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As protests for racial justice continue to sweep the nation, many Black congressional candidates are seeing their campaigns surge as voters head to polling places for primaries on Tuesday.
In New York’s 16th District, former Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman has found himself suddenly in the spotlight in his bid to oust longtime Rep. Eliot Engel, one of the most powerful Democrats in the House. In Kentucky’s Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, Charles Booker, the youngest Black legislator in the Kentucky House of Representatives, was found by one recent poll to be ahead of Amy McGrath, the former Marine fighter pilot favored by most Democratic officials to take on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Voters have also begun to single out racial justice issues as among the most pressing problems facing the nation – ahead of the coronavirus crisis, and comparable to the economy, jobs, and cost of living.
“The focus on Black Lives Matter, and the sense that there needs to be more representation by Black Americans in our systems of government, has helped create the tail winds behind some of these candidates,” says Theodore R. Johnson, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
At the end of May, when hundreds of thousands of Americans around the country started marching in protest over the death of George Floyd, many observed that this time the protests felt different.
Not only was there a greater urgency – punctuated at times by violence, looting, and aggressive responses from local police – but the Black Lives Matter banner now included hosts of white Americans, in numbers not seen previously.
Since then, a number of young Black congressional candidates have seen their campaigns surge. Once considered long shots as they mounted primary challenges to Democratic incumbents or other establishment-backed candidates, Black progressives running in New York, Kentucky, and Virginia appear to have the wind at their backs as voters head to polling places Tuesday in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In New York’s 16th District, former Bronx middle school principal Jamaal Bowman has found himself in the spotlight in his bid to oust Rep. Eliot Engel, a 16-term incumbent and one of the most powerful Democrats in the House. First-time candidate Mondaire Jones is battling a crowded field of candidates for an open seat in New York’s 17th District. Like Mr. Bowman, he is backed by leaders of the left or progressive wing in Congress, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
In Kentucky’s Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, Charles Booker, a progressive candidate and the youngest Black legislator in the Kentucky House of Representatives, was found by one recent poll to be running ahead of Amy McGrath, the former Marine fighter pilot favored by most Democratic officials to take on Sen. Mitch McConnell, arguably the most powerful legislator in all of Congress.
“We’re on probably week three or four of daily protests in most major cities around the country – protests that are multiracial, multigenerational, and across the ideological and party spectrum,” says Theodore R. Johnson, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “There’s no doubt that the focus on Black Lives Matter and the sense that there needs to be more representation by Black Americans in our systems of government has helped create the tail winds behind some of these candidates.”
Indeed in a number of polls, voters have begun to single out racial justice issues as among the most pressing problems facing the nation, even ahead of the coronavirus crisis, and comparable to the economy, jobs, and cost of living.
“It’s now becoming an issue that has gotten to the top of the agenda,” says Gayle Alberda, professor of politics and public administration at Fairfield University in Connecticut. “It’s now surpassed health care, it’s surpassed other things like foreign affairs. Now we’re looking at conversations surrounding criminal justice, policing, and other sorts of issues concerning racial relations.”
Already a trend
In some ways, the surge by Black progressives this election cycle was already part of a wider trend, experts say. Since 2018, a number of Black women have taken the executive reins of major American cities, including London Breed in San Francisco, Lori Lightfoot in Chicago, and LaToya Cantrell in New Orleans.
Even high-profile Black candidates who were not successful in 2018, such as Democratic gubernatorial nominees Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, likely helped pave the way for some of the candidates who followed.
“I do think those candidates provided a roadmap for newer Black politicians seeking office, and answered some questions about the kinds of coalitions they could build,” says Mr. Johnson. “How do you get Black voters, who actually tend to be more moderate, and white voters in Democratic primaries, who tend to be more liberal, all on the same team behind the same candidate?”
“I think what Black progressives are able to do is make the ideological policy appeals to white liberals while also making the sort of descriptive representation that appeals to Black voters,” he says.
In taking on Mr. Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Bowman hopes to follow the playbook of fellow New Yorker Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, the self-described Democratic Socialist who pulled off a surprise 2018 primary victory against former Rep. Joe Crowley, a powerful kingmaker in Queens and a ranking member in the House’s Democratic leadership team. Rep. Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts is another progressive woman of color who defeated a 10-term Democratic incumbent in 2018.
“There is a really strong bench of young people coming up, and in many cases they are challenging those who are seen as insiders, moderates, or part of the existing leadership,” says Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona University in New Rochelle, New York.
The question, however, is whether white voters will indeed embrace candidates such as Mr. Bowman, who has also accepted the “socialist” label. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez won in a district in which half the residents are Hispanic, 18% are white, and 11% are Black. The district now represented by Mr. Engel includes some suburbs in Westchester county: A third of its residents are white, a third are Black, and a quarter are Hispanic.
In Virginia, 36-year-old physician and Black progressive Cameron Webb has made headway in a four-candidate race to become the Democratic nominee in the state’s 5th Congressional District, which includes Charlottesville. Though Republican-leaning overall, the district ousted incumbent Republican Rep. Denver Riggleman in a “drive-thru convention” earlier this month. A conservative Trump supporter, Mr. Riggleman appeared to lose party support after he officiated at a same-sex wedding. The open seat could now be more competitive in November.
“Charlottesville is a good area for Cameron Webb,” says Mr. Johnson. “Not only is it well-educated and with a very prestigious university there – which tends to signal a populace that leans on the liberal side – but also [given] the events of Charlottesville from a couple years ago and the ongoing Confederate statue debates the state’s having. Even though the area doesn’t have a large Black population, I think white liberals here are certainly more open to supporting a Black candidate.”
Still, all of these races on Tuesday have local idiosyncrasies. Dr. Zaino notes the adage that all politics are local.
“A lot of the so-called establishment candidates have also themselves done a good deal for progressive causes,” she says. “Nobody can accuse Eliot Engel of not being a friend of the teachers, for instance, even though Bowman’s obviously had such a long history with education.”
“But Engel is part of the leadership. He’s been in Washington for 30 years. He’s older,” Dr. Zaino continues. “I think we’re seeing just a huge amount of support going to younger progressives, and this is really being buttressed by this money that’s coming in from the left. Particularly when you’re talking about primaries, where turnout is usually smaller, the people who do turn out really care about those endorsements from Sanders, Warren, and Ocasio-Cortez.”
At the same time, white liberals continue to be energized by racial justice issues, Mr. Johnson says.
“The question is how much of these new tail winds are substantial and will endure,” he says. “People are looking like they want to do something, and supporting Black politicians is a good way to exercise their Black Lives Matter protests in a more traditional sense.”