The peaceful demonstrations across New York City turned into civil unrest and looting on a major Bronx thoroughfare one night in early June. The following day, emerging from a prolonged stay in his Maryland home, Engel joined a press conference that combined condemnations of property destruction with calls for an end to police brutality and racism.
A live TV broadcast picked up Engel unsuccessfully pleading for a speaking slot: “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said.
The words ricocheted through the media, amplified by six-figure advertising buys that used the remarks as a symbol of Engel’s absence from the district and inattention to the concerns of his mostly Black and Latino constituents.
Dorrel Wallen, a retired health care worker, greeted middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, Engel’s challenger, before Bowman’s appearance marking the Juneteenth holiday in Co-Op City on Friday. Wallen, who had voted for Engel for years, is opting for Bowman this time — and the hot mic moment was at the top of her mind.
“How can you say that?” she said. “You can’t say that and expect us to give you a vote. You take it for granted.”
In the country’s largest city and its surrounding suburbs, Democratic House candidates ― incumbents and newcomers alike ― are responding to changes in the political landscape caused by uprisings across the country following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May.
On paper, the involvement of new people in the political process, dissatisfaction with the existing power structure, and appetite for solutions to long-standing inequities would seem to benefit left-leaning candidates like Bowman.
Bowman’s bid to oust Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has attracted national resources and endorsements, thanks to excitement for the race among members of the activist left chastened by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ loss in the presidential primary.
Engel and Bowman agree on a number of police reforms, including the prohibition of police chokeholds, ending “qualified immunity” laws that prevent some victims of police misconduct from recovering civil damages in court, and outlawing no-knock warrants.
But Bowman, who has recounted enduring police abuse as young as age 11, goes further, calling for “reparations” for Black Americans, a “truth and reconciliation” process to get the country to reckon with its history of racism, and defunding the police (which he defines as reallocating resources from the police to public health and social programs that prevent crime).
Bowman’s supporters see him as the kind of change agent that the current crisis requires.
“This election is about meeting the moment.”
“This election is about meeting the moment,” said Charles Khan, organizing director of New York’s progressive Strong Economy for All Coalition. “There are so many elected officials [of all races] that don’t meet this moment. They’re happy to tinker around the edges.”
Khan, a Black Brooklynite, pointed to the confluence of the racial justice protests with preexisting concerns about ongoing housing and health care crises gripping the city. The economic and public health fallout from the coronavirus, which disproportionately affected New York City’s Black and Latino communities, only exacerbated those problems.
In addition, the mass demonstrations against racist policing practices have shifted public opinion, noted Saikat Chakrabarti, the former chief of staff to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Over two-thirds of Americans now say that Floyd’s death is a “sign of broader problems in treatment of Black Americans by police,” rather than an isolated incident, according to a Washington Post poll conducted earlier this month. That’s a major uptick from 2014 when just 43% of Americans felt that way in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“It plays to the advantage of people running on these issues,” said Chakrabarti, a founder of the left-wing group Justice Democrats, which recruits primary challengers.
In New York’s 17th Congressional District, which includes suburban Rockland and upper Westchester Counties, progressives have a shot at sending one of their own to Congress in an open primary to replace retiring House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey.
The left’s preferred candidate in the race, attorney Mondaire Jones, would be Congress’ first openly gay Black man. He initially ran as a challenger seeking to unseat Lowey and has made his family’s struggles to overcome the legacy of racism a focus of his campaign from the start. The Black Lives Matter protests nudged at least one silent supporter, Croton-on-Hudson Mayor Brian Pugh, to publicly endorse Jones.
But in the wake of the demonstrations, Jones’ more moderate rivals are doing their best to catch up. State Sen. David Carlucci, former Pentagon official Evelyn Farkas, and former federal prosecutor Adam Schleifer all touted their commitment to police reforms in speeches laden with social-justice buzzwords at a Juneteenth celebration in Ossining on Friday evening.
Carlucci, who is known nationally for his past membership in a breakaway faction of state Senate Democrats that aligned with Republicans, called for making Juneteenth a national holiday, just as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did for Empire State government employees.
“Jim Crow is alive and present in our education system, in our criminal justice system,” Carlucci declared.
“Quite a few New Yorkers are feeling like there are incumbents who have an advantage that they may not deserve.”
Jones, however, points out that Carlucci did not sign on as a co-sponsor of state legislation enabling the public to request access to the disciplinary records of law enforcement officers until he faced public pressure to do so in the primary a few weeks ago.
