Public educator Jamaal Bowman wants to win the congressional seat of hawkish 30-year incumbent Eliot Engel. Justice Democrats, the group that helped elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are with him.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Jamaal Bowman: My opponent has been in office for over 30 years. Over those 30 years, my opponent voted for an unjust war in Iraq.
Eliot Engel: He has weapons of mass destruction.
Jamaal Bowman: Deregulating Wall Street, school privatization, and building more prisons.
Eliot Engel: We need to put more cops on the beat, build more prisons, and support the Crime Bill.
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. And that’s Jamaal Bowman, a Progressive Congressional candidate running in New York’s 16th District, which is the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. The incumbent, the hawkish Eliot Engel has held office for more than three decades and his top donors include Wall Street and pro-Israel lobbyists. Bowman has rejected corporate PAC money and won the backing of Progressive groups like Justice Democrats who helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseat 10-term Congressman Joseph Crowley in 2018. But Bowman, a longtime educator and community organizer, faces a different challenge, a pandemic that has crippled traditional campaigning. Well, now joining us to discuss his Congressional run is Jamaal Bowman, an educator and advocate for public schools for over 20 years, most recently served as the Principal for Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, or CASA, a public middle school he founded in 2009. Thank you so much for joining us.
Jamaal Bowman: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.
Jaisal Noor: So New York’s 16th District is the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. We’re talking about mass graves, we’re talking about hospitals that are just overflowing, very, very hard hit. In your opinion, has Congress, specifically the Democratically-controlled House, done enough for this country including your district?
Jamaal Bowman: There are Progressives in Congress who have been pushing a people’s agenda and fighting for the working class and fighting for small businesses. Unfortunately, they’re few and far between because the Democratically-controlled House unfortunately isn’t being led right now by Progressives. So they fought for a few things that were needed, but didn’t go far enough. I mean, the first bailout package focused specifically on large corporations and the wealthy, and left small businesses and the working class to fend for themselves. In addition, there are still hospitals struggling to receive PPEs. There’s still not enough masks, there’s still not enough gloves, there’s still not enough testing with efficient quick results, there’s still not enough testing sites. So a lot more needs to be done to put pressure on the White House to make sure that those who are most vulnerable in our district receive all of the care and all of the resources they need. And unfortunately that’s not happening right now.
Jaisal Noor: So we know corporations had been bailed out to a tune of something which will amount to something like $6 trillion, and that number is growing. A lot of that has no strings attached, but as you said, the actual people have received very little except the $1200 one time stimulus payment …
Jamaal Bowman: One time.
Jaisal Noor: … and a lot of people haven’t gotten that yet. So what does a progressive bailout look like? We know that right now Congress and the Trump administration is implementing a shock doctrine. What would be a progressive shock doctrine? Talk about what you would implement if you were in Congress right now.
Jamaal Bowman: Yeah, a progressive bailout includes a freeze on rent, a freeze on utilities, and a freeze on mortgages. It includes at least $2000 per month not a one time payment of $1200, and it includes efficient food production and distribution to those who are most vulnerable. And as opposed to allowing big corporations to use most of their money to buy back their own stocks, any corporation that’s been behaving in that way, those corporations should be allowed to fail so that the people can have the resources they need not just to sustain the pandemic, but to build the infrastructure that we need going forward to make sure working class people and the care economy overall is at the center of our political and economic systems.
Jaisal Noor: So whether we’re talking about the bailout or this upcoming election on June 23rd, I believe it was delayed because of the pandemic, we’re really seeing a fight within the Democratic Party between the corporate wing and then the Progressive wing. You’re taking on a candidate that has the backing of Wall Street, the Israel lobby. You have the backing of Progressive groups. I know you’ve won, just in the last few days, you’ve picked up more and more endorsements. You’ve sworn off big money donations, but that means that you’re relying on working people for donations, people that are hit really hard by this crisis, so what kind of challenges are you facing and how are you working to overcome them?
Jamaal Bowman: I mean, I’ve got to tell you, I’ve fallen in love with the people of this country throughout the campaign, but even more so during this pandemic. Regardless of how much people are struggling, they’re still willing to support our campaign because they realize the stakes. They understand if we’re able to beat someone like Elliott Engel who’s been in office for 31 years, who’s taken more money from weapons manufacturers than 144 Republicans in the House, and continues to support the military industrial complex, war and Wall Street, they understand that if we’re able to win this race, it transforms the psychology of our country. It gives faith and hope to people who have been mostly disenfranchised. So people have been continuously supporting us. Our first quarter fundraising actually beat the previous two quarters despite being in the middle of a pandemic because people are willing to help, people are willing to support.
I think the movement that Bernie Sanders has created across the country has really been helpful. I think many who support candidates like Elizabeth Warren are more likely to lean into a campaign like ours. So it’s been a challenge, but I’ve got to tell you, the people of this country want to see change and they continue to support us no matter what.
Jaisal Noor: So I wanted to ask you, for communities like the Bronx, which are District 16, some of the most disinvested communities in the country, we’re talking about urban communities that had been subjected to red lining and to high levels of air pollution, all types of other issues, how do you reach out to people that have given up on the political process and said, “Look, we’ve had politicians in here for decades that haven’t done anything to help us,” how do you get them engaged in this process?
