A year ago, I got a text message inviting me to meet Jamaal Bowman, the principal of a Bronx public school. He was launching a campaign for Congress, a kick-off party at Santa Fe, the Tex-Mex dive across from Van Cortlandt Park.
My wife, who is an educator at Lehman College, knew Bowman from her work there, and so, curious to learn more, we each left work a bit early and made it to the event. The restaurant was packed with enthusiastic young people, most of them African American. Many were former students of Bowman’s, graduates of CASA, the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in Baychester.
I was impressed. More than that, I realized that they were from a part of my congressional district that has been outside of my frame of vision. Though always there, they had been overshadowed and overlooked. Now new energies and concerns were on the rise.
I have lived for the last 30 years in this area, 11 in Riverdale, and the last 19 in Hastings-on-Hudson. For most of that time, Eliot Engel has been my congressman. Because I’m a white, middle-class Jewish man, you might assume that I have gotten excellent representation in Congress from another white, middle-class Jewish man.
Well, not really.
We Jews knows from centuries of oppression that we have to constantly work to address injustice. We know that oppressors often scapegoat minorities to keep their hold on power, and so we struggle not just for our own self-protection, but to ensure that our government protects all minorities from persecution. We know that education and self-sacrifice can be a personal path out of poverty, but that providing meaningful opportunity for all is the best path to our collective well-being.
So we have long been in the forefront of struggles for justice in America, in numbers far outweighing our proportion in the population.
Eliot Engel has not been that kind of congressman. On Nov. 15, 2016, a week after Donald Trump’s unexpected election victory, Engel was asked by a reporter about Trump’s decision to name Steve Bannon to be his chief strategist in the White House. Engel’s response was phlegmatic. After the reporter reminded him that Bannon’s website Brietbart News had published many anti-Semitic and white nationalist stories, Engel responded, “Let’s see how Trump does in other things. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was just elected, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt.”
This was after Trump ran the most divisive, dishonest, racist, misogynist and anti-Semitic campaign since Richard Nixon. No one could have had doubts then about what kind of president he would be. But Engel’s response revealed the core of the man to me.
Before activists started mobilizing, creating groups like the Women’s March and Indivisible, Engel’s instinct was to accommodate and “look for common ground.” Whatever moral objections he might have had to Trump and Bannon’s white nationalist agenda, he was ready to set those aside because he sees himself as a power broker, an insider who cuts deals.
After 30 years in Congress, Engel believes we, his constituents, aren’t paying attention. He wants us to return him to Congress, and his home in Maryland, which for 10 years he claimed as his primary residence in order to benefit from a state tax break, out of some reflexive belief that he’s doing, eh, fine.
But he is not doing fine. He is doing real harm. In 2002, he voted to support the unlawful, unnecessary and stupid invasion of Iraq. He also has long supported the never-ending war in Afghanistan. Together these two extraordinary commitments of American power have cost us an estimated $6 trillion, plus countless lives lost or ruined.
Think of all the schools and hospitals that could have been fully funded with just a fraction of that when you read Engel’s flyers touting the emergency aid he’s helped secure in recent months.
In 1994, he voted for the crime bill. The result was billions spent on prison expansion, mandatory minimum sentences, and the decimation of many families of color — policies whose devastating consequences we are again being reminded of, and that we must still urgently undo. In 1999, he voted to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, the last great reform from the 1930s that had kept banks from turning into financial speculation machines.
There is a direct line from the repeal of Glass-Steagall to the housing bubble and the 2008 market collapse and recession. These were all incredibly bad votes by Engel — if you don’t understand why he made them, take a look at the nearly $3 million in campaign contributions he had raked in from the finance, insurance, real estate and defense sectors over the course of his career.
He has received more money from weapons manufacturers than 144 House Republicans.
It’s time for a different kind of Democrat to represent us in Washington. Since meeting Jamaal Bowman at his launch party, I’ve broken bread with him and spoken with him multiple times. What has impressed me most was his decision to build a progressive public school, and the way he has stood with and for the striving families of the Bronx.
Unlike Engel, Bowman has lived the current struggles of our district’s overshadowed majority, fighting for education equity, getting harassed by the New York Police Department, standing on the front line with the nurses of our beleaguered hospitals.
These are very challenging times for our country, and for us New Yorkers. We need Jamaal Bowman in Congress, a community leader who really understands what we are going through, and who will fight to fix the world until it is truly right.
The author is a member of The Jewish Vote, a sister organization to Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.