Carlucci told HuffPost that he had always supported the bill but did not deny that he became a co-sponsor months after it was introduced. “Prior to this, unfortunately, that legislation was not in the forefront,” he said.
The challenge for Jones, and progressive candidates like him, is in getting voters to reward him for making police brutality and racism a central theme of his campaign before it began dominating headlines in late May.
As a Black man and the son of an impoverished single mother, Jones speaks to the issue from personal experience. “I’ve been saying from the beginning of this race that we need more people in Congress for whom policy is personal,” he told HuffPost.
In New York’s 15th Congressional District, the 11 Democrats clamoring to take over for Rep. José Serrano, who has represented the South Bronx since 1990, are likewise mired in debates over the authenticity of one another’s police reform credentials.
New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who could also be the first openly gay Black man in Congress, has highlighted his efforts to increase police accountability, including city legislation he shepherded that requires cops to, among other things, provide personal business cards during most police stops.
But at the time of the bill’s passage in 2017, Torres’ measure already had critics on the left who worried that it carved out too many exceptions.
Those simmering objections to Torres’ record burst into the open on Saturday when the family members of 11 people killed by the New York Police Department wrote an open letter to Bronx voters asking them not to vote for Torres. Torres, they argued, “let the NYPD rewrite part of the bill,” which made it “harmful to Black and Latino communities.”
One of Torres’ competitors, state Assemblyman Michael Blake, circulated the letter to his fundraising email list and posted it on social media.
Torres referred HuffPost to a speech he delivered at the time of the bill’s passage in which he defended the reform as a compromise that would provide immediate relief and could be built upon later. “Progress in the present does not foreclose the possibility of even more progress in the future,” he said then.
Even before the recent protest movements, metropolitan New York City was ripe for political upheaval thanks to Ocasio-Cortez’s success in 2018 and the numerous Democratic officials who have held their seats for decades.
“We just can’t dismiss someone because they’ve been there working in the vineyard.”
“Quite a few New Yorkers are feeling like there are incumbents who have an advantage that they may not deserve,” said Christina Greer, a Fordham University political scientist and author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and the Pursuit of the American Dream.”
That has left some challengers arguing simply that New Yorkers need new representation to combat the stark inequality exposed by the pandemic and police protests. Adem Bunkeddeko, a graduate of Harvard business school who worked for the state’s economic development agency, is seeking to unseat Rep. Yvette Clarke in central Brooklyn, in part by arguing that too little has changed in the criminal justice system during Clarke’s time in Congress.
“For 12 years Yvette Clarke has failed to act and Brooklyn deserves better,” a Bunkeddeko mailer says.
In fact, Clarke was an outspoken voice in Congress against the city’s stop-and-frisk program, which a federal judge ultimately struck down for violating the civil rights of the city’s Black and Latino residents. She called for the Department of Justice to intervene against the program in 2012.
And Clarke was an original cosponsor of a 2015 bill banning police chokeholds. That legislation is the basis for a provision in a suite of policing reforms that House Democrats plan to vote on this week.
Suraj Patel, an attorney and business school instructor, has made a similar argument in his bid to unseat Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who has represented Manhattan’s East Side and parts of Queens and Brooklyn since 1993.
“Can we take the aspirations of an entire generation and turn them into law?” Patel said in a closing video pitch centered on the protest movements. “The people that make those laws need to change.”
Even Bowman, whose ideological differences with Engel are clearer, made an anti-incumbent case to voters. He ticked off the urgent issues in the majority-minority district that straddles New York City’s northern border, including opioid addiction and homelessness crises.
“What has that seniority and that so-called power brought to this district?” he asked at the Friday press conference in Co-Op City.
Of course, some of Engel’s constituents, including a number of prominent Black officials, maintain that he has used his influence to improve life for the most vulnerable residents.
Kenneth Jenkins, Westchester County’s first Black deputy county executive, cited Engel’s support for a cap on rents in public housing developments, securing of funding for safety-net hospitals in the district and solidarity with the family members of constituents killed by police, like Ramarley Graham.
“He’s been a fighter for a long time,” Jenkins said. “We just can’t dismiss someone because they’ve been there working in the vineyard.”
Wallen, the Bowman supporter in Co-Op City, was optimistic that Bowman would be a stronger advocate for racial justice.
“If he’s not, then we’ll vote him out the next time, that’s all,” she said.