Black Progressives Try to Topple Establishment Backed Moderates in New York and Kentucky
Two years ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked us all by winning the primary in New York’s 14th District over Joe Crowley, who then was the fourth highest ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. A similar upset could happen in AOC’s neighboring district, New York’s 16th, this week.
On June 2, Representative Eliot Engel — who represents the northern Bronx, Westchester County, and New Rochelle — found himself in trouble when he was caught on a hot mic saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care” at a district event amid anti-police brutality protests. It was reportedly the first time Engel had returned to his district despite New Rochelle being a coronavirus hotspot in NYC starting in March.
Jamaal Bowman, Engel’s left-wing challenger, raised $100,000 the day the hot mic came out. Bowman said the clip was “incredibly painful to watch.” Bowman is a former teacher and founded Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, a middle school for underserved kids, in 2009.
Bowman supports significantly restructuring policing and reallocating money to social services. He’s for ending the school-to-prison pipeline, ending cash bail, and ending mandatory minimums. He campaigned on the Green New Deal and Medicare For All. Like Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman calls for abolishing ICE, desires national rent control, and repealing the Hyde Amendment, a provision which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortions.
The day after the hot mic incident, AOC endorsed Bowman. The week after that, Bernie Sanders endorsed him calling him a “powerful advocate for a progressive agenda in Congress.” Then last Wednesday Elizabeth Warren endorsed Bowman. Even the New York Times editorial board backed him.
Last week, the New York establishment came to Engel’s rescue. Governor Cuomo endorsed him. Senator Chuck Schumer, who initially said, “I’m focusing on the Senate,” endorsed him last week. Even Hillary Clinton, who had not chosen sides in a primary all cycle, backed Engel.
At their only debate, Bowman spoke about his experiences with policing, saying the first time he was beaten by police was at age 11. “A few years later I was smacked around by police just for being a boisterous young man. And it’s something that we consistently deal with,” he said.
The Intercept reported a GOP group is funneling money to a super PAC to assist Engel and NORPAC, a prominent pro-Israel PAC, sounded the alarm about Engel’s reelection chances last week. Engel’s last competitive primary was in 2000 when his opponent labeled him as out of touch and attacked him for having a Maryland residence and that could affect him again this time.
In the more affluent 17th district, many candidates are vying to replace retiring Rep. Nita Lowey. The moderate vote may split between several people and that could provide an opening for Mondaire Jones, a progressive who supports universal childcare, Medicare For All, a Green New Deal, and tuition-free college.
Mr. Jones grew up with a single mother on food stamps and lived in public housing. He graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Law School and went on to work in Obama’s Justice Department. Jones has been endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, AOC, and other progressive leaders such as Katie Porter, Ayanna Pressley, and Pramila Jayapal.
Establishment types such as John Kerry, Leon Panetta, John Podesta, and other moderate Democrats have backed Evelyn Karkas.
The Human Rights Campaign — the largest LGBTQ rights organization — endorsed Jones, which is atypical because the organization typically stays neutral in primaries. When I asked about the endorsement, an HRC official referred me to their press release which highlighted Jones getting elected Chair of a committee on the NAACP National Board of Directors as a teen and the fact that he would be the fist openly gay and black congressman.
“This endorsement is deeply personal for me,” Jones said. “I’m so honored to be supported by the Human Rights Campaign.”
There is now an unexpectedly tight race in Kentucky to see who will lose to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November. Trump is expected to win Kentucky by more than 20 points again. Amy McGrath, the 2018 nominee for Kentucky’s 6th district, has raised $41 million, an inordinate amount of money for a primary race. She was also endorsed by the DSCC — the Democrats’ Senate campaign arm. The last time a DSCC endorsed candidate lost a primary was in 2010.
The New York Times reported Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer admitted she is not a top tier candidate but thought the national party should support her because her fundraising ability could force Republicans to use resources for the race in November. Indeed, the McConnell aligned super PAC Senate Leadership Fund reserved $11M in Kentucky, but that disguises McGrath’s weaknesses as a candidate and her lack of inspiration among progressives.
Charles Booker, 35, is touting proposals for a green new deal, medicare for all, universal basic income, and tuition free college. With that platform and a grassroots campaign, he has received endorsements from Sens. Sanders and Warren, AOC, and the Sunrise Movement.
Despite the massive cash advantage she holds over Charles Booker, she has spent millions in the last couple weeks on the defensive. Booker, an African-American state House representative, has criticized McGrath for not protesting racial injustice. Meanwhile he has been on the ground leading protests, even being hit with tear gas.
Five weeks ago, McGrath used Republican governors Mike DeWine and Larry Hogan in ads while criticizing McConnell for his talk of “blue state bailouts.” Hogan and DeWine scolded her for using them without permission in an attack ad. Three weeks ago she used footage of John McCain voting no on ACA repeal in another attempt to attack McConnell. This time, his widow Cindy McCain publicly denounced the ad.
Despite Booker’s left-wing campaign in a red state, he has received many endorsements from Kentucky state legislators and former statewide officeholders who are centrists. That shows the endorsements aren’t just about policies or fundraising, but about who these folks believe will represent Kentucky best.
If any combination of Bowman, Jones, or Booker wins it shows Democratic voters desire to further move to the left. Frankly, that’s a good thing because the party must move left and elect more people of color — by accomplishing bold actions such as cancelling thousands in student debt — to excite young voters or students who sometimes reluctantly vote for Democrats because they think they are a “lesser of two evils,” as friends of mine have expressed to me.