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How A Former New York Principal Tries To Make Congress Work For His Community

Rep. Jamaal Bowman clutched a handful of flyers as he walked around the Gun Hill subway station, introducing himself to anyone who would stop and chat along the street in the Bronx.

"Did you know that I was your congressperson before I introduced myself?" Bowman asked a woman, raising his voice to a shout as the train clattered overhead.

She didn't.

"Come on now," Bowman said, adopting an affect of incredulity. "How is that possible? I was out here campaigning all in 2019 to 2020. And in 2020 I won the election — against Eliot Engel."

That name might have jogged her memory because Engel represented the area for more than 30 years, an old-guard Democrat and chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee who ran for reelection with establishment support. Bowman, a young, Black former middle school principal and first-time candidate, defeated him in last year's Democratic primary to represent a district that straddles the Bronx and Westchester County with a mostly Black and Hispanic electorate.

Now, the activist and educator who was elected for his progressive, anti-establishment platform is seeking to change the way that Washington works — and serve the people it isn't working for.

Bowman was raised by a single mother and grew up in public housing. He became an educator and guidance counselor, and he helped found a middle school, Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, in the Bronx. He remembers campaigning on Election Day — in a face mask — and how it felt to hear that people were excited to vote for him.

"You know, I grew up Black in America, I grew up close to Spanish Harlem where we ain't have much money, but we was like all friends and cool and playing and going to school together," he said in an interview outside the Gun Hill Houses, a public housing project in The Bronx. "So I feel like I'm representing my tribe, my kinship."

Bowman was one of three younger, Black progressive Democratic lawmakers elected to represent New York in Congress last November, after a campaign cycle upended by the pandemic, which exposed racial inequality in America's health and economic systems, and marked by protests over racial justice after the killing of George Floyd and other Black people during encounters with law enforcement.

In neighboring districts, Reps. Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres also both won Congressional seats last year that had each been held by the same incumbent for about three decades, shaking up New York's Congressional delegation, making it more racially representative and pushing it further left.

"Our districts are very different. But neither of them had ever elected a person of color running on a progressive platform by today's standards," said Jones, who replaced retired Rep. Nita Lowey. "And we both won handily even when the political establishment counted us out until the very end of our respective races."

While the political establishment — and Engel — may have taken Bowman for granted, his campaign had the backing of prominent left-leaning Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

He also had the support of the Justice Democrats, the insurgent political group that supported progressives like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. Justice Democrats recruited Bowman to run against Engel. On Capitol Hill, Bowman joined a growing number of House progressives looking to turn their presence into power.

"The squad is definitely my people," Bowman said of the foursome of progressive female lawmakers that includes both Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley. "Alex, AOC, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, she was a mentor from afar, even before I got to Congress. Same thing with Ayanna, Ilhan [Omar], Rashida [Tlaib] — just four badass women of color, just tearing s*** up."

Friendship and frustration with top Democrats

Bowman has a clear version of what he believes the future of his party on Capitol Hill can look like, if more people like him can run and win.

"I think you're going to continue to have members of Congress who are progressive — and other members who are retiring or will be beaten in primaries — who's going to force the House to do more and do better, force the White House to do more and do better."

While Bowman's politics are unabashedly progressive, he said that he has strong relationships with lawmakers across the political spectrum. He counts fellow New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, as a regular texting buddy on Capitol Hill.

Jeffries, who has been a member of Congress since 2013 and is widely seen as a rising leader in the House, said he believes Bowman already has an understanding of how "official" Washington works.

"In the House, it takes 218 votes to get anything done, which means you have to go out and find 217 additional people to agree with your perspective on any given issue," Jeffries said in an interview. "That requires relationships, intentionality and strategic advocacy. And Jamal Bowman came into Congress recognizing that and has really laid out a vision and begun to execute."

Bowman, who has been a champion of the reparations legislation sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, speaks approvingly of older members of Congress who he refers to as "O.G. reps," as in, original gangsters.

"They've paved the way for us to come in and be more radical," Bowman said. "Like if they didn't get in and provide consistent representation and leadership, you know, we wouldn't have the chance to come in and make the noise that we're trying to make."

While Bowman is willing to work with members across the political spectrum, he is also not shy about speaking up when he disagrees with members of his own party, including President Biden.

In an interview, he was critical of the president's position on reparations for the survivors and descendants of victims of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. Biden traveled to Tulsa to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of that violence, but did not make mention of reparations in his speech and has not publicly said he supports them.

"You have to provide the vision for what needs to happen and what's possible," Bowman said of Biden. "And, you know, this is where he, you know, as a white man in America falls short, and as many white men and white people in America falls short," he said.

Bowman is a proponent of the legislation known as H.R. 40that would create a commission to study reparations for Black Americans and a "national apology" for the lingering effects of slavery.

"Let's go through the process of asking the right questions, searching for the right answers. And throughout it all, I believe we heal as a country," he said "And when I say heal as a country, I mean all of us, not just the African American community. We all need to do better as a nation. The human race needs to do better."

Bowman is also one of a group of progressives in the House that signaled to House leadership that eliminating legal protection for police officers known as qualified immunity was a must-have in the ongoing negotiations over police reform legislation.

Asked whether a bill that did not eliminate qualified immunity was worth passing, Bowman responded quickly.

"Hell no," he said. "Like, if we're not ending qualified immunity, this is just — this has been an exercise in futility."

Campaigning against COVID-19

Bowman's district was hit hard by the pandemic, but by June the streets around the Gun Hill Houses, a public housing project in the Bronx, were bustling again with vendors selling fresh fruit and vegetables, people commuting to and from work and children playing at the playground.

"Things are starting to come back," he said. "But I know for a fact, when I go into certain communities and I ask the question, 'Have you been vaccinated?' I know I'm going to get like a 50-50 response, because generally people in historically marginalized communities are less likely to trust government, and therefore less likely to get a vaccine."

That was exactly what happened when Bowman was doing constituent services that day. As he handed out flyers the kind of constituent outreach that was unthinkable even a few months earlier he met Gianna Guzman, who works at a casino in Yonkers. He asked her if she was vaccinated, and she said she wasn't yet.

"Come on now, what are you waiting for?" Bowman said, throwing his hands into the air. This is also personal for him. Bowman's mother, Pauline, died in February after battling COVID-19.

He asked Guzman why she hadn't been vaccinated yet, and before they went their separate ways made her promise to keep her word and make that vaccination appointment.

"I got to have the conversation to encourage people and persuade them to actually go get vaccinated, that it's safe, that it's free, and that it will not only save your life, but the lives of others," he said.

Chloee Weiner and Lexie Schapitl contributed reporting.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.