lockdown.
Perhaps though, it was Engel’s fateful ‘hot mic’ moment, during which the incumbent said if there was no primary challenger “he wouldn’t care” about the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, that might have helped Bowman immensely. It helped him get his own message, his own understanding of their identity and struggle, to voters more than any ad buy or event could. It was all the more reason for Bowman to push through to represent an increasingly diverse district with a 32 percent Black population.
The momentum from the hot mic incident seems to have snowballed so quickly that fellow Democratic primary challenger Andom Ghebreghiorgis dropped out of the race and endorsed Bowman, too. The endorsements from various progressive rolled in at a steady clip shortly after.
Bowman’s district sits just north of Ocasio-Cortez’s, and comparisons to her stunning win in 2018 are inevitable. Bowman, like Ocasio-Cortez, is also a born and raised New Yorker, having spent much of his childhood living first in East Harlem public housing and then a rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper East Side. Bowman’s mother worked for the postal service.
Where AOC faced off with the Queens Democratic machine and its might backing longtime incumbent and presumed next-in-line for Speaker of the House Joe Crowley, Bowman takes on Engel, who after years of being best known for grabbing an aisle seat at every State of the Union address finally achieved in 2019 a position of real power as chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee.
Both insurgents were largely ignored by the incumbents until the last two three weeks of the election as well, which like Crowley, proved costly to Engel.
If Engel’s team was not worried about the untested Bowman, the incumbent’s heavy-hitter endorsements say differently. In just the past few days reinforcements have been called in from Hillary Clinton to New York Governor and pandemic darling Andrew Cuomo, who said the district needs someone who is “New York tough” to get it past the pandemic and through the election cycle.
But Bowman seems to embody “New York tough” in a way Engel never had to be. He has the animated speech and soft tenacity of a city-raised kid who described living through the crack epidemic of the 1980s, seeing one of his older sisters battle with drug addiction and robbing the family home to feed her habit, his friends murdered, and many pushed into the criminal justice system rather than the school system.
He counts himself “lucky” to have been able to finish high school in New Jersey and go on to college but reminisces about how the city was once a place to raise a family even if you did not have money or generational wealth, as he fondly recalled walks to museums and Central Park with just a few dollars in his pocket.
He focused on his own roots to tell voters in a district that has a clear wealth disparity between the Bronx and Westchester County about how evening out opportunities in education and wealth was the best way forward. “Regardless of your race or classes, everyone wants excellent public schools. Everyone, regardless of your wealth, thinks that everyone should have a decent job and have housing as a human right. So it's not like, one thing versus another,” he said.
“Making sure Wall Street pays a little more...isn’t going to fundamentally change the privilege of living in a [place like] Scarsdale,” Bowman noted about the suburb in his district. He emphasized that passing legislation beneficial to the lower income families on the Bronx side benefits everyone. “Everyone agrees economic inequality is a crime right now, it’s crippling,” Bowman asserted.
Bowman is quick to note that “it’s not just the fact I'm African American. It’s also because of my experiences, personal and professional, that connect with them on a deeper level. Someone that they could believe in, and someone that will hopefully rebuild their faith and hope in a political system that has often ignored them.”
He laughs a little as he talks about a visit back to his school in the weeks since he left and says while the students may not be able to articulate what they think of him running for Congress, “they feel it, they’re in it with me...and they know we want to replicate their school’s success across the district and across the country.” He may become the one school principal who is happy to cause some trouble.