Will New York Send Another Socialist to Congress?

On Monday, Jamaal Bowman, the insurgent candidate for NY’s 16th Congressional seat, released his “Reconstruction Agenda” — surely one of the most ambitious plans to attack racism and economic inequality released by any candidate this year.

In a tweet, Bowman compared the needs of the current moment to Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement: “Abolitionists assembled a multiracial coalition to Reconstruct America but violent white supremacists stopped us. The Civil Rights Movement attempted a Second Reconstruction but racists stopped us. Third time’s a charm. Let’s get the job done.”

Jamaal Bowman has a vision and plan for a radical democratic awakening in our country. Democratic socialists should take notes and get on board.

The Reconstruction Agenda

There are three parts to Bowman’s plan:

1. “Reconcile with our history.” Create a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission “to investigate, document, and assess the federal government’s role in America’s history of racism.”

2. “Get off our necks.” Shift funds from police and jails to social services, demilitarize the police, end the school-to-prison pipeline, and reform the criminal justice system.

3. “Let us breathe.” Enact a set of broad universal programs including Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, free college, and a massive investment in public schools and public housing, to be paid for by taxing the ultra-rich.

The goal of his plan is nothing less than “to root out the racism that’s been part of this country since the very beginning.”

Bowman’s plan explicitly draws the connection between the need to fight racist oppression and the need for universal programs to build multiracial unity: “Providing all Americans with the things we need to thrive will help defeat racism and defeating racism will protect policies that provide all Americans with the things we need to thrive.”

In addition to calling for shifting funds away from the police, Bowman advocates the creation of a new first responder service: “Crisis Care units of violence interrupters, social workers, and mental health intervention.” These units could serve as a model for how to address social issues like addiction and mental illness with compassion, not violence.

It’s true that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission failed to end the long-standing inequality and racism in that society — but the blame shouldn’t rest on the commission itself, but on the neoliberal policies pursued by the African National Congress government. When combined with a push to end racist policing practices and to enact universal social programs, a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission could be a powerful bully pulpit to explain and push forward a sweeping reform agenda.

Bowmentum

On the same day that Bowman released his Reconstruction Agenda, Hillary Clinton endorsed his opponent, 16-term Congressman Eliot Engel. So too did Jim Clyburn and Adam Schiff — all part of a desperate attempt to stop what Twitter is calling #Bowmentum.

That momentum is due at least in part to the very bad year that Eliot Engel is having.

Two of the country’s worst COVID hotspots — New Rochelle and the Bronx — are in Engel’s district, but he was called out in the press for spending the entire crisis in DC and Florida. When he finally returned to attend a press conference following protests in the Bronx, he was caught on a hot mic saying “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.” State Senator Alessandra Biaggi dropped her endorsement and endorsed his opponent. Hilariously, Chuck Schumer, who was listed as an endorser on Engel’s website, said he never backed the guy.

Bowman raised $100,000 on the day of Engel’s hot mic flub. Bowman’s  campaign has forced a split in the New York State Democratic party — he’s gotten the endorsement of many organizations that are often wary of backing insurgent campaigns, such as The New York Times. He’s gotten nods from Bernie and AOC, and also from more traditional politicians like NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Activist Roots and an Activist

Bowman’s radical approach to the triple crises of racism, COVID, and mass unemployment is rooted in his decades of experience as a trade unionist and public school activist.

Bowman founded a model public middle-school in the Bronx — the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action — that includes social justice and activism in its curriculum.  When Jamaal decided to found a middle school, he could have started it as a charter. Instead, he intentionally decided to create a new public school in order to counter the tide of charter-ization and privatization in NYC.

He credits Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign for inspiring him to run. He’s a democratic socialist and dues-paying DSA member.

Bowman’s activist roots have translated into an activist campaign. While Engel spent the COVID crisis hiding out in DC and Florida, Jamaal leaped into action — helping with community food distribution and rallying with nurses for PPE.

Here’s how he described his approach in an interview with Jacobin: “I remember when I was a kid, I often didn’t think that America worked for me, and I didn’t think this country was for me as a young black male growing up. I didn’t see elected officials or candidates speaking to me or my issues. So I relate on a personal level to people who are in the struggles that have been put upon them by bad policy and bad actors in government. I can relate to how disconnected people feel from the democratic process. My work as an educator, as a principal, as a candidate is about bringing people together across our differences for a common purpose.”

Time to Go All Out for Bowman

Bowman is looking more and more like a winner. But it’s not a sure thing. Engel has raised more money (although Jamaal is catching up), has gotten the endorsement of many major unions and most of the New York State political establishment. In an explosive revelation, The Intercept has uncovered that even Republican donors are funneling money to prop up Engel.

Why are establishment Democrats rallying around Engel’s tanking campaign? Because they know that a Bowman victory would be a big shot in the arm to other insurgent campaigns in the future, and they want to stop that momentum now.

Unfortunately, while many DSA members joined Jamaal’s campaign early as volunteers, our organization has been slow to back him. Why? Because for most of the campaign, not one, but two democratic socialists were running serious, sophisticated campaigns against Engel.

That changed on June 1, when the other candidate, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, ended his campaign and enthusiastically endorsed Bowman. Lower Hudson Valley DSA voted overwhelmingly to back Bowman. DSA’s National Electoral Commission and National Political Committee quickly followed up with a national endorsement.

New York’s primary is on Tuesday, June 23. Imagine what it will mean to send a DSA member who’s calling for a Third Reconstruction to Congress. You can donate here and sign up to volunteer here. What are we waiting for?