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Former School Principal Unseats Longtime Rep. Eliot Engel Of New York


In the biggest upset of the primary season so far, Jamaal Bowman has unseated New York's long-serving Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel. Bowman is a former school principal from the Bronx. And the race was widely seen as a contest between the party's progressive wing and the Democratic old guard, a continuation of the dynamic seen two years ago in New York with the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Jamaal Bowman is here with me now.

Welcome and congratulations.

JAMAAL BOWMAN: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: So you ran on a progressive platform in one of the bluest districts in the country, New York's 16th. But now, you know, I want to look ahead with you, assuming you do end up in Congress, which is what most people are assuming. Let's just talk about how you intend to work with the rest of the Democratic caucus in the House. I want to start with the fact that you ran on "Medicare for All," but the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, opposes Medicare for All. So how do you expect Democrats to resolve this issue on health care?

BOWMAN: A lot of conversation, a lot of dialogue, a lot of debate, a lot of listening, a lot of learning and a lot of bridging the gap. I mean, the bottom line is the majority of the American people support universal health care, a single-payer system and Medicare for All. They supported it prior to the COVID pandemic, and now that we are living within the midst of that pandemic, people support it in higher numbers.

CHANG: But here's the challenge. I mean, more generally, obviously, this is a general election year. What do you say to the argument that pushing liberal policies during a presidential election year - progressive policies - could alienate voters in swing states and swing districts?

BOWMAN: I don't think they will. Again, when the majority of the American people are surveyed and polled on this issue, the majority of the people support this particular issue.

CHANG: But beyond Medicare for All, I mean, how do you make ideas like the Green New Deal or defunding the police popular in moderate districts?

BOWMAN: We are living in a different country at this moment than we were even six or eight months ago. We have over 40 million people out of work as a result of the pandemic. So we need a federal jobs guarantee under the umbrella of a Green New Deal. We have kids who are losing quality education time because of the pandemic. So we need to fully fund our public schools. COVID disproportionately impacts those with upper respiratory illness as it relates to environmental injustice. So we need to deal with the environmental emergency. All of the things that we've kept swept under the rug for decades are now coming to light.

CHANG: As a longtime educator, what do you think is the single most important thing lawmakers can do to make life better for Black children?

BOWMAN: We need to start with a process of truth and reconciliation and really reckoning with our history of racial injustice and the legacy of slavery and how it continues to persist in all of our communities. And as we craft policy and work together, we have to also look at the implementation of that policy not from the perspective of a scarcity mindset or a zero-sum game. This is about collaboration, cooperation and working together to build a country that works for everyone.

CHANG: But can you be specific? Can you talk about one specific policy idea that you would like to push to get passed through Congress that could actually get passed by a Republican-led Senate if the Senate does not flip in 2020?

BOWMAN: We need to get people back to work, first and foremost. When we talk about over 40 million people who have lost their jobs, they're happening in Republican states and districts as well. We need to finally deal with economic inequality in our country. You need to make sure the wealthy pay their fair share and large corporations pay federal taxes so that we can invest in the people of our country and get people back to work.

CHANG: A lot of comparisons have been drawn between you and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also a progressive Democrat. What have you learned watching her navigate her first term in office? Is there anything you intend to do differently?

BOWMAN: Well, I've learned that it's OK to be myself. You know, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez is a tremendous leader. She's brilliant. She's fearless, going against a system of white male supremacy. And she's broken the glass ceiling in that system and created spaces for new conversations that center the working class and those who are most vulnerable. So I've learned it's OK to be myself and speak truth to power on the issues that matter most to the people who have been mostly forgotten.

CHANG: Jamaal Bowman, winner of the Democratic primary in New York's 16th Congressional District, which covers parts of Westchester and the Bronx.

Thanks for being with us and congratulations again.

BOWMAN: Awesome. Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.