New York Nurses Union Endorses Progressive House Challenger

Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal, is trying to unseat Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.
Jamaal Bowman distributes food at a food bank in Yonkers, New York. His presence in the district has helped win him the backing of an influential union.
Jamaal Bowman distributes food at a food bank in Yonkers, New York. His presence in the district has helped win him the backing of an influential union.
Jamaal Bowman for Congress

The largest nurses union in New York endorsed the House bid of middle school principal Jamaal Bowman on Tuesday, providing a major boost for the progressive candidate’s uphill effort to unseat Rep. Eliot Engel in the Democratic primary for New York’s 16th congressional district.

The New York State Nurses Association, which has 40,000 members and is not affiliated with an international union, has rarely, if ever, endorsed a primary challenger in a race against an incumbent Democrat.

In a statement announcing the endorsement, the union pointed to Bowman’s ardent support for “Medicare for All” and his in-person participation in the union’s protest for safer conditions and more personal protective equipment (PPE) in April.

“The COVID-19 crisis has shown more clearly than ever that our health care system is broken, and that we must push for a more just Medicare for All system where everyone can access and afford the care that they need,” NYSNA President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez said. “NY-16’s nurses and essential workers are grateful for Jamaal Bowman’s partnership throughout the ongoing crisis, including joining nurses rallying at St. Joseph’s Hospital to demand an increased production of PPE, and repeatedly calling out the corrupt price gouging of this life-saving equipment.”

The union was careful not to disparage Engel, who is also a longtime supporter of Medicare for All.

But its reference to Bowman’s participation in a protest outside a hospital highlights a key distinction between Bowman and Engel. Bowman was able to join the demonstration because he has remained in the district, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, throughout the pandemic. Engel has stayed in his family’s home in Potomac, Maryland, a ritzy suburb of Washington, D.C.

Engel, who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and has been in Congress since 1989, still boasts a massive fundraising advantage over Bowman. The primary is June 23.

The contest in New York’s 16th is one of the activist left’s last opportunities this election cycle to unseat an incumbent Democrat in Congress with someone more progressive.

Engel has a relatively progressive record on domestic policy, but is a foreign policy hawk. He is one of Congress’ most ardent supporters of the Israeli government and opposed then-President Barack Obama’s 2015 deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program.

Perhaps more importantly, Engel is a loyal soldier for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Bowman would become part of a small but growing bloc of progressive lawmakers who try to assert power independent of party leadership.

Justice Democrats, the left-wing group that helped elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), recruited and endorsed Bowman, who announced his candidacy last June.

So far this cycle, the group has not landed a victory comparable in scope to Ocasio-Cortez’s upset. Justice Democrats endorsed successful Illinois primary challenger Marie Newman. But she was a second-time candidate who also had the backing of much more influential and deep-pocketed pro-choice groups.

Bowman has struggled at times to elicit sustained attention in a media environment dominated first by the Democratic presidential primary and then by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ocasio-Cortez and other high-profile progressive lawmakers have yet to endorse Bowman’s bid.

Bowman has tried to find creative ways to communicate with prospective voters in a racially diverse and impoverished district that is home to one of the most acute concentrations of coronavirus cases in the country.

For example, he has taken to giving home-schooling tips via video livestream on his campaign’s Facebook page.

Drawing attention to Engel’s absence in the district may be a game-changer for Bowman, however. Ocasio-Cortez won in part by hammering then-Rep. Joseph Crowley for lacking a permanent residence in his district — though Engel, unlike Crowley, has a second home in the district.

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