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Democratic primary challengers aim to be next Ocasio-Cortez

Karen Matthews
Associated Press

New York — One is the co-founder of a Bronx middle school making his first run for public office. The other is a son of Ugandan refugees with an MBA from Harvard.

Both have a shot at toppling veteran Democrats in Congress as New Yorkers cast their votes in a pandemic-disrupted primary election.

Jamaal Bowman, a first-time candidate who helped found the Cornerstone Academy of Social Action in 2009, has picked up endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in his race against U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, a 16-term incumbent representing parts of the Bronx and suburban Westchester County who has been endorsed by former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

Jamaal Bowman

Adem Bunkeddeko, who stepped down in November 2019 from his job with a nonprofit community development organization, is running in a rematch against seven-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke in Brooklyn after narrowly losing to her in the 2018 Democratic primary.

They are seeking to copy the success of Ocasio-Cortez, whose 2018 primary victory over veteran lawmaker Joe Crowley shocked the political establishment. She has become one of the most prominent members of the freshman congressional class, beloved by progressives and a target of conservative vitriol.

Jamaal Bowman

A host of liberal Democrats inspired by that victory are taking on incumbents in and around New York City this year. Their prospects are especially hard to judge amid the coronavirus outbreak that has killed thousands and forced New Yorkers to shelter in place. It has also altered how politicians campaign, pushing debates to Zoom and making it so candidates couldn’t meet voters at subway stops or hold house parties at supporters’ homes.

“We’re in the middle of a crisis,” said Fordham University political scientist Christina Greer. “People want stability. They want someone who knows the system already.”

Early voting for New York’s primary started Saturday.

Engel, 73, could be the most vulnerable of the state’s incumbents, especially after a microphone caught him pressing to speak at a Bronx news conference on June 2 by saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”

Bowman’s campaign said he raised more than $100,000 the day Engel’s gaffe went viral.

First elected to Congress in 1988, Engel chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and played a key role in the impeachment of President Donald Trump. He has co-sponsored legislation guaranteeing health care for all and is a supporter of the Green New Deal.

Bowman, 44, has sought to portray Engel as out of touch and absent from the district, a charge that gained heft after The Atlantic reported that the congressman had spent most of the coronavirus crisis at his home in Maryland even while saying he would be in the district, which includes early virus hot spot New Rochelle as well as Bronx neighborhoods that were later hit hard by the pandemic.

“It’s one thing to socially distance and not remain in the district,” Bowman said in a recent phone interview. “It’s another thing to say you are going to be in the district handing out groceries and you’re actually in your home in Maryland. It’s disingenuous. It’s not true. And it takes voters for granted.”

Engel responded that his whereabouts after the coronavirus struck was irrelevant.

“During that period of time, I was on the legislative front lines,” he said. “When we were trying to put money together for New York and for other places I was in there punching and getting a lot of stuff.” He cited money for New York hospitals struggling to treat COVID-19 patients as well as antibody testing.

Engel has been endorsed by fellow lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis. In her endorsement announced Monday, Clinton said Engel “is deeply committed to working with our allies to maintain American leadership on the global stage.”

Bowman said his differences with Engel include Engel’s 2015 vote against the Iran nuclear deal and his vote in favor of the 1994 crime bill, which Bowman said has led to “the militarization of the police force” and mass incarceration.

Bowman, who is black, has vowed to fight structural racism in housing, education and criminal justice. He posted a YouTube video of himself recently at a Black Lives Matter protest in Yonkers.

Tax lawyer Chris Fink and retired police lieutenant Sammy Ravelo are also running against Engel. A fifth candidate, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, withdrew and endorsed Bowman.

John Mollenkopf, a political scientist at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said the race is hard to predict.

“My tendency would be to say that incumbents have a ton of advantages. They’ve done favors for people. They’re known. They’ve attended billions of meetings in the district over the years,” Mollenkopf said. “On the other hand, the criticism of Engel is that he hasn’t spent time as he needed to taking care of the district, and that he’s taken his incumbency somewhat for granted.”

The insurgent New York Democrat who came closest to joining Ocasio-Cortez on the winner’s stage in 2018 was Bunkeddeko, who got 47% of the vote to Clarke’s 53%. That 2018 primary was a two-person race, but Bunkeddekko, 32, is one of four candidates challenging Clarke this year.

“There’s a growing appetite to really change the status quo,” Bunkeddeko said, naming police brutality, the coronavirus and housing as top issues for the district. “There have been a lot of folks who have been severely impacted as a result of COVID, and they had challenges long before COVID comes around. I think it’s important that we have the kind of leadership, bold, transformational leadership that meets the moment.”

Clarke, 55, has represented the district that spans several Brooklyn neighborhoods since 2007. She started her political career on New York’s City Council, where she succeeded her mother, Una Clarke, who was the first Caribbean-born woman elected to that body.

Bunkeddeko grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens after his parents fled war-torn Uganda in the 1980s. He attended a private prep school on a scholarship and then graduated from Haverford College and Harvard Business School.

Clarke’s district has been in the spotlight as the scene of massive demonstrations against the May 25 killing of George Floyd, including a demonstration where a protester was shoved by a police officer who now faces a criminal assault charge.

Clarke had called for the officer to be charged.

“I thought that that was an apropos moment to make a demand on our police department and our mayor to let’s begin removing officers who have diminished the humanity of others and have abused their authority,” she said.

Bunkeddeko said charging one officer isn’t enough. “Ms. Clarke believes the police brutality issue our nation faces is just a case of bad apples that need to be rooted out,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just bad apples. We need to change the culture of policing in this country.”