It was, a leading local political observer put it, a “perfect political storm for change.”
Last week’s New York Democratic primary was held amidst “explosive political engagement across the country, especially by young people, blacks and Hispanics,” said Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University.
The result was a wave of change, in which the party’s progressive wing continued to flex its muscle — and which pro-Israel activists observed with some trepidation.
With 23,000 absentee ballots yet to be counted, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), the powerful chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was losing to Jamaal Bowman, a former Bronx middle school principal. As of June 29, who won 60.7 percent of the more than 50,000 ballots counted to Engel’s 35.6 percent, according to ballotpedia.org.
Polls taken shortly before the June 23 vote showed Bowman, an African American, with a big lead among women, voters under 45 and African Americans, who make up about one-third of the residents in the Bronx-based 16th Congressional District. Engel lead by 22 points among white voters and the two were tied among men.
When Engel first won the seat in 1988, just 11 percent of the population was African American and 13 percent was Hispanic. Today, fewer than one-third of the district’s residents are white.
This time, Fuchs noted, voters also viewed “older people in elected office as failures.” Engel is 73, Bowman is 44.
And she said younger voters and black and Hispanic voters blame the political establishment for the election of Donald Trump as president.
“They see the world they are inheriting as a disaster on every front, whether it is true or not,” she observed. “We have a public health crisis, an economic crisis and a crisis around race. That is the political storm taking place in New York where political engagement is very strong right now among particularly folks in the progressive left who want change.”
Voters also appear to have also chosen two black progressives in safe Democratic districts: New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who identifies as Afro-Latino, in the 15th District representing most of the South Bronx; and Mondaire Jones, 32, who won more than double the votes of any of the other six candidates running for the 17th District (Rockland and Westchester counties) seat now held by retiring Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Harrison). Lowey, the first woman to chair the House Appropriations Committee, was first elected to the House in 1988. All three Democrats are in heavily Democratic districts and are expected to easily win election in November.
Although Israel was not a central issue in any of the three races, pro-Israel groups worried that two of the most vocal and powerful Jewish supporters of Israel in the House will likely be gone next year. Pro-Israel PACs, including the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) PAC, NORPAC and Pro-Israel America Pac, were among the top donors to Engel’s campaign.
Mark Mellman, president and CEO of DMFI, said he is not worried.
“There are obviously some issues in the Democratic Party — that is why we exist — but the party remains strongly pro-Israel from top to bottom,” said Mellman, whose organization pumped $1.5 million into Engel’s campaign.
Mellman said one “shouldn’t look at ‘progressives’ as a dirty word. Eliot Engel was a progressive Democrat — Medicare for all, a strict Green New Deal. … We have a lot of them. There are a few members of the Republican and Democrat caucuses that are not pro-Israel. But the Democratic Majority for Israel PAC had 15 races so far and won 13; it appears one candidate lost and another is undecided. So around the country pro-Israel Democrats are winning. Joe Biden is a prime example of a pro-Israel candidate.”
And while Bowman had indicated at one point that he was ready to condition U.S. aid to Israel, Mellman noted that the Engel-Bowman race “was not about Israel in any shape or form.”
Nevertheless, the head of the progressive Jewish group IfNotNow called the Engel-Bowman race a “pretty huge victory for the constituents, for the progressive movement broadly and for those who want to see freedom and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians.”
“Bowman ran on an incredibly progressive platform of transformative change our communities need here and abroad,” said Emily Mayer, co-founder and political director of IfNotNow, which opposes Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. “There is a pandemic raging, our planet is burning because of climate change and we’re in the midst of an historic uprising against police brutality. These elections demonstrate that people want a different kind of politics. They want real leaders who are going to offer bold, transformative visions for this country.”
Mayer said Bowman was her six-year-old group’s first congressional endorsement; it had endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary.
“I think what these progressive [primary] victories demonstrate is that Jews are an active constituency for change hand-in-hand with folks of color and poor people,” she said. “The Jewish community is a force for change in this moment.”
Not So Fast
Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said the “likely victories of Bowman and Jones show that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is especially strong at this moment. I think you can’t draw too firm a conclusion about any waning influence of a pro-Israel Jewish ethnic vote from these two races. Wait to see if this happens in other [districts] with a large Jewish population and at other times (e.g., in the fall or in 2022) when the Floyd murder is not the major domestic news item.”
Fuchs also noted that the fact that Bowman “was a dynamic, exciting, qualified challenger and a black man in the current politics and in this district is significant. … And there was a mood in the Democratic base in New York to get rid of incumbents because people believed they have been there too long.”
That was the view of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, a group founded in 1990 that focuses on dismantling racism and economic exploitation but also opposes Israel’s occupation. Rachel McCullough, its director of organizing, said in an email that her group considered Engel “part of an old generation of Jewish leaders and politicians who are out of touch with the mainstream of our community. … Last week, Jewish voters in Riverdale … were inspired by Jamaal’s compassionate and bold message of bringing communities together to build a thriving and inclusive multiracial democracy because they know that our own safety and well-being as a Jewish community depends on achieving that vision too.”
Although it supported Engel’s re-election, the Jewish Democratic Council of America said it is confident Bowman “is committed to the priorities of Jewish voters.”
“We think he is going to closely align with the values of the Jewish community on all the issues that Jewish voters prioritize, starting with combatting gun violence, insuring access to affordable health care and advocating for racial justice,” said Halie Soifer, its executive director. “We look forward to working with him to ensure that he is also aligned with our community when it comes to Israel.”
While some progressives are urging Bowman to follow the lead of House members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-14th), who this week called on the United States to cut assistance to Israel should it proceed to annex parts of the West Bank, Soifer replied: “I’m not concerned.”
“I think he is in a position where he is formulating his position and is taking input from various sources and we hope he will continue to listen to his Jewish Democratic constituents who strongly value the U.S.-Israel relationship,” she said.
Soifer added that Jones “is good on Israel. We held a forum with all of the candidates running for Lowey’s seat and all said they supported unconditional aid to Israel.”
Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said he knows Torres and described him as “very progressive and strongly supportive of Israel. I believe Mondaire will also be a friend of Israel in Congress.”
He noted that the JCRC has taken Torres to Israel twice, the last time in May 2018. Although the JCRC routinely takes elected city officials to Israel to have them see for themselves the complexities of the region, it is unusual to take someone twice.
“He wanted to see it again,” Miller said.