Jamaal Bowman: Well, first of all, I am an example of them. I am them. I lived in the housing projects, I lived in public housing, I lived in rent stabilized apartments. I was raised by a single mom along with my three sisters. I had family members who struggled with addiction and in a variety of areas. So I’m serving or running to serve a community which I come from, that is similar to the community that I came from. In addition, I’ve served this community for the last 10 years as a middle school principal so I know intimately the issues that our children and our families face on a day to day basis. So when we started canvassing in early June, we were knocking on the doors of those most marginalized by our system throughout American history, but particularly for the last 50 years.
Jamaal Bowman: We will knock on those doors consistently, aggressively, and more importantly, we were listening to the issues that matter most to them. So we were bringing them into the process from the very beginning. And now that we’re doing most of it via Zoom call and phone banking, we’re just adding second and third touches to people who we were already able to meet throughout the campaign. We were lucky to start our campaign with hundreds of volunteers making thousands of calls knocking on thousands of doors throughout the campaign. So it’s different now and it’s more challenging because of the distancing and social distancing but we were building those relationships and making the connections from the very beginning.
Jaisal Noor: And we know since AOC’s stunning defeat of Joseph Crowley, who’s been called the Democratic Boss from Queens, he was a really big party leader, we know the Centrist Democrats have learned those lessons and they’re trying to raise as much money and consolidate their power. How are you going to overcome that? And also I want to add, we’ve seen that sometimes crises can be a moderating influence on elections, people want to choose a safe bet, they might think, “Look, at least we know what we’re getting with the incumbent.” How do you overcome those challenges?
Jamaal Bowman: Well, the problem with the machine, whether in Queens or in the Bronx, is they haven’t done a good enough job of building relationships with working class people. Unfortunately, many of them have been co-opted by corporate interests and the wealthy in this country, which is why getting big money out of the politics and publicly financed elections is a huge issue, not just for our campaign but for Progressives across the country. They have this myth and this shadow of having control and being entrenched in terms of elections and in terms of our political system but they haven’t done the work to build the relationships over time, which is why when we’re speaking to working class people and connecting with them, they often say they never see Eliot Engel. He is not present, he is not engaged, other than a field day or a one off event. He’s not around so he doesn’t know the issues, he doesn’t know the concerns, he doesn’t have the relationships, and the machine overall doesn’t have those relationships.
And Eliot Engel has done a good job of serving maybe 7% of the district, but there’s another 93% that wants to be heard and wants to be listened to and wants to be a part of this process. So we’re fortunate enough to be connecting with that other 93%.
Jaisal Noor: And finally, you’re coming to this race through the lens of an educator and we know that there’s a technology gap, there’s a resource gap, especially in places like the Bronx or in Baltimore where I’m talking to you from. I’m just reading a tweet right now from the Baltimore Sun. “A recent survey of Maryland superintendents showed that as many as 25% of students in some districts had not signed in to the internet to do the lessons or hadn’t picked up packets of papers.” What is needed now for public schools because we know that achievement gap starts really young, especially where you have working families that are essential workers that are going out into the front lines. What does this country need to do now to make sure that young people have the resources they need to succeed despite this crisis?
Jamaal Bowman: We need a one-to-one student to technology ratio, so every student should have access to a laptop or an iPad. We need wifi as a public utility, free at the point of delivery, so students can access a wifi and internet. In terms of the one-to-one student to laptop or iPad ratio, that needs to be provided by our Department of Education, by our cities, by our states, and by our federal government. In addition to that, there are many families who are uncomfortable or don’t want their children staring at a computer all day. So cities and states in the country should provide stipends for those families to buy the books and resources they need from Barnes and Noble and places like that so that their children can work with paper and pencil and books if they choose not to use the technology.
But this is not a new issue. What the coronavirus has revealed is the inequality that already existed within our nation. Right here in this one district, we have a tale of two districts. We have incredible wealth and resources in one area and abject poverty in another. You have schools being funded two-to-one when you compare schools in the Bronx or Mount Vernon or Yonkers to schools in Bronxville, in schools in Scarsdale, to name a few. So there was inequality already in the system. Our schools were already underfunded, class sizes were already too high. And the last thing I want to say is, education is where all of the other issues intersect. So if a child is dealing with food insecurity, housing insecurity, unsafe places to play, a lack of clean water or clean air or dilapidated public housing, that child is going to struggle in school because that trauma that comes from those other social issues impacts a child’s ability to learn and thrive academically. So education is where all of the major issues intersect and Congress has to take responsibility and do more for those who are most vulnerable.
Jaisal Noor: All right, well, Jamaal Bowman, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. Running in New York’s 16th District, which votes on June 23rd, if I’m correct.
Jamaal Bowman: Yes, but there’s going to be some early voting that happens prior to that, so stay tuned for those dates. And the 16th District, I just want to mention, includes the North Bronx in Lower Westchester County, which includes cities like Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and New Rochelle.
Jaisal Noor: All right, well, we will check in with you for your race and see how things are going. We’ll follow up on developments. Thank you so much for joining us.
Jamaal Bowman: Thank you, sir. Have a great day.
Jaisal Noor: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.
General Assignment Reporter
Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent.
Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.