Group that backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now supporting challenge to 16-term incumbent

A middle school principal is challenging a powerful New York Democrat.

June 19, 2019, 2:35 PM

The organization that recruited and helped Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her rise to victory last year, is now taking on her neighboring congressional district in New York.

Jamaal Bowman, who announced his candidacy Tuesday, has the backing of Justice Democrats, a progressive grassroots group that is poised to be influential in 2020 given its role in electing prominent freshman members of Congress such as Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in 2018.

Bowman will take on Rep. Eliot Engel, who has been representing New York’s 16th Congressional District for over 30 years and is one of the most powerful members in the House as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He will face, as of now, at least three primary challengers in 2020.

With Bowman, Justice Democrats is hoping to recreate Ocasio Cortez’s upset win against long-standing Rep. Joseph Crowley who was the fourth most powerful Democrat in the House at the time. The goal of the organization and other allied groups is to challenge moderate Democrats in safe blue districts instead of winning seats for Democrats in swing districts.

This race in 2020 could serve as a prime test of whether the left-wing of the party can successfully take on the Democratic establishment.

Bowman said he became interested in running for office after seeing a wave of fresh faces elected during the 2018 midterms.

“I started getting inspired, obviously, by a lot of the new, fresh, amazing women in Congress, faces in Congress, talking about new ideas, bold ideas, like the Green New Deal which is needed tremendously.”

PHOTO: Jamaal Bowman runs for office in New York's 16th Congressional District.
Jamaal Bowman runs for office in New York's 16th Congressional District.
Corey Torpie

As a middle school principal, Bowman cites his experience in education as driving his platform and hopes to prioritize public education in his campaign.

“I've been in education for 20 years, and 17 of those years, I've been working in the Bronx. So I've worked with children and families who are struggling, you know, they're struggling with poverty, they're struggling with lack of health care,” Bowman said. “As we think about public education, we need to think about it in terms of how our schools and healthcare working collaboratively to create holistic, nurturing environments for children and families,” he added.

Bowman is hoping to make the case that Engel is too moderate for their congressional district which is growing increasingly diverse. According to the 2017 American Community Survey, the congressional district is 45.5% white, 33.8% black, 25.2% Hispanic and 5.3% Asian.

In his announcement video Tuesday morning, he drew attention to Engel’s record on supporting the Iraq War, the 1994 crime bill, and deregulation of Wall Street. Bowman then went on to voice support for policies including the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-All which are banner issues for the left-wing of the Democratic Party.

The process of selecting candidates to back is “part art, part science” and the group looks for “contrast” to establishment figures, according to Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats.

“Chuck Schumer just came out ...saying, and showing support. And so I think that Engel is someone that is very core to the Democratic Party leadership and establishment infrastructure in D.C., and Jamaal is very much an outsider,” Rojas said. “I think that contrast is definitely something that we look for.”

PHOTO: House Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) speaks with reporters after a closed intelligence briefing with CIA Director Gina Haspel on Capitol Hill, Dec. 12, 2018.
House Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Ranking member Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) speaks with reporters after a closed intelligence briefing with CIA Director Gina Haspel on the death of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi on Capitol Hill, Dec. 12, 2018.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

A hope for the group is to “shift the debate and the Democratic Party” and show the Democratic establishment that they demand change.

Beating Engel will send a “political earthquake” and “put Democratic leadership on notice that we are, you know, sick and tired of the status quo, and people are demanding change. And if we're not going to see it, we're going to make sure that we put in champions who are going to see it,” Rojas told ABC News.

Justice Democrats is planning to back far fewer candidates in 2020 than in 2018 where the group endorsed 78 candidates and recruited 12 to run for office.

“This cycle Justice Democrats is hoping to get behind a little over 20 congressional races, but it's a big change from where we were at in 2018,” she said. “We’re sort of honing in on races that we think that we can really turn the needle.”

Bowman is the second candidate to be backed by Justice Democrats. Last week, the organization announced their support for Jessica Cisneros to challenge Texas Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar in the primary.

Two other candidates hoping to unseat Engel are Andom Ghebreghiorgis, a special education teacher, and Kenny Belvin, a nonprofit fundraiser. They too boast a progressive agenda and hope to take on Engel from the left, but Bowman intends to highlight his experience.

“This is not about this is not only about policy platforms. This is about leadership, and this is about experience,” Bowman told ABC News. So like I said, I've been an educator for 20 years, I'm a married father of three, and I've been doing work with the community directly for all of this time.”