Jamaal Bowman’s victory over 16-term centrist continues Dems’ drift leftward as fight over House Foreign Affairs chair heats up
Progressive Jamaal Bowman’s electoral victory over 16-term New York congressman Eliot Engel has been confirmed by the AP after a month of mail-in vote counting, kicking off a battle over Engel’s foreign affairs post.
The AP called the election for Bowman on Friday after receiving absentee vote totals from Westchester County, a section of which comprises the richer, whiter portion of the state’s 16th District. The totals showed Engel slightly ahead among mail-in voters, but not by nearly enough to overtake Bowman’s election day landslide. The final results had Bowman ahead by 16 points.
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Toppling the congressman leaves his seat at the helm of the influential House Foreign Affairs Committee vacant, igniting what is likely to be a fierce battle to direct the Democrat-controlled House’s foreign policymaking. While the most senior Democrat on the committee would normally take Engel’s role, the party can vote for someone else to fill the post if they so choose – and two candidates have emerged to challenge the coronation of California Rep. Brad Sherman.
New York Rep. Gregory Meeks and Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro are taking on Sherman, whose support for Israel and opposition to the Iran deal – as well as his vote in favor of 2003’s Iraq invasion – have made him essentially indistinguishable from Engel, policywise. Meeks not only voted against the war but has backed diplomacy with Iran and Venezuela and even boycotted Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress in 2015 – though he endorsed Engel against Bowman in the primary.
Castro, the brother of failed presidential candidate Juan Castro, threw his hat into the ring to replace Engel as chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs this week, telling the Washington Post he believes the US must shift its foreign policy priorities to “diplomacy first” instead of military action being the default. Some 60 progressive groups have also signed a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders urging them to mend the “disconnect” between the Foreign Affairs Committee and the rest of House Democrats on foreign policy, noting that Bowman’s victory shows the public has grown “tired of endless wars and a destructive agenda of rampant militarization.”
While Engel had been a central figure in the impeachment probe against President Donald Trump, his tone-deaf actions in the run-up to the primary likely sealed his doom among Democrats. Scurrying off to his Maryland home while his district was clobbered by the coronavirus and the accompanying economic shutdown, then being heard admitting he “wouldn’t care” about speaking at a Bronx rally if he didn’t have a primary approaching, merely served to back up Bowman’s accusations that the three-decade congressman was hopelessly out of touch with his constituents.
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Bowman’s victory came in spite of millions of dollars being poured into Engel’s campaign from corporate donors and deep-pocketed advocacy groups like Democratic Majority for Israel – and despite leading lights of the Democratic establishment coming out to endorse Engel, who has hewed closely to the Democrats’ traditional pro-war, pro-Wall Street ethos. Bowman, on the contrary, is antiwar, calling for a reduction in the Pentagon’s budget and rejoining the Iran nuclear deal as well as rejecting support for the Saudi war on Yemen. He also backs Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and ending mass incarceration.
The centrist status quo may be shifting, as 2020 has seen several other progressive Democratic challengers triumph over the standard-bearers of party orthodoxy, building on the 2018 rise of the progressive “Squad” in Congress. A former middle school principal with no previous political experience, Bowman was one of three candidates endorsed by the progressive Justice Democrats group to beat centrist rivals in New York alone. His district is adjacent to that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated 20-year incumbent Joe Crowley in 2018. Like Engel, Crowley held a powerful post in the House, chairing the House Democratic Caucus.
Justice Democrat-endorsed Mondaire Jones was declared the victor on Thursday in the fight to replace retiring Rep. Nita Lowey as representative for New York’s 17th District, while Democratic Socialist Marcela Mitaynes knocked out 26-year incumbent Felix Ortiz last month in the race to represent New York’s 51st District in the State Assembly. Despite this apparent leftward shift, however, the party appears to have settled on former Vice President Joe Biden as its challenger to Trump in November.
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