Sen. Bernie Sanders endorsed progressive House primary challenger Jamaal Bowman and five other congressional candidates on Tuesday, adding another high-profile boost to Bowman’s effort to unseat Rep. Eliot Engel, a powerful New York Democrat.
Sanders, a two-time presidential contender, has a famously devoted fan base and immense capacity to raise small-dollar donations. The independent from Vermont rarely endorses candidates taking on incumbent Democrats.
His support is the latest coup for Bowman, a Black middle school principal, who has hammered Engel for his absence in the district during the COVID-19 pandemic and leveraged the unrest over racist police practices to call for a change in leadership. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) and several other prominent New York elected officials endorsed Bowman last week.
New York’s congressional primary is on June 23.
“Jamaal understands that low-income families are locked out of opportunity and a decent life due to a system that is rigged to benefit the wealthy,” Sanders wrote in a Medium post announcing the endorsement. “He is someone we can trust to be a powerful advocate for a progressive agenda in Congress.”
“We are in an unprecedented moment in American history, and now more than ever we must stand together in the fight for justice.”
The five other candidates Sanders is backing include primary challengers and candidates in open races, Senate and House contenders, and longshots as well as legitimate competitors.
He is supporting Charles Booker, a Black Kentucky state lawmaker competing for the chance to take on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); Samelys López, a housing rights organizer running for an open, safe Democratic seat in the Bronx; Mondaire Jones, an openly gay Black attorney running for an open, safe Democratic seat in the New York City suburbs; Mike Siegel, a civil rights attorney locked in a Democratic primary runoff race in Texas’ 10th Congressional District, a GOP-held seat; and Cori Bush, a registered nurse seeking to unseat Rep. Lacy Clay, a veteran Democratic congressman in St. Louis, Missouri. Both Bush, who supported Sanders’ presidential bid, and Clay, a 10-term incumbent, are Black.
Sanders is the best-known and most influential left-wing politician in the country. But contrary to his reputation as an independent gadfly, he rarely endorses candidates trying to unseat incumbent Democrats with whom he caucuses. For example, he did not back Ocasio-Cortez, who had volunteered for Sanders’ 2016 White House bid, in her successful 2018 primary run.
Sanders has also largely receded from the national stage since dropping out of the presidential race in early April. Sanders disappointed some progressive activists in May when he did not appear in Washington for a vote on a Senate amendment he supports that would have prohibited warrantless federal government spying on the internet.
But Sanders, who immediately sent a fundraising email for the six congressional candidates, indicated in the Medium post that the urgency of the national crisis over police violence and racism contributed to his decision to get involved in the races.
“In order to continue our struggle for economic justice, social justice, racial justice and environmental justice, we must come together to elect candidates who will fight for a progressive agenda,” he wrote. “We are in an unprecedented moment in American history, and now more than ever we must stand together in the fight for justice.”
In addition to Bowman, Booker, a progressive competing in Kentucky’s Senate Democratic primary, has been gaining traction since the onset of the protest movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That movement has been particularly energetic in Louisville, Kentucky, where police shot and killed Black EMT Breonna Taylor in her home in mid-March. During the recent protests, Louisville cops also shot and killed Black barbecue business owner David McAtee.
While he had previously struggled to raise campaign funds, Booker has been bringing in $100,000 a day since the start of June. He is plowing that money into a $400,000 TV ad buy pitching himself as the candidate for the moment and criticizing retired Marine fight pilot Amy McGrath. McGrath, who won the early endorsement of Senate Democrats’ official campaign arm, has attacked McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, for supposedly breaking with President Donald Trump.
But Sanders’ blessing is likely most significant in Bowman’s race to oust Engel, a 16-term incumbent who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Through a combination of Bowman’s dogged campaigning and a series of unforced errors by Engel, Bowman, 44, now stands the chance of becoming just the second progressive challenger this election cycle to unseat a more moderate Democratic incumbent.
Although New York’s 17th Congressional District, a swath of the Bronx and Westchester County that Engel has represented since 1989, is one of the House seats hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, Engel, 73, spent the height of the outbreak in his home in an upscale suburb of Washington. Bowman’s presence in the district, by contrast, helped him win the support of New York’s largest nurses union, an endorsement Engel incorrectly claimed to have received on Monday.
Engel, a domestic policy liberal with a hawkish foreign policy record, is a rare white lawmaker representing a district that now has more Black and Latino residents than white people.
Engel compounded the challenge of a white man representing a diverse district during a moment of national reckoning on race with a gaffe last Tuesday. He was caught on a hot mic asking for a speaking slot at a press conference responding to looting in the Bronx. To explain why he was so insistent on speaking, Engel said, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”
Engel’s remarks have already become the focus of an advertising campaign financed by the left-wing group Justice Democrats, which recruited Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez, and the Working Families Party.
Referring to Engel’s absence from the district, the narrator of one TV spot says, “Engel only came back to win reelection, to help himself ― to save his job, not our lives